by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
On Good Friday, the church in its liturgy invites us to reflect on St. John’s account of the Passion. St. John — more than any of the other Gospel accounts — makes clear that Jesus willingly accepts the cross.
As I alluded to last week, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we see Jesus in his humanity struggling with what lays before him and asking the Father, if possible, to remove this cup from him. Yet, even in requesting the removal of the chalice of suffering, Jesus surrenders himself ultimately to the will of the Father.
John’s Passion narrative, compared to the other Gospels, gives a very different — but at the same time complementary — theological perspective on the events of Good Friday. John depicts the absolute freedom with which Jesus embraces the will of the Father.
For instance, when the Jewish authorities come to apprehend him, we see the soldiers and police fully armed, but helpless in the presence of Jesus. Our Lord does not permit them to arrest him until he has guaranteed that his disciples will not be harmed. In John’s Passion, we see Peter with a mixture of courage and foolishness strike a blow to defend Jesus for which Jesus orders him to sheath his sword and questions: “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?”
We see Jesus not at all intimidated at his interrogation.
When Jesus is questioned about his teaching, he points out how he has always taught in public and in full view of the authorities. One of the guards strikes Jesus for supposedly showing disrespect to the high priest, to which Jesus responds: “If I said anything wrong produce the evidence, but if I spoke the truth why hit me?” When Jesus is brought before Pilate, we see that it is Pilate who is unraveling, desperately looking for a way out. Jesus, on the other hand, speaks serenely about his kingdom not being of this world and proclaiming his sole mission has been to testify to the truth. When Pilate rebukes Jesus for not replying and queries: “Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Jesus dismisses Pilate’s claim of power with the statement: “You would have no power over me whatever unless it were given you from above.”
Even on the cross, Jesus demonstrates a remarkable control and composure by the concern he continues to manifest for those around him. It is indeed very moving to see Jesus at this darkest moment focused on the needs of others as he entrusts both the beloved disciple — John — and his beloved mother — Mary — into each other’s care.
Jesus, after proclaiming, “It is finished,” then, in the Gospel’s words, “bowed his head, and delivered over his spirit.” Nothing — not even life itself — was taken from him. His life is freely given. The message of John’s Passion is clear: Jesus, the Son of God, our redeemer, willingly enters completely into our human condition — embracing our suffering and submitting himself to death, even death on the cross. From the profound gift of himself, his absolute fidelity to the will of the Father, his uncompromising faithfulness to the truth — even though it would result in his passion and death — from this most terrible of tragedies, the greatest good would emerge, and the church itself was born. John’s Gospel describes the blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus — symbols of the sacramental life of the church.
Jesus, with faith and love, completes the mission that the Father has given to him, regardless of the human consequences. It is this total fidelity to the will of the Father that would effect the liberation from the consequences of sin and death for all who place faith in the One crucified. Jesus took the cross — the symbol in his time of humiliation, of torture, of defeat, of death — and by his faith and love transformed it into a sign of glory, of love, of victory, of life.
Thus, when in our prayer we ascend to Calvary, we contemplate the tragedy of sin’s consequences symbolized by the cross. We recognize the seductive power of sin to masquerade as good when, in the Passion narrative, we encounter Caiaphas’ rationalization that it is better for one man to die for the nation. We see sin’s ability to use human fear to foster betrayal of love and friendship in the flight of the apostles and in the betrayal by Peter. We witness the cowardice of Pilate in his willingness to condemn an innocent man, rather than face down a hysterical mob. We see the fickle nature of the human heart and how evil loves a crowd as the people, who just days before hailed Jesus with palm branches, call now for his crucifixion.
The crucified Jesus did not banish suffering and death from the human condition. However, Calvary does offer us the key to find meaning, strength and hope in the midst of our suffering. In its treatment of the sacrament of the sick, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Christian suffering from illness as one “consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.”
May our commemoration of the Lord’s passion during the Triduum grant us a better understanding of the meaning of suffering in our own life! May what Pope John Paul II described as the “law of the gift,” as exemplified by Jesus on Calvary, inspire and motivate us to embrace whatever sacrifices may be required from us to make the love of Jesus real and tangible to others. The key to experiencing the abundant life promised by Jesus to his disciples is to live this “law of the gift”: to strive to give our life away as freely as Jesus gave his life on Calvary.