Deacon Cornellís Homily


Isaiah 52:13—53:12
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1—19:42


April 2, 2010, Good Friday, Cycle C

Last Sunday I urged you to put the books down and listen to the proclamation of the passion instead of reading along with it. Hearing it read by different lectors each time increases the possibility that you will hear something you have not heard before, even though this is such a familiar story. Do you think it is possible to hear something new in this story? Let me share something I recently learned that has significantly changed how I hear one very familiar part of this story.

Who did the crowd ask Pilate to release instead of Jesus? Yes, Barabbas. For many years, I glossed over that little part of the story because I knew it well. Barabbas was a criminal, a revolutionary and murderer, who Pilate offered up because he knew the crowd would not pick such a dastardly criminal over the innocent Jesus. For years the way that name was pronounced veiled a truth that stopped me short when I finally heard it. Can you think of other biblical names that start with Bar-? Bartholomew, Barnabas, Bartimeus, Simon Bar-Jonah, even Jesus Bar-Joseph? The prefix Bar- in Aramaic means son of, like Mac in Scottish names. So Barabbas is really Bar-Abba(s), or Son of the Father. So the crowd was asking for the Son of the Father to be released.

The reason I keep coming back to opening ourselves to hearing this story in newer ways is that I find, in conversation with people of all ages, the traditional way we reflect on the passion does not point to God for many. As you have heard me say over and over, all our understanding about God and scriptures is symbolic. None of the many metaphors we use to frame any part of scripture reveals the whole mysterious truth; not even all the different metaphors together reveal the whole mysterious truth. The reason we need to use different metaphors is that each metaphor helps us to connect a different set of experiences and conditions to part of the truth. And reflecting on scripture with different metaphors helps to remind us that the truth the symbols point to is deeper and richer than we can ever understand.

The traditional way the passion is understood is that Christ’s suffering and death is a sacrifice of atonement that rescues us from the effects of our sins. This metaphor is very firmly rooted in our Jewish heritage. It is where the sometimes-conflicting notions of God’s justice and God's mercy meet. The idea is that when we sin, we incur a debt before God for the hurt we bring to God, to others, and to ourselves through sin. We also deserve punishment because of this hurt. Because God is just, he cannot just cancel this debt or punishment. But because God loves us, he sent his only Son to suffer and die for us, his suffering and death paying the price for our debt. I suggest that this metaphor is not very helpful to most people in our culture. That doesn't mean that it is wrong; just that for many people today it is not helpful.

The primary reason that it leads us away from the truth about God is that it parallels so many other stories in our culture about a selfless sacrificing hero or heroine who "takes a bullet" for someone else. From Harry Potter's mother to Kevin Costner's character in The Bodyguard, to Saint Maximilian Kolbe, we have many models of someone taking undeserved punishment for someone else. The only problem is that in every case, the hero or heroine steps between us and someone evil: Voldermort, the sniper trying to kill Whitney Houston's character, the Nazi prison camp executioners. So if Jesus is taking our punishment for us, who is the evil perpetrator of that evil: must be God the Father. And that is not the God Jesus came to reveal, is it?

I would like to suggest two other metaphors for reflecting on the passion that point us more solidly to a God who is love.

The first alternative metaphor is that of the scapegoat. From the beginning of time, human beings have tended to look for someone else to blame when we do wrong. If we can find a suitable scapegoat, we deflect all blame, and guilt, and punishment onto it. We heard this expressed in today’s passion reading when the author of John’s Gospel reminds us that Caiaphas was the one who had counseled the leaders that it is “better that one man should die rather than the people.” The problem with scapegoating is that we fail to look our sins squarely in the face, and then resolve to turn away from them. Often we do even worse by inflicting violence on the chosen scapegoat as a way of avoiding an examination of our own failings. The crucifixion is the ultimate scapegoating. When we look at the crucifix, we see in no uncertain terms that whenever we scapegoat, we are killing God. Hopefully this metaphor focuses us on our own need for conversion and repentance, instead of worrying or complaining about others' behavior, no matter how bad that might be.

Another powerful metaphor that invites us to connect the passion to our own Catholic spirituality is that of the waters of baptism that symbolize the tomb in which we die to self and rise to new life in Christ. This metaphor is beautifully expressed in the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians that we heard on Sunday right before the passion. Jesus emptied himself, and in obedience to the Father took on human form. He is not being obedient to the Father telling him to die. Richard Rohr says that it was not the Father who demanded Jesus' death; it was us who demanded that. Rather Jesus is obedient because he knows that whatever happens, his Father will show him the way to turn it into good. And because he was obedient to the Father, Jesus is given the name above all other names: Savior. Out of the worst possible scenario, human beings killing their own God in a most torturous and degrading way, Jesus becomes the instrument of salvation for all creation, including his murderers. Who among us could ever pull that off? In reflecting on the passion using this metaphor we are given the example of how to really "let go and let God". We see that no matter how bad things look to us, if we place our talents and our shortcomings, our holiness and our sinfulness into God's hands, salvation can happen. It is not about doing nothing, or avoiding suffering if we are just good enough, or God somehow miraculously making things right without us lifting a finger. Our baptismal vow is to put our life at the service of the kingdom, to add our suffering to that of others, including Jesus, so that the Father can bring light out of that darkness, Easter resurrection out of Good Friday death and burial.

So let us listen, really listen in our hearts, to this passion story. Let it inspire us, motivate us, captivate us, lead us to the deeper truth who is God. But God who is all loving as Jesus came to reveal to us; God who has placed in our hands everything we need to bring about his kingdom here on earth; God who has chosen to depend on us to complete salvation. The suffering servant Isaiah sings about in that first reading is the people of Israel, not the Messiah. We are the ones who must be pierced for the evil in the world; Jesus has shown us the way. Remember this as we come forward to venerate the cross: It is the cross that Jesus died on but it is also the cross that we are called to pick up daily as we follow Christ. Through that cross we have become adopted Sons of the Father.The world is still crying out: Give us Bar-Abbas!

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