Friday, April 15, 2022

The Passover of the Lord

The story of Good Friday and Easter, the whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately wrapped up with the story of the Passover. Jesus died, according to John's account, 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.

By convenient coincidence, the calendar this year coincides with the timing of the Passover in John's account in the Gospel. There is no Passover sacrifice anymore, no passover lamb since the Temple was destroyed, but the feast is still kept and the exodus remembered at the Passover meal which will take place tonight in Jerusalem and New York and wherever the story of God's salvation of his people is still told.

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 is 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.

As Pope Francis has said, “The Cross is the word through which God has responded to the evil in the world.”

And in this world, in Ukraine and in so many other troubled places, as well as in the sufferings of so many individuals and families and in the ubiquitous sadness that seems to be smothering our society, there is indeed plenty of evil that cries out to God for a response!

Of course, even to recognize Christ's Cross as God's word of response to all this myriad evil in the world seems itself a mystery.

In the citadels of secular society and its popular and political culture, represented in the Gospel by the (Putin-like?) figure of Pontius Pilate, whose caustic skepticism simply dismisses the disconcerting possibility of something so definite and restricting as truth), in such a society, in such a world as ours, the cross can be only an ugly, 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 celebrity influencer), 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 strangely paradoxical text that an ancient Ethiopian court official was reading, when he met the evangelist Philip in the Acts of the Apostles 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. 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, whatever we do today, however we observe this day, it is not with a funeral, for we are not in mourning today. If Jesus had in fact remained dead, if his body had indeed decayed in the tomb, then we would hardly remember him at all, nor commemorate his death today. Nor are we pretending he’s dead (as if we were acting in a play) until we see what (if anything) happens on Sunday. Die Jesus really did, but 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.

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.
And so, with great liturgical solemnity or in silent simplicity, we salute the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. In every generation (to paraphrase the Passover ritual), each one must personally look upon the cross of Christ and embrace it for oneself. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find help in our time of need.

We venerate the cross individually (imitating Mary, his mother standing by the cross of Jesus) for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model his or her  life on the mystery of Christ’s cross - despite the difficulties life puts in the way, despite the obstacles each one of us personally puts in the way. We venerate the cross 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 (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, the whole world for which we pray on this day we call Good, 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 may ourselves become Passover doorways, through which the Easter promise of salvation will flow, in a torrent, from his side to fill our so very anxious and suffering world.
Photo: Hewit Crucifix, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, New York (2009).

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