Good Friday

“They crucified him” (John 19:18).

The Gospels state simply that Jesus was crucified. No details were needed. People at the time knew the unspeakable horror of such executions, designed to inflict maximum, prolonged suffering on its victims before death by asphyxiation. It was a public spectacle to deter anyone who witnessed the naked men, roped and nailed to scaffolding on the road into the city, from even thinking about challenging Rome’s power. The crucifix is now art, even jewelry, a sign of how oblivious we are to its reality. But other martyrdoms help us to understand the suffering it inflicted.

Visitors to El Salvador are shown the hospital chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed on March 24, 1980. Surrounding his tomb in the crypt of the Cathedral, like stations of the cross, are 14 enlarged photographs that show the trauma of his final moments. The assassin’s bullet exploded in his chest, pushing fountains of blood from his mouth and nose as he lay dying on the sanctuary floor. He is surrounded by women. The last photo in the series shows his body on a hospital gurney, wiped clean and wrapped in a sheet, open to show his bare chest and face. He is again surrounded by women, his face in repose, his work as shepherd complete and his place in the hearts of his people assured.

Yet the pictures do not begin to tell the story of his suffering, of the three years of death threats, of the countless mutilated and murdered bodies he saw, of the prayer recorded in his diary that he be spared abduction and torture, the fate of thousands of victims of the repression and civil war in El Salvador. Death, once he knew it was probable, must have come like a friend to end the long nightmare he and so many others endured.

At the end of our Good Friday story, the body of Jesus will be taken down from the cross. Everything is fulfilled, and we now await God’s response to his perfect sacrifice of praise.

Our Feet

“You do not understand now” (John 13:7).

Most people are particular about their feet, especially someone touching their feet. We pay professionals to care for or enhance the appearance of our feet, but letting anyone wash, much less kiss, our feet, is a choice at another level, say, for lovers only.

Jesus takes up a gesture done for him by a woman who loved him (see March 25 entry) and shares it with his disciples at the Last Supper. If there is such a thing as ordination, it is here, as Jesus strips off his outer garment, girds himself with a towel and performs the work of the lowest household slave, washing the leather sweat and dust from the feet of the Twelve, including Judas, as a final lesson before dying. Those who understand and accept the sign are ready for priesthood. Those who resist, like Simon Peter, need further formation.

Peter’s embarrassment suggests that he, among all the others, really understands Jesus’ action. If the Master bows before me, washes and kisses my feet, then I am at the tipping point in a relationship that will change my heart forever. There is no turning back now. The water flowing over my soiled, smelly feet is a baptism that binds me to the fate of this man kneeling in front of me, looking up at me with a look of love like no other love I have ever known. I accept this invitation.

But Peter will fail the test, within a few hours denying he even knows Jesus, but his failure will become part of the lesson. A second baptism must complete the first, a baptism of tears, water flowing from the rock that reveals the Gospel of mercy and forgiveness Peter is being prepared to understand and preach.

The Cost of Discipleship

“Surely it is not I” (Matt 26:25).

Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper that one of them will betray him. On the eve of his crucifixion, a death by unimaginable physical torment, he addresses the deepest suffering he will endure: betrayal by a friend. The Gospel accounts blame Judas, but also record Jesus’ love for him. In John 13, when Jesus foretells his betrayal, he experiences a profound inner disturbance, the same gut-wrenching emotion he displayed at the tomb of Lazarus, before many of his healing miracles and when he encountered the crowds. Luke uses a similar expression in the parable of the lost boy (Luke 15) to describe the father’s reaction when he sees his son in the distance and runs to embrace him.

It is as if the Gospels can only speak of God’s unconditional love by placing it in the worst of all possible situations. Jesus must go the full distance if sin is to be really transformed by grace, and so endures rejection, denial, betrayal and abandonment as he surrenders his heart on the cross.

Judas hangs himself in despair, leaving an ignominious trail of small silver coins like drops of blood in the moonlight. On a nearby hill, Jesus, in his death throes, will search the noonday darkness for his beloved friend Judas and, with his last breath, call him home to the broken heart of God.

Judas

“And it was night” (John 13:30).

Leonardo da Vinci aside, the Last Supper was more likely a circle of friends on couches leaning in to a meal they shared by dipping pieces of flatbread into a common meat dish, their faces so close they could smell each other’s breath, within what Middle Easteners call the “nasal bubble” of intimate friendship. This was the inner circle Jesus depended on to tell the story after his death. For John, it was also the final symposium for Jesus’ discourses and, like Plato’s homoerotic gatherings, it has an unbearable poignancy about it. Jesus is on his deathbed.

At the table are the disciples, with special focus one called the “beloved disciple,” whose head is resting on Jesus’ chest; Peter, who will later deny him; and Judas. It is near impossible to recover this tragic figure from the Gospel accounts except to know that Jesus chose him, entrusted him with the group’s purse, and loved him enough to let him make his own choices. The morsel of bread he shares with him recalls Psalm 41: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.”

The fate of Judas is important. Was he a necessary evil, destined to be despised for all eternity? Both he and Jesus are hung from a tree, the absolute curse. Or was he the ultimate lost sheep Jesus pursues from the cross to retrieve him from final despair and alienation? French writer George Bernanos thought so when, as a boy, he asked that a Mass be said for Judas. The divine love for enemies is exceeded only by Jesus’s love for a dear friend who betrayed him to death. By bringing him home, Jesus saves every suicide, every unbaptized stillborn once consigned to burial outside the family cemetery, every soul who despairs under life’s terrible burdens and with their last breath curses God. There is room for every one of them, for all, at the table of life.

Perfume

"Leave her alone" (John 12:8).

There is a love we are not even aware we are capable of until our hearts are broken. Then, this purest of all loves is poured out. It is reserved for the beloved and can only be given once.

The church begins Holy Week with John 12:1-11, the account of Mary’s gift to Jesus during a dinner celebration at Bethany. Mary breaks the seal of an alabaster amphora of precious nard, anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. The aromatic perfume fills the whole house. Judas objects, saying that the cost of this extravagance could have helped the poor. Mary’s real offense was to break the spell of euphoria the disciples were feeling after Jesus' triumphal entry in Jerusalem. They want to share in that triumph. But Mary knew that Jesus would be dead before the week was out, and her final act of love was to acknowledge this by preparing his body for burial.

We will not know the full significance of her act until Thursday, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, will repeat her gesture by washing the feet of his disciples. It is a sign so important to the author of John’s Gospel that he substitutes it for the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus reserves this sign of love as a final lesson to his followers. As Mary has done this for me, so I do it for you, and so must you do it to one another.

Spiritual writer Fr. Edward Farrell records a scene in a Detroit rectory when the housekeeper said to him, “Ah, father, it’s a poor Irishman that’s doesn’t know that life will break your heart.” This is an extravagant truth we might easily miss or not want to know, but if we walk the journey of Holy Week, we are about to find out.

Palm Sunday

“He emptied himself” (Phil 2:6).

Thirty-three years ago today, on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot to death while saying Mass in San Salvador. His death was one of an estimated 80,000 murders in a brutal 12-year civil war in that tiny Central American country. The themes we celebrate on Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week come alive in the story of El Salvador.

Oscar Romero’s Palm Sunday welcome came every Sunday from the people who flocked to the Cathedral to hear his sermons and to get close enough to touch their good shepherd during a time of terror. His crucifixion came from elements in the ruling junta who hated him for calling for dialogue to address the gross inequalities present throughout Latin America – wealthy oligarchies backed by the military, funded by the United States to halt the spread of Communism and often supported by the church, pitted against the vast majority of poor people.

Talk of a “church of the poor, for the poor,” started with Pope John XXIII in 1959, words that entered the discourse in Latin America and resurfaced in 1968 at the regional bishop’s meeting in Medellin, Colombia. God’s “preferential option for the poor” meant turning the church upside down, and made fundamental economic and social change to liberate the poor from systemic poverty essential to the preaching of the Gospel. Romero first opposed these radical ideas, but when one of his pastors, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande, was murdered by government security forces in March of 1977, Romero began his own three-year journey to martyrdom.

Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, lived through those tragic times and witnessed the clash of complex ideologies being played out in abductions, torture and the murder of priests, sisters, and countless innocent people, from the high plains of Guatemala to the tip of Argentina. By invoking the forgotten words of John XXIII, he has rekindled hope for many that the one reform that can restore the Catholic church to health is to embrace Jesus’ preferential love for the poor, the crucified of history. Our response to them is also God’s invitation to us to hear the Good News of our salvation.

Archbishop Romero, who said 33 years ago that if he were struck down he would rise again in the people, must be smiling.

On the Road

“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress” (Ps 31).

We are coming to the end of Lent, will begin Holy Week on Palm Sunday. Jesus is going to Jerusalem for Passover, but also because all prophets die there. We are entering the heart of the mystery and must ask, “Why does love require such suffering?”

For preaching God’s Word, Jeremiah, called the “weeping prophet” by the Book of Lamentations, was attacked by his own family, beaten, threatened with death and thrown into a cistern. His rejection foreshadows the fate of Jesus, whose message was met with skepticism and ridicule. He was hated by his enemies, but suffered even more at the hands of his friends, who betrayed, denied and abandoned him at the end. It is a stark and troubling picture. I can still remember the closing line of a choral piece sung by a high school choir in Dallas back in 1978: “The loneliness of his death was no more than the loneliness of his life.” Why such suffering?

The question takes us once again into Holy Week. I confess that I do not understand this kind of love or this level of suffering, and I am totally unprepared to do it. I am still on this side of the equation that approves human expectations and the quid pro quo rule of giving love to receive it. Who would die for someone else? Paul asks. “Maybe for a good person, someone worthy, for a friend” (see Rom 5:7). But real death, total loss, the self-emptying that takes me out of the picture for the sake of another’s good, the kind of sacrifice Dickens imagined in Tale of Two Cities, or what Rick does in “Casablanca” … who, apart from the heroes of fiction, has such selfless love?

Jesus will, in fact, die for everyone, including his enemies. Paul ventures this astonishing thought: “He became sin that we might become the grace of God" (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus puts sin to death on the cross, carrying our old, self-centered nature to the grave, so that what rises on Easter is a new creation, transformed by unconditional love.

We find ourselves at the threshold of Holy Week, joining the first disciples for the last mile of the journey, perhaps saying what Thomas said, though he did not understand anything: “Let us go, too, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Here and Now

“Amen, Amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM” (John 8:51).

A new baby has been part of our small company for the past 15 months. Our grandfatherly publisher likes to ask the young mother for reports on Luke's progress. His first words were “Oh Oh.” This whooshes me back in time to when our son, who is now 26, loved to hide behind some sheer curtains in our bedroom, his small form visible in the window light. After a required search to build the excitement, we would ask, “Where’s John?” and he would announce ecstatically, “Here me am!”

Children have only the present, as do dogs and, biblically speaking, God, the great Here Me Am. Until grammar catches up with them, children know no past nor future but only the moment. No wonder their joys and sorrows are so total, but also why they are so graciously free all regret and anxiety. It is a beautiful time of life, a paradise of timeless innocence, but it doesn’t last long. We grow up and learn to avoid the present by retreating into nostalgia or worry. Studies say that adults devote 80 percent of their attention to looking back or ahead, missing the moment right under their noses.

Jesus is revealed in John’s Gospel as I AM, his divine identity proposed to believers in a series of encounters with the woman at the well, a blind man, a hungry crowd, a dead friend. Jesus is I AM, the name God revealed to Moses from the burning bush. These encounters lead to Jesus’ declarations: I AM the living water, the light of the world, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life. In today’s Gospel, he claims the divine name directly, inciting his critics to pick up stones to throw at him, what blasphemy and adultery got you in those days.

Joy is what Jesus is offering. Possession of the good — the beloved – is what fills the moment. “I am with you always,” he promises us. Always here and now. Time is running out, but eternity, already visible behind the curtains of time and the limits of this world, is already ours. And this is our joy.

Fire

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Fire plays a central role in the search for ultimate truth. The Greeks steal fire from the gods and learn it is both powerful and dangerous. In the Bible, fire is a sign of God’s presence — for Moses in the burning bush, in the pillar of fire that guides the Hebrews by night in their exodus from Egypt. Fire purifies: A burning coal touches the lips of Isaiah; Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet, carries the Word of God like fire in his bones. Today’s reading from the Book of Daniel tells of the three men cast into the fiery furnace; they survive because they are joined by a fourth figure — “one like a son of God.”

The phrase “baptism of fire” has entered the common lexicon to describe any decisive testing and purification, on the battlefield or within a tortured conscience. The image comes from the Gospels; John baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with fire. The reading today from John 8 shows Jesus as he approaches his own baptism of fire in Jerusalem, the same baptism we are invited to enter with him and the church this Palm Sunday. We begin Holy Week stepping onto Holy Ground. Jesus’ face-off with the priests, scribes and Pharisees is dense, as a novel or poem is dense where all the themes come together to reveal some secret truth. For the Gospels, that truth is that Jesus is the divine fire come to earth to transform us, to marry our humanity to divinity. For his enemies, this is the blasphemy they need to seal Jesus’ fate. For believers, this is the Good News.

An astonishing invitation is hidden in plain sight in a familiar prayer. We should not pray it if we don’t believe it or don't want it to happen, because if we do, it will set us on fire.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Joseph

“When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matt 1:24).

In an earlier post (12-18-12), I praised Joseph for his willingness to be entrusted with a woman he couldn't have and a child that wasn't his. This was not to make him into a hero, because every husband and father learns the same limits on the way to genuine love. But Joseph is praiseworthy for many other things, and his feast day is a good time to acknowledge him.

Not that we know Joseph very well. He gets buried under biblical typology and doctrinal downplaying. He becomes Joseph the dreamer from Genesis 37, and he is excised from the family picture to preserve Mary's perpetual virginity and the divine paternity. (Apparently, for the record, God needed a mother to become human but not a father.) If it weren’t for Mary’s words in Luke 2:48, “Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety,” Joseph, who has no lines, might just be scriptural scenery.

One clue to his greatness is his perpetual silence. He is rendered as dumb as Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, but then, what was there to say when you had the very Word of God living under your roof and working next to you in the shop? Joseph, the quiet man, is instead a man of action who moves decisively when the safety of his wife and son are at stake.

In her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, author Anne Lamott writes: "...this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said -- gently -- that they believe when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible."

Wasn’t this Joseph’s role, to be part of some vast divine misdirection to protect the birth of God into a world that did not exactly welcome him? He gave cover to the most important mystery in history, and he did it so well he didn't need to talk.

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