Good Friday 2014
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,” John 17:1
On Good Friday, we listen to the Passion according to St. John, and the words above come just before St John’s passion account and effectively establish its central theme, the glory of his hour. The hour Jesus speaks of is the hour of his passion and death, the event in which he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in today’s first reading:
If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
The will of the Father, the Lord in Isaiah, is that Jesus, in his passion and death is to accomplish nothing less than the redemption of the human race which otherwise would have been entirely lost due to the sin of man. His passion is the great hour of Jesus which he has been announcing, especially in the latter days of his mission, to his disciples. Several times, according to John, Jesus had said that his hour had not yet come, beginning from his first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana – “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” But now his hour has finally arrived, and this hour, as He Himself says, will simultaneously glorify the Father and glorify the Son. It is an hour of great sorrow but also the hour of His great glory, and we need to understand this or we miss the whole point of John’s passion and indeed his Gospel.
Actually there are two different ways of describing this same hour. Jesus speaks of this hour in the Gospel of Luke in quite another way: he says to those who arrest him in the Garden, “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” [Luke 22:53] In this perspective, this is also the hour of the power of darkness, and that power is Satan, and he is addressing Satan more than the men who betray and arrest him. So at one and the same time, this is the hour of darkness and this is the hour of His greatest glory.
In reality, what we have here is the intersection of two time lines in one hour of time; the intersection of the hour in which the forces of evil are gathered in their most extreme assault on goodness and on God, and the hour in which the greatest act of human goodness and love will triumph over that very assault of evil. For the love of Christ is so great that it will truly absorb all that evil has to throw at God and man, and His love will triumph over this Satanic power to liberate the human race from its slavery to evil and sin.
St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans summarizes this victory of Christ in these words:He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? (Romans 8:32) Christ has truly robbed the devil of his power over man, not by force of power, but by the force of a love that conquers even death itself. In this one glorious action, he saves man and glorifies God in the greatest act of love that will ever take place in this world, indeed in this creation.
The great St. Augustine, commenting upon this text from St. Paul states unequivocally that in Christ’s passion and death we have a much greater gift than even the tremendous gifts promised to us as a result of these events. He says so beautifully:
It is a great thing that we are promised by the Lord, but far greater is what has already been done for us … when Christ has given us the gift of his death, who is to doubt that he will give the saints the gift of his own life. (Sermo Guelferbytanus PLS 2 (545-546)
So, as great a gift that Eternal Life obviously is for us, even greater, far greater according to St. Augustine, is the gift that Christ made to us, and for us, of His death. These words are worth pondering on Good Friday, and throughout our life. What exactly does Augustine mean by saying that Christ’s passion and death are a far greater gift to us than even what resulted from that gift for us, the gift to us of Eternal Life?
Perhaps Augustine means there is a danger that we might look at the death of Christ as simply the prelude to the greater gift of Eternal Life that it makes possible for us. But to see it as a prelude to the gift of Life, tends to reduce His death to a mere means to an end, something good, but only a s a means to something else, something secondary to its effect for us: the gift of Eternal Life. But Augustine says quite the opposite is true, that the greater thing, the greater gift, even for us, is precisely the act of love by which Christ gave His life for us, his love that conquered sin and death, the love by which he gives glory to the Father while meriting Life for us.
Augustine’s thesis that the death of Jesus is the greater gift, in fact, begins to make some sense if we recall an earlier statement of Jesus Himself in John’s Gospel regarding the concept of a greater love:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13)
The death of Jesus is the greater gift because it is the greatest act of love in human history, indeed the central act of all human history in which God simultaneously manifests his infinite love for us and makes it possible for us to posses that Love and the Eternal Life of God who is that Love.
This statement of Jesus about the “no greater love” has to be the starting point for understanding Augustine’s thesis that the greatest thing that ever was given to man was the gift of Christ’s death, which is the supreme manifestation of God’s love for mankind, which makes it possible for us to believe that the offer of Eternal Life is grounded in the Eternal Love that God has for us. The problem we sometimes have in this regard comes down to this; how can we truly believe that God, who knows our sins, knows how evil we can be at times, truly wants us to be saved more than we desire to be saved? The greatness of this love is measured not simply by the fact that the God-man laid down his life for us, as St. Paul says, but that he did so while we were his enemies, that is while we were sinners, because we were sinners, because He wanted to rescue us from Satan and sin.
While Jesus says there is no greater love than to die for one’s friends, Augustine, recalling those words of St. Paul, says: Where were the sinners, what were they, when Christ died for them? Yes, we are all sinners, first of all because we are all children of Adam, and secondly, because we are all sinners in our own right as well. Yet Christ died for us, and did so as our friend, even while we were by our sins his enemies. And St. Paul says in that same Letter to the Romans that this fact is the basis of our faith and hope that God loves us with an everlasting love, and that God has gone to this extreme, dying for us, in a sense to prove His love and His desire for our salvation:
Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. [Rom 5:10]
What an amazing thing this is from so many different perspectives. Objectively, we were God’s enemies because of Original Sin and our own foreseen personal sins, and yet God chose to look upon us not as enemies but as friends. Moreover, God chose to deliver over to death His only-begotten son for us, and this Son, innocent Lamb that he is, also chooses, as man, to lay down his life for us, whom he chose to consider his friends even though objectively we were his enemies. No greater love than a man lay down his life for his friends, and if that is true, then what kind of love is this manifested before all of creation when God’s only Son chooses to lay down his life for his enemies, whom he chooses to consider friends, and whose death will in fact make many his friends as a result of this gift.
“No greater love” indeed, that is what is given to us in the death of Christ, the “no greater love” that is God’s and is God. To repeat, this “no greater love” is the ultimate gift to us in the Only Begotten. This is the greatest gift of God, the gift of His love, a gift which first became incarnate in human flesh and which reached its most perfect and astounding manifestation in the act by which Christ lay down his life for us, as for his friends.
God intended and promised from the beginning, from the moment of man’s tragic rebellion against his love, to restore us to his friendship, to raise us from the death caused by his rebellion and to restore us to Eternal Life. It was not in any way necessary that God should become man, suffer, and die in our flesh in order to accomplish these intentions and promises; it could all have been accomplished in another way, had God so chosen, for God is all-powerful.
Why, then, this terrible way? Jesus once said that when he was “lifted up” that he would draw all men to himself. No man can stand before the crucified Christ without choosing, either to believe in God’s love and God’s son or not to believe. This love, the “no greater love” that is God, came into the world in a hidden way in the mystery of the Incarnation, hidden to all but Mary. Now Christ is lifted up, on display, so that the “no greater love” of God is manifest for all who have a heart that is not made of stone.
And in the midst of the horror of this innocent Lamb’s agony, we hear those stunning words of the Crucified, “Father, forgive them.” In these words of the God-man, he reveals what is behind all this agony in the redemption itself, that Divine Love, that “no greater love” manifested here in all its splendor, the very love that constitutes the Eternal Life he won for us by the agony of Calvary.
God knew that man, weighed down by his countless sins, would not easily believe in the gift of Life from God, unless he was drawn to Christ and His gift by some dramatic means. Thus, the “no greater love” of the Cross is the greatest gift, over and above Eternal life that it makes possible for us. The “no greater love” manifested dramatically, visibly, on the Cross is what draws man by his heart strings to Christ, for human love is hopefully never so completely dead in the human heart by sin, that it cannot be appealed to by the “no greater love” which lays down life itself for the sinner, as a friend. When we recognize that gift of love in Christ on the Cross, it liberates the human heart to accept the other gift which in the end is the same; that life which is love.
As Augustine wrote, what can man not hope for once he believes in the love that is manifested on the Cross. That is Paul’s teaching, that is Augustine’s teaching, that is the teaching of the Gospels. Love has conquered evil itself, death itself, and it is all done for us who believe in that Love. As Philip once said to Jesus, Show us the Father and that will be enough. He has shown us not only the Father, but the Father’s love, and that should be enough for us.