It’s Good Friday, and all over the world - from the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica to the smallest mission church - solemn ceremonies will bring to a close this 1st of 3 days when, united with Christians of every time and place, we contemplate Christ crucified, buried, and risen - the Passover of the Lord.
The whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately connected with the story of the Passover. Jesus died, John tells us, on the afternoon before Passover, as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin.
Passover celebrates the most important event in Israel’s history – not just as something interesting that happened once upon a time, a long time ago in the past, but as something powerfully real and meaningful in the present and a sign of hope for the future. In the words of the Passover ritual: In every generation let all look on themselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. It was not only our ancestors that the Holy One redeemed, but us as well did he redeem along with them. In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.
Being saved! That’s what this is all about! At the exodus, the blood of the lamb marked the doors of the houses of God’s People. Later in history, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the altar of the Temple. Now, in Jesus, the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, the blood of the lamb has been shed, once and for all, on the altar of the cross – our doorway to salvation. Marked by the blood that saves us all, the cross has thus become the Church’s door. A dreaded instrument of disgraceful death, the cross is now, thanks to this day, our gateway to freedom and new life, a triumphant sign of glory.
Of course, in the citadels of secular society and popular culture (so like Pontius Pilate in the caustic skepticism that simply dismisses the disconcerting possibility of something so definite and restricting as truth), the cross can be only an ugly, nonsensical failure. The paradox of the cross is that Christ’s true triumph lay precisely in his not dramatically descending from the cross (like some celebrity), but in ascending the cross as a condemned criminal – a paradox succinctly summarized by the prophet Isaiah: he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people … But … the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him … and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses (Isaiah 53:8, 10, 12).
It was this strangely paradoxical text that a 1st-century Ethiopian court official was reading, when he met the evangelist Philip and asked him: I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? Philip, we are told, opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him (Acts 8:34-35). With Philip, the unanimous witness of Christian tradition has recognized in Jesus - crucified, buried, and risen - the one who perfectly fulfills the prophet’s paradoxical words.
As the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ side certified, Jesus really died on the cross. Then, bound with burial cloths according to the custom, his body was buried – all of which should have been the end of the story. And yet we do not mourn today, because he isn’t dead anymore. And that is why, according to the ancient language of the church’s worship, we celebrate the cross of Christ. In every generation, each one must personally look upon the cross of Christ and embrace it for oneself. That is what we acknowledge when we come forward to venerate the cross.
We venerate the cross, approaching it individually, for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model one’s life on the mystery of Christ’s cross - despite the difficulties life puts in the way, despite the obstacles each individual personally puts in the way. We venerate the cross, approaching it together as the community of Christ’s holy Church - born on the cross in the blood and water which flowed out from Jesus’ side as a sign of the Church’s sacramental life and mission - because it is together as Christ’s Church that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world.
Passing through life this way, standing by the cross of Jesus and reborn as his Church in his blood and water, we will ourselves become Passover doorways, through which the Easter promise of salvation will flow, in a torrent, from his side to fill our entire world.