Our Sin Is His Penalty And Her Grief - Good Friday, 25 March 2016
Good Friday, 25 March 2016
It happens on rare occasions that Good Friday falls on March 25, when we might otherwise be celebrating Lady Day, the Solemnity of the Annunciation. The day that marks the beginning of Christ’s earthly life in the womb of Mary falls on that day when he cries ‘It is finished.’ Mary on this day uttered her fiat: ‘Let it be done to me according to your will,’ and Jesus sighs: ‘Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.’
Both resign themselves willingly, actively, and full of hope to the Father’s will. Each is obedient to the end, for at the end she stands by the cross, sharing in the suffering for which her Son was born. When she and Joseph presented the child Jesus in the temple, Simeon prophesied that a sword would pierce her heart. And the sword has now pierced her heart as the spear has pierced his side. The adored infant in the wood of the manger has become the outcast and criminal on the cross, but Mary is still there.
It will not happen again in this century, but it did just 11 years ago Good Friday fell on March 25. That was the Good Friday when we all saw the image from the back of the dying pope, St. John Paul, clutching the crucifix with his forehead against it, while the man who would succeed him led the ceremonies of the Way of the Cross at the Roman Coliseum. He would die the following Saturday on the Eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, this great and holy man whose motto was totus tuus, ‘entirely yours,’ a sign of his devotion to the devoted mother who stands this day at the foot of the cross.
Pious tradition says that she would later receive the body of her Son, down from the cross, into her arms before his burial. At St. Mary’s Church we have a statue of this scene, the Pieta. It is different from Michelangelo’s masterpiece in St. Peter’s Basilica, but it is powerful. He who rested on her lap as an infant rests one last time in her arms.
This sad and happy congruence of dates unfolds for us in a fresh way the meaning of Good Friday. The Son of God became flesh in the womb of Mary so that he could offer that same flesh on the wood of the cross. He enters into the drama of human life with its glorious good and unspeakable evil so as to draw all peoples back to his Father. Our life moves as his does – through the joys and trials of earthly existence on the way back to the Father. Our lives begin as did his and like his they will end, though without the burden of the world’s sin driven through our hands and feet.
We are conceived and born as he was and called with him to journey back to the Father. Other itineraries go nowhere. All of this should move us on this 25th day of March. Faith cannot be reduced to sentiment or emotion, but neither can it exist without it. The whole person is saved; the whole person must respond, and we cannot look at the scene John portrays for us in his account of the Passion without being drawn into the hearts of Mary and Jesus.
She looks on and the scene is pitiable, like so many millions of other such scenes, when mothers witness the death of their children – scenes repeated daily from war, famine, disease, terrorism and persecution. In the suffering of Mary, we see the tears and sorrows of the whole world, of a prodigal humanity that has wandered into the barren wastes and pays the penalty again and again, desperate and uncomprehending. We see in Mary’s grief the torrents of grief unleashed by human sin. Such is the reality and such is the cost.
But think also of the grief of Jesus as he looks upon her. He gives her to John: “Woman, behold your Son.” And John represents all of us when Jesus says, “Behold, your mother.” He gives the Church a Mother who knows the extent of human grief.
But beyond that consider again the grief of Jesus. Is there not in his words something that says “I’m sorry, Mother, to do this to you”? I regret having to drag you into this. Our sin is his penalty and her grief. This is as bad as it gets.
Remember that in your own sorrows and losses. Remember that in every defeat; remember that in pain and illness; remember that as you watch our culture and public life decay; remember that as you confront your own death. This is as bad as it gets. Whatever may happen to you and me will not be this bad, for the Son of God has already endured and defeated the darkness of sin and evil.
So then the Church and the world on this day when salvation was created in the womb of Mary and on the wood of the cross enter into a strange Sabbath rest. We will go quietly from now till tomorrow night. It is not that we do not know the outcome. We do, but we must now pause before the cross.
During the Orthodox Easter Vigil, they sing this hymn: Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb. For I shall rise and shall be glorified, and as God, I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love.
We know that the story ends in joy and victory, but there should hang about us a certain mist of sorrow, for with Mary we have gazed into the abyss, and the fiery furnace has singed us. With Mary our hearts have been pierced by a sword.
We are exhausted by the price and passion of God’s love. So too are Jesus and Mary. The closing chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion puts it this way:
We sit down in tears and call to you in the grave: rest in peace, peacefully rest, rest in peace, peacefully rest! Rest your exhausted limbs! Rest in peace! Your grave and tombstone will be a comfortable pillow and a resting place for the soul and for the anxious conscience. Fully satisfied, the eyes can sleep there. We sit down in tears and call to you in the grave. Rest in peace, peacefully rest, rest in peace, peacefully rest!
We sit now with Mary in grief and tears – satisfied, not in the sense of pleased contentment, but aware now of the fullness and the price of the love of God, ‘fully satisfied’ that we have seen what we must see.
We mourn with Mary at the price of humanity’s defection from the good. We mourn with Mary, for unlike her we are complicit in the guilt that brought Jesus to the cross. We mourn with Jesus, as he looks with pity on the world that brought it about that a sword should pierce the heart of his mother.
But in this pitiable scene we see mercy. Pope Francis has instituted a Year of Mercy because only mercy can undo the world’s evil. It is a mercy fulfilled in sacrifice, the sacrifice of the cross. But on the cross we can see that if God is willing to take the horror into himself in this way, things will and must turn out well. Our anxious consciences can rest in peace because he rests in the peace of his Father.
Without the cross, without mercy, there is no hope. The victims lose but so do the exploiters who can find no forgiveness or repentance. The epidemics and the floods win. The wars and the butchery win. But because this blood was shed for the life of the world, because this pitiable scene shows the pity and mercy of God, because he who once rested in the womb of his Mother now rests in the tomb awaiting the approval of his Father, we know that this day is victory. Jesus is glorified on the cross, and the cross becomes his banner of victory. Death is swallowed up by death. Sin is conquered. Because he died – in agony and in the suffering presence of his Immaculate Mother – we shall live.