Let’s imagine for a moment that we are commemorating this day of the Lord’s Passion and Death, not as a part of the Easter Triduum, but as if the Resurrection did not occur. We might imagine ourselves as one of the Apostles or one of the women who accompanied Our Lord to the bitter end when he handed over the spirit. As far as they are concerned, this is the end. At this point, there is no experience of the Resurrection. The Good Lord who has taught them in their synagogues, who has touched and healed numerous people from their infirmities, who raised Lazarus from the dead, and who cast out many demons has suffered the loss of his own life. Those who believed in him see the good man whom they loved now hanging lifeless on a tree. Here is a truly innocent man, who has done no wrong and who has only preached a message of love, mercy, and dedication to God yet he has suffered the death of a criminal. If we really think about this whole scene without having any knowledge of the Resurrection, we might be struck by the profound absurdity of it all. The one man in all human history who should have no enemies and should have easily gained the love and respect of all people has been despised and rejected by his own people. He has done nothing deserving any sort of punishment, let alone the cruel death of a common thief, yet the people, which includes all of us, have insisted that he should be put to death. The most unthreatening person who has ever lived for some reason poses a threat to us wretched sinners.
Without the Resurrection, it is difficult to fathom not only the absurdity of this day, but also the significance of the grave injustice that has been committed and for which there seems to be no retribution or recompense. While it is horrible enough when an ordinary person is put to death for a crime he did not commit, here we are talking about someone who did absolutely nothing wrong, the Son of God. What was his crime exactly? Simply put, he was faithful to his identity. As Our Lord says to Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus has borne witness to the truth not only to his disciples but to everyone who listens to his voice. When he bears witness to the truth of his divine identity before the Sanhedrin, they charge him with blasphemy. Jesus could provide so many witnesses to testify on his behalf. He could even appeal to the many works that he has performed which testify to the fact that he has come to do the will of the Father. After all, how could Jesus be a blasphemer and yet carry out miraculous works that could only come from God? But since the hearts of the people are so hardened towards Jesus, there are no witnesses, nor is there any evidence that would soften them. Their sin has closed the ears of their hearts to the voice of reason.
As the Son of God, not only could Jesus have easily escaped this situation, he would have been justified in seeking retribution against those who sought to put him to death. The crowds even proclaim publicly that they take his blood upon themselves and their children. The guilt for the crucifixion of Our Lord is universally shared by all. Yet Jesus does not strike back at his enemies with vengeance. When he is struck on the right cheek, he turns the other one as well. When he is abused and insulted, he returns no insult. He goes silently to his execution and is treated as if he is the worst of criminals. Thus, what is revealed through the Cross is not only the unfathomable patience and mercy of Our Lord but also the utter depravity of our own sinfulness. On the Cross, it is not Our Lord who faces judgment; rather it is all of us. We see the hideousness of our sin reflected in the people who hurled insults at Jesus, scourged his back until he bled, struck him in the face, spat on him, pulled at his beard, pressed a crown of thorns upon his head, pierced his hands and feet with nails, and opened his side with a lance. Not only do we treat Our Lord this way, but we also do this to the least of his brothers and sisters, the poor. The blood of the Lord does indeed fall back upon our own heads as we mar his appearance with our sin.
The absurdity of this day, especially if we know nothing of the Resurrection, is that it appears that evil triumphs in the end. If someone so good and holy as Our Lord has not escaped the abuse of the wicked, what hope does anyone else have? Yet having been subjected to such abuse and a violent death, Our Lord has earned the right to judge the living and the dead. And what is the judgment that is reserved for us wretched sinners? How does Jesus judge us for our sins and our crimes? We hear these words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The judgment from Jesus is not condemnation in return for condemnation. It is not an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. The judgment is mercy. It is a judgment that no wicked person can withstand, but only the person who is truly contrite and penitent. The Cross that receives the blood of Jesus Christ becomes the new mercy seat, the propitiatory, the place which is found in the Holy of Holies in the temple and could only be accessed once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Jesus is the new and everlasting high priest and the victim offered for the remission of our sins. The blood of Jesus is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, and the body of Jesus is our new Passover food. By his own death, Christ has destroyed our death.
What hope do we have now as sinners? Instead of condemnation, we have the blessed hope of forgiveness and everlasting life if we persevere in our faith in Christ. As disciples of Christ, we now have the honor and privilege of following in his footsteps, of witnessing to the wonderful truth of the Gospel, and of uniting our sufferings with his so that we might make up what is lacking in his sufferings. Not that the sufferings of Christ are insufficient for our salvation, but that we add our own sufferings to his for the sake of the spread of the Gospel message. Since Christ has chosen not to condemn us but show us mercy, we likewise are called to show mercy to our neighbor. Christ loved his enemies from the Cross; therefore, we too are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Through his Passion and Death, Our Lord has opened for us the way to eternal life. We now know that death cannot hold Our Lord forever and we await the final hour when the last enemy to be destroyed is death.
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA