In many ways, Good Friday feels like we are coming to a funeral, to a memorial service for a man who died over 2,000 years ago, but actually we are coming to do what many families want to do today, rather than celebrate a funeral, to do a celebration of life.
One insight is absolutely clear in the gospel tradition of the gospel writer, John, is that Jesus was in charge of everything that happened to him. That is how Saint John portrays Jesus. In last evening’s gospel, John writes that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
There seems to have been two special moments in last evening’s remembering of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and friend — a prayer and a way in which Jesus would remain with us always every time that would gather and a command, in Latin, a mandatum and the meaning of the word, Maundy Thursday, that commands us to love, to wash each other’s feet as a sign and reminder to love and service.
This is how Saint John, the Gospel writer, chooses to remember Jesus. Saint John had the wonderful opportunity to look back from the end of the first century, back over some 60 years or so, reflecting upon the meaning of Jesus’ life, and I believe that he grasps who Jesus was and what he did when he hears Jesus say to him: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”
This is an ever new dawning, and a spiritual revelation for me. For centuries, there has been a spiritual stream of belief and [reflection] on Jesus’ [death] and everything he stood for. Certainly, Jesus experienced an extreme, cruel way to die. But hear what Jesus said last night: “Fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning God,” everything else unfolds.
It is rare for us as human beings to have such clarity about the meaning of our life and its death. Perhaps, this would be one of this year’s Good Friday’s gifts. Our death is not up to chance. It will come, and we should be ready and prepared, whatever its circumstances might be, and to remember to find the door that opens. That is what Jesus did. He went through the door as the First to His Father.
What is our fear? The fear of the unknown? The fear of pain? In St. Matthew’s gospel, there is a poignant moment where he has Jesus cry out, feeling abandoned. Matthew writes this script for Jesus using the first line of Psalm 22. Not in today’s gospel.
For St. John, in this gospel today, the most poignant moment is Jesus inviting his mother Mary and his dearest friend John (the Gospel writer) to form a new family. (and scripture scholars see this as the beginning of what would become the Church) — from those two and their communion with the Risen Jesus, a new world order begins and a new creation of faith, hope and love begin.
That is why John gives us Jesus’ last words: “It is finished,” not “finished” as if it is over, but “finished” as in “done and to be continued.”
Remember that there are four Passion Stories. While the storyline is somewhat similar, there are different vignettes and touching scenes that appear in one tradition and not in another.
And we remember that they were composed over 40 or so years to different audiences sharing different remembrances.
Remember that St. John tells us that there were only three eyewitnesses to what happened on the first “Good Friday.” — in the words of today’s Gospel, “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala — and his dear friend, John.”
If we read the Passion stories clearly and thoughtfully, there are very few details. The attention focus is to tell very simply that Jesus died by crucifixion. I have always thought that he would have died in some other way. The reason he died the way he did was because the Jewish authorities orchestrated his death because Jesus claimed to be God’s Son and convinced the Roman governor that he would be a threat to his political power.
The four Evangelists were motivated to explain why such a well-liked and popular spiritual teacher, who had done so much good, should be killed. Yes, there were among his followers and hangers on those who hoped he would lead a revolution to overthrow Roman Rule, but that support evaporated on Palm Sunday when they saw Jesus ride a donkey in procession, and not a Roman Stallion horse.
At the end of the first century, it was St. John (later called, the Evangelist) , a writer of the last gospel, who told the disciples gathered with them: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
In his passion, Jesus gives us a model — to do what is right and just even when it is unpopular, to be faithful to the deepest and truest callings of the heart, to listen to the voice of God in the circumstances of life, to work at being a thoughtful and truth loving person that we can be, and to follow Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
There is our last question that is important to answer: Why do we say that Jesus died for our sins? Why did the Church teach us to identify with Jesus’ sufferings on the cross and even to feel them emotionally? (Some cultures take that to dramatic ends by being beaten in reenacting the crucifixion.)
Here is the explanation: Going back to the years after Jesus’ death, the early followers of Jesus had to explain why people should continue to follow Jesus. He had died.
And so they began searching for an explanation: that Jesus was like this sufferant person, described by the Prophet Isaiah. And so they began to describe Jesus in the poetic words of Isaiah, “lamb led to the slaughter,” “giving his life as an offering for sin,” “because of his affliction, he shall see light in fullness of days,” “even as many were amazed at him, so marred was his look beyond human recognition.”
“Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many.” What happened, the early Church overlayed the poems of the Suffering Servants on Jesus, described his death and gave meaning using many of the same phrases.
And so, Jesus received the Title– “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” more than the lambs and offering of the Old Testament ever could.
And in creating a new moment before his death, as what we call The Last Supper, Jesus tells us that he gives us his whole person and his dedication and his service as a new communion and new covenant. And so the sacrifices of animals to honor and to placate God and to forgive our sins ends.
Human nature and Jewish history and Catholic Church history still contains strong roots in this need for a redeemer, a need for someone to expiate our sins and purify our souls.
But I will stick with Saint John and try to discover Jesus as my Way, my Truth, and my Life, because I know him to have shown me a new way.
Way before St. John wrote his gospel, an unnamed author wrote a beautiful homily, known as The Letter to Hebrews, around the year 66, thought to be given to Christian communities living in Rome.
The author had many comparisons to make between Jesus and the structure and theology of Old Testament practice.
We heard part of that homily in our second reading: “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, The Son of God,” And the author invites us confidently to approach ‘the throne of grace’ to receive mercy and to find help for timely grace.
I want to leave you in your imagination. The throne of grace or the throne of mercy was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant over which Jewish Tradition believed that the presence of God rested.
What Good Friday is about for us is to remember that the throne of mercy is in our hearts where Jesus promised: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
Jesus is the throne of mercy!
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life!
For the Jewish people, 2000 years ago, the pandemic was the Roman occupation of Palestine. For the early Christians, the pandemic was the death of Jesus. We are only beginning to know our pandemic today.
In every pandemic, there is also hope and even hope beyond hope that guides and strengthens people to wait until it passes.
What do we learn? The closing words of today’s Passion story remind us that Jesus was made perfect (in the sense of being whole and complete) by the obedience he experienced — looking for the voice of the Holy Spirit and sticking close to his father (not following laws and customs and old ways of thinking to distract him).
Remember where Jesus is now. Sitting on the throne of grace in our hearts. Let us go and sit with him there.