The Passion offers a pattern for our growth in holiness and the challenges it poses. Pilate going in and out of the praetorium—indicated some seven times—symbolizes the wavering and indecisiveness we often bear toward Jesus.
Every Good Friday we are blessed to hear proclaimed the Passion Narrative from the Gospel of John. The Passion offers a pattern for our growth in holiness and the challenges it poses.
1CONVERSION HAPPENS AT THE LEVEL OF DESIRE
It is no coincidence that the first words Jesus speaks in the Passion Narrative echo the opening words of Jesus in the beginning of John’s Gospel. In the Passion, Jesus says to Judas and the band of soldiers and guards, Whom are you looking for? At the start of the Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples of John the Baptist who have come to him, What are you looking for? The answer in both cases is the same: Jesus Christ himself.
Why does Jesus ask this question? Because the conversion we require happens at the level of desire. We cannot embrace the mystery of the Passion if we fail to recognize our deepest desire, acknowledging that all our longing cries out for This Man who is willing to die on a cross for us.
Desire is a gift given to us by God so that we can come to know who Jesus is and understand the purpose for which we are living. But do we want God enough? A story is told by a nun of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s community about a spiritual conversation of the saint with another sister of her Carmel who “defended to excess the claims of divine justice” to the eschewal of God’s infinite mercy. When Thérèse reached a dead-end in the conversation, she concluded it by saying: “Sister, if you want God’s justice, you will get God’s justice. The soul receives exactly what it expects from God.”
2FACING THE NOTHINGNESS OF SIN
Jesus throughout the Gospel has made the declarations I am the Light of world, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Resurrection and the Life, etc. And as the Son of God continues to avow that divine I AM at his interrogation by the high priest, Simon Peter, standing just a short distance off, publicly proclaims his I am NOT! The ironic juxtaposition of avowal and denial symbolizes our desolation in sin.
St. Catherine of Siena gives us this good instruction:
Here is the remedy for fear: that we creatures recognize that of ourselves we are nothing, that we are moreover constantly doing that nothingness which is sin, and that everything else we have is from God. Once we have come to know ourselves, we come to know also God’s goodness to us.
Simon Peter did this. Even though he in effect committed the same sin as Judas Iscariot, Peter did not permit his denial to consign him in despair. The more Peter becomes truly aware of the nothingness he is outside of God—I am not!—the more he craves the Everything found only in Jesus Christ. Peter will overturn his triple denial by proclaiming three times to the Resurrected Jesus, You know that I love you!
3TEMPTATION AND VACILLATION
John’s deliberate inclusion of detailed stage directions regarding Pontius Pilate going in and out of the praetorium—indicated some seven times—symbolizes the wavering and indecisiveness we often bear toward Jesus. The temptation to be swayed by the world and our own ideas about things obstructs us from the Truth. Yet Pilate asks the question, What is truth? Maybe the asking is not cynical but sincere. For Pilate also is the one who commands, Behold the man! Jesus the Man represents the man Adam—the sinless, perfect image of the Creator placed on earth to be the source of life and human perfection. Pilate’s summons proclaims: Behold what you have done to human nature—tortured, reviled, crowned with mockery. This is what man has done to himself. And this man—who is God—is taking all this on himself. This is he in whom that whole human race finds its salvation. Now is our chance to replace temptation with conviction.
Pilate also declares, Behold your king! Which means dethroning ourself, the center of the universe. The Truth takes hold of us and transforms what would otherwise be intractable the moment we move to behold our King instead of staying stubbornly in our own thoughts and understanding.
4HOLINESS MEANS BELONGING
On Good Friday we are united with Jesus in his agony: “the agon Christi—Christ’s own struggle on the cross and in hell against the concerted might of Satan” (Bernanos). The root of the word “agony” is agon, meaning “assembly.” An agon is a bringing together of people for a contest or a trial or a battle or a struggle—an assembly that aims at victory.
When from the cross Jesus commands, Behold your Mother, Christ presents Mary to us as the personification of the Church. Jesus gives us his Mother to be our way of belonging to God and each other. Christianity is a life. And “Mary is the Mother of all who are born again to new life. She is the Mother of him who is the Life by which all things live” (Bl. Guerric of Igny).
5EMBRACING THE GRACE OF SUFFERING
One soldier thrust his lance into Jesus’ side. “Grace always enters through a wound” (J. Carron). We may rather a world without suffering. But beware. “We can try to limit suffering, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering that we drift into a life of emptiness. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; they become hard and selfish” (Spe Salvi).
The phenomenon of apathy is not so much about indifference as it is about hating suffering and its sacredness. “The debasement of souls consists of apathy: the loss of the ability to suffer” (Bernanos). They will look upon him whom they have pierced. If we dare to keep our eyes on the Pierced One on the cross, then “the contemplation of human misery wrenches us in the direction of God” (Simone Weil).
“The wounds of Jesus offer us a choice: either to be condemned with those who inflicted the wounds and pierced his side, or to repent and enter into the open side of Christ to dwell there, for it has become a haven of rest” (St. Thomas Aquinas). For “God wounds the soul—the Son is this wound, and by this wound we are opened up” (St. Gregory of Nyssa).
6UNION WITH GOD
Joseph of Arimatheacame and took Jesus’ body. This is what we do at Holy Communion.
The Eucharist is what is most real in the world. This is why one must accept It without reservation. When tormented by doubt, by anguish, by troubles of the soul and of the flesh, in the midst of the worst perturbations of mind and soul, he will be saved. It is not when everything seems to be lost that one must forsake the Host; on the contrary, it is when all seems lost that one must feed on the Host and rely on the solemn and reiterated promises of the Lord. (Francois Mauriac)
For “in proportion to God’s need of nothing is man’s need for communion with God” (St. Irenaeus).
7VIGILANCE OF THE HEART
They laid Jesus there because the tomb was close by. The tomb is really a tabernacle—it is a place of adoration, for “during Christ’s period in the tomb, his divine person continued to assume both his soul and his body” (CCC 630). No matter how wretched and desperate may be our circumstances, the Presence of Jesus Christ in the tomb beckons us to hope. We come to the rock of the tomb hitting rock bottom:
Every predestined person has, at least once in their life, thought they were sinking and hitting rock bottom. The illusion that everything has been taken from us at the same time, the feeling of total dispossession, is the divine sign that, on the contrary, everything is only now beginning. (Bernanos)
This death we face in Christ’s tomb teaches us how to face death. “The life of the human being reaches fulfillment through the succession of many deaths,” says St. Basil the Great. And “the true misery of the miserable leads only to God” (Von Balthasar). Remember: “Everyone arrives at the tomb tired, sad, and disappointed … and they leave running!” (Mother Elvira Petrozzi).
Find Fr. Peter John Cameron’s reflection on the Sunday Gospel each week here.