Friday, March 30, 2018

The Passover of the Lord

It is Good Friday evening. All over the world, from the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica to the smallest rural mission church, solemn ceremonies are bringing to a close this 1st of 3 days (beginning at sunset yesterday and ending at sunset on Sunday) when, united with Christians of every time and place, we contemplate Christ crucified, buried, and risen. It is the Passover of the Lord.

The Passover of the Lord! The whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately wrapped up with the story of the Passover, which, by happy coincidence this year, begins tonight – just as it did then. Jesus died (as we just heard) on the afternoon before the Passover, even as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin. His accusers would not enter Pilate’s headquarters in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover.

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, 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, blessed be He, 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! To prepare us, we heard last night how, 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 our postmodern popular culture (so like Pontius Pilate in the caustic skepticism that simply dismisses the disconcerting possibility of something so serious and restricting as truth), the cross must seem a nonsensical failure. But the paradoxical power of the cross is that Christ’s true triumph lay precisely in his not dramatically descending from the cross (like some silly 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.

It was this mysterious and strangely paradoxical text that an ancient Ethiopian court official was reading, when he met the evangelist Philip in chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles. I beg you, he asked, 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. 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 then have been the end of the story.

And yet this is not some sort of funeral service. We are not here today to mourn. If Jesus had in fact remained dead, if his body had indeed decayed in the tomb, then none of us would be here today at all. Nor are we acting in a play, pretending he’s dead until we see what (if anything) happens on Sunday. We are here, rather, because he really did die, but really isn’t dead anymore. And that is why we celebrate the cross of Christ.

As St. John Chrysostom expressed it, some 16 centuries ago:

Before, the cross was synonymous with condemnation; now it is an object of honor. Before, a symbol of death; now the means of salvation. It has been the source of countless blessings for us: it has delivered us from error, it has shone on us when we were in darkness. We were vanquished, yet it reconciles us with God. We were foes, yet it has regained God’s friendship for us. We were estranged, yet it has brought us back to him.

In a short while, we will solemnly salute the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. 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. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find help in our time of need.

We will venerate the cross, approaching it individually (imitating Mary, his mother standing by the cross) - 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 sinner personally puts in the way. We will venerate the cross, approaching it together as the community of Christ’s holy Catholic 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 (united with Mary, the Mother of the Church) that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world. That is why, momentarily, following one of the most ancient Church traditions of this day, we will pray for that whole world – for the Church, for its leaders, for those joining the Church, for those outside, for the Jews, for unbelievers, for our political leaders, and for all in any kind of need – for  the whole world without exception.

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.

Homily for Good Friday, Liturgy of the Lord's Passion, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 30, 2018.

Photo: The 13.5 ft. Belgian granite and bronze corpus, 1897 "Hewit Crucifix," Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY, used in some years for the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. 

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