Holy Thursday / Good Friday 2009
I share with you oneof my finest homilies given to the people of St. Bartholmoew’s Parish, Mirimar, Florida on Good Friday 1992. . . .
The Heart of Jesus
(Jesus the Tremendous Lover)
Like a sapling he grew in front of us,
Like a root in arid ground…
a thing despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering ….
And yet ours were the sufferings he bore,
ours the sorrows he carried.
But we thought of him as someone punished,
struck by God, and brought low.
Yet he was pierced through for our faults,
crushed for our sins.
On him lies a punishment that brings in peace
and through his wound we were healed
–excerpts from Isaiah 53.
“What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
Jesus is the one who is our tremendous Lover.
He came to live among us to reveal to us, his sisters and brothers, that we have a Father/God who loves us with a Love that is once a passionate, unconditional love and yet gentle, always inviting, never coercing. Jesus came among us to be our Love, to show the human race how to use the supreme power which God could give us: the intimate, infinite Love which is ours, if only we would claim it and model our lives after Jesus, who is Love itself.
Jesus was to be for us the model of Love because he was willing to experience in his heart the depths of human emotion. He risked time and again to embrace the sorrow, the agony, the unfreedom, the need of those who came to him to be healed. He risked being burdened by the needs of others. He risked being disheartened by those who would take from him and not even say thanks. He risked being misunderstood and rejected by the authorities of the day and even his neighbors in his home town. He risked the pain of realizing that even his closest disciples and friends had narrow vision and missed the main point of his message.
He risked all, and realized that, in spite of the pain and sorrow, in his heart, the soft Voice of the Father within him was asking him to keep going, to risk even more. To go deeper into his heart and to carve out still more and more places for those he would touch and heal, until one day there would be room in his heart for the whole world.
I doubt that Jesus ever forgot a single individual that he encountered, not even those who oppressed him. He kept them all in his great heart, remembering them, praying for them, hoping that they would open their hearts to the One who Loved them with a passionate Love — the Father/God of all. He must have realized how important it was to see and feel the tragedy of the corruption he witnessed among the religious and political leaders of the day, to keep even these things in his heart. As painful as it was, he hoped that by keeping them there some of the great evil he saw would be disarmed and tamed.
That’s all he could do, after all — absorb the tragedy, the struggle, the sin, the failures in Love of the human race in his great, great heart. Yes, he healed a few sick and gave the gift of sight to some, but most of all he Loved: He let people into his heart (that’s the definition of Love, after all: to let someone into one’s heart) there to be comforted, if just for a moment. For one brief moment in the heart of the Lord Jesus is enough for any of us.
He had room for young John and impetuous Peter. And for Judas. He had room for the outcasts of his day, Zacheus and Matthew and Mary Magdalen. And he brought the outcasts in and seated them at his table He had room for beggars and lepers and blind people. And he had room for the Pharisees who broke his heart by their refusal to see and understand.
We remember that he was capable of deep emotion. He wept profoundly when he saw in prophecy what would happen to Jerusalem because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. And yet, even the gift of his tears and the greatness of his Love would not stop the destruction that would come because of Israel’s hardness of heart and lack of vigilance.
In the end, he wept in the garden. I like to believe that his agony was not focused on the trauma he personally was about to endure but because the Father permitted him, in that moment, to experience to the depths the reality of evil and tragedy in the world. He must have experienced some of the pain and loss that many of us feel when we encounter hardness of heart and misunderstanding.
Jesus embodied the compassion of God — the mercy, the tenderness, the Hesed of God (to use the wonderful Hebrew word). God wanted to be known as the Merciful One. And we, likewise, are instructed to “Be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate.”
Jesus became for us the “Man of Sorrows”, familiar with suffering” 1 — the suffering Servant of Yahweh. He bore the weight of the world’s refusal to Love and even worse its refusal to be Loved by the God of Love. He allowed that evil, that senseless tragedy of the human race, to be absorbed, and thereby redeemed and purified, with his own blood. In his own bloodstream the cosmic battle between the forces of Love and Hate was waged. And “his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.”2 In him the great cosmic battle was focused. Our great compassionate God sent his Son to bear within his soul the brunt of that cosmic storm.
We are filled with awe at such overwhelming Love. And so we honor this evening his great, great heart. But most importantly we should realize that he has become for us Love itself so that we will also might become Love.
The one essential ingredient of the Christian religion is to Love as Jesus has Loved us. We are to become compassionate as Jesus is compassionate. We, like Jesus, are called not to be afraid to embrace the suffering, the tragedy, the sin of the world, so that in Love we will join our hearts to his and, as St. Paul says, “to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”
Perhaps we can say, therefore, that there are two kinds of people in the world — those who are willing to accept their own share of suffering in the world (and a bit more for Jesus’ sake) and those who cannot or will not bear even the suffering caused by their own failures and sins. The compassionate ones do what they do out of Love, a seemingly foolish Love. Some Love because they have been opened up to a mystical awareness that they, like Jesus, are making their own soul and body available as an arena for the cosmic drama of interaction between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
I do not pity those who suffer. I rather pity those who are afraid to suffer. Out of suffering comes understanding — a larger perspective of the world and with it a practical wisdom that tempers Law and Life with Mercy. Out of suffering comes the ability to see the face of Christ in even a hardened criminal or a seemingly pitiful alcoholic.
The ability to see, to understand, the inner workings of people’s lives is a gift far greater than the suffering one must endure to attain it. To-suffer-unto-understanding (a definition of compassion) is to be able to look upon the world as Jesus does and as he invites us to do in the Beatitudes.3 (Of course, a person can suffer without understanding — especially when we are angry about and refuse to accept our lot of suffering. But if we pray faithfully while we suffer, God will most assuredly gift us with his own very special kind of understanding.)
Understanding is the goal of suffering for those who have eyes to see. Understanding which sees through the eyes of Jesus. Understanding allows us the courage to be with Jesus hanging on the Cross and to see what he saw from that perspective. Understanding allows us the courage to go with Jesus into the bowels of the earth and descend into hell and to see what Jesus saw. Then, too, understanding allows us to feel what Jesus felt when he was lifted from the grave.
I have always had an inner sense that the fastest, most efficient way to handle a crisis was to face it head on — not to avoid it. And so, I invite you to “go with” the suffering. Explore it. Allow yourself to experience the feelings, as painful and confused and frightening as they may be. The more you fight it, the more you will suffer. Ask Jesus the Light to lead you through the darkness. Then have faith and confidence that he will. (After all, the worst you will experience is what Jesus experienced, as long as you follow the will of God. (Other persons have suffered more cruel deaths than crucifixion.) And if you truly want to follow the will of God and are praying daily, then be assured that God is leading you. Take his hand in the darkness and follow — even if you can barely see the ground in front of you!
The pain may feel unbearable for awhile, and the temptation is to avoid it as long as we can, and, of course, to worry about it. (I have always found worry most bothersome, like walking around with a pebble in my shoe. Far easier to bend down and take it out than to walk around with it for years!) So, too, with suffering. Even in one of my earlier bouts with emotional and mental suffering, I somehow found myself diving into it to seek its cause.
From what I can see there is always a cause of suffering. Discovering the cause can often lead to alleviating the suffering. In fact, the pain oftentimes will be transformed the moment the cause is recognized and diagnosed, so it is to the person’s advantage to stay with it and find out who or what the “bugger” is. (Perhaps there is an analogy to the oyster who “suffers” an irritation that will eventually through which it may become a pearl of great price.) If we see the larger picture of reality, seen through the eyes of Christ, some joy and satisfaction and relief will enter our soul. We will thus be on our way to recovery and new life.
The easiest way through suffering is to stretch out our arms and allow ourselves to be nailed to our cross. Don’t fight it. Surrender to the will of God. Jesus in his agony on Thursday night saw through the nails in his hands and the crown of thorns on his head to the Resurrection. He didn’t ignore the Cross; he saw it and the horizon beyond it.
Jesus didn’t focus on the pain. The pain of the Cross was only a brief moment (which he knew he had the strength to endure) in the history of his lordship presiding over the business of the universe. So you, too, should not focus on the painful aspects of our life. Look instead for the cause of the pain. Look for the reality — the truth! And remember that Jesus said “the truth shall make you free!” See as Jesus sees; that is, see and accept the truth. And leap from your cross as a butterfly leaps from the cocoon and as Jesus leapt from the grave.
“Impossible!” you may say, especially if you have been suffering for years.
“Not so!” says Jesus and the whole company of prophets and martyrs and confessors and virgins.
Ask for strength and you will receive strength.
Ask for guidance and you will be led through the darkness to a point you will recognize.
Ask to understand and Jesus will let you see yourself through his eyes.
But remember! Don’t focus on the pain. All those gory pictures of Jesus in agony and bloody crucifixes of the past generation, hopefully, are, hopefully, gone for good.
The Cross is the focal point in that we realize the great Love which Jesus has for us and what he personally has done for us. But one must not forget to look at the horizon beyond the Cross. The sky on that first Good Friday afternoon undoubtedly was an awesome sight to behold. The cross, the pain that is our lot in life to endure, is there only to be transformed and transcended. The cross is but a moment.
Suffering in life is only a means to greater life. It is not our final lot. Resurrection is. Glory is. Triumph is. Though the paradox is that we must accept our cross totally to be through with it. We are invited to surrender to our Father in complete abandonment as Jesus did, as if we were to leap off a cliff and know that we will land in the Loving arms of our great God.
A further delusion of spirituality of the past generation is that our reward will not come until the next life. What is delusional about that is that we fail to realize the kingdom is already inaugurated by Jesus in history by his triumph on the Cross. Our lives are already illumined by the light of the resurrection. And there is no reason that we cannot triumph here and now — if we accept our cross. And, in fact, I am convinced that it will be Christians bold enough to take up in their hand and in their minds the Cross of Jesus who will lead us in XXI and XXII Centuries, just as this has been true in every age of the Church.
And so, the question that we ponder this holy night is, once again:
“What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
And the answer is: “The great, great Love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who Loved us so much that he stretched out his arms in the most loving, indeed, the most-nonviolent act, the world has ever seen. He stretched out his arms in the face of his enemies and said from his Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Come, then adore the Lord who wants to be for us all our Beloved. Come, then, adore the Lord, the tremendous Lover. Renew your Love for him and know even more than ever before that it is by the holy Cross that we have been redeemed.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this?