Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Passion according to John
|Date:||April 14, 2017, Good Friday, Cycle A|
I can't remember where I heard this story but I suspect it is based on a true experience. There was this older nun who had been hospitalized for several years with a debilitating disease. Since this was long before the latest advances in pain management, she was continually in a great deal of pain. A young parochial vicar came to visit her one day and as she talked about that pain, the priest suggested that she remember how much Jesus had suffered for her, and all of us, on the cross. With no little irony in her voice, the nun replied, "Remember Father, Jesus only suffered for 3 hours!"
As with all mysteries we need to be careful that we don't project our limits on the mystery of the cross. While it can be helpful in some situations to remind ourselves how much Jesus suffered on the cross, and see it as a model for how we are to endure the suffering we encounte, this is far from the only way to understand the crucifixation, and I would suggest it is far from the most fruitful way. Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of the most important theologians of the 20th century; he died in 1988, 3 days short of being named a Cardinal by Pope St. John Paul II. Back in 1970 he wrote a book titled Mysterium Paschale in which he argues that God is most deeply revealed in the crucifixation, death, and burial of Jesus. In Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent burial, God is revealed as one who loves us so much that he is willing to empty himself of everything in order to draw us near to his love.
This self emptying for our sake nature of God is most beautifully, and most famously, professed in that great hymn in Philipians 2 that was the basis of our Gospel Acclamation tonight and that we heard as the second reading on Palm Sunday. "Though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." And then on the cross he emptied himself of his humanity, submitting to his humanity even to the point of feeling abandoned by the Father as he died.
Even that was not the extent of his self emptying, for, as we express in the Apostle's Creed, he descended into Hell. Hell is not a place; it is the experience of utter separation from God. My mind explodes everytime I try to understand how Jesus who is God, could experience this utter separation from the Father. So von Balthasar is saying that it is this, and I don't know if there is a word that expresses this, this willingness, this capacity, this desire to empty himself for us that reveals who God truly is.
Jesus says in the Gospels that we must take up our cross daily and follow him. With the popular understanding of the cross, it is easy to understand this as meaning we each have to suffer each day, as Jesus did on the cross, to be his disciple. I would suggest that trying to follow this teaching using that common understanding of the cross as a model for how we are to endure the suffering we encounter, can lead us into two dangerous thoughts: one about God, and one about us. The first is that God sends us suffering to punish us for our sins, or to make us prove we are true disciples; and second is that we can earn God's love by enduring these sufferings. That is not the God who is revealed in the Paschal mystery. Our relationship with God; our being loved by God and responding in love is always God's work. God initiates it and all we can do is submit to it. In another book, von Balthasar uses a very human image to help us to understand how God draws us into being in love with him. He said: "After a mother has smiled for some time at her child, it will begin to smile back; she has awakened love in its heart." Anyone who has raised an infant understands that image. When that baby cries at 2:30 in the morning and you have to get up and feed her and change her, that is much more what Jesus meant by taking up our cross. Is that hard to do? Yes. Is it what we want to do? No. But we do it out of love, emptying ourselves of our need for sleep, or concern for what this costs us. And if we do it out of love, it is hard to call that suffering. By a long process of a parent taking up that cross of caring for an infant, and then a toddler, and then a child, and then, horror of horrors, an adolescent and a teenager, the child grows to know she is loved and because of this, is able to be loving. And while each individual action of feeding, or clothing, or teaching, or healing conveys the parent's love to the child, in the bigger picture, it is that steadfast, day after day, year after year, self-emptying for the child's sake, that most powerfully communicates that love.
God has revealed himself to be a God who is willing, and able, and some might say, driven by His nature to empty himself for us, for all creation. It is reflecting on that revelation that we can see most clearly, experience more deeply how much God loves us. And it is through our experience of how much we are loved that we are then capable of loving in return. My prayer this evening, my dear people, is that this is the cross we venerate tonight, and my more fervent prayer is that this is the cross you and I take up daily.