Good Friday 2016
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,” Jn 17:1
These words of Jesus come just before the passion account of St. John’s Gospel and effectively set the central theme of John’s account. Jesus’ hour is certainly the hour of his passion and death, the hour which truly fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah we hear 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.
Early in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that the work he came to do was to fulfill the will of the Father, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work,” (Jn. 4:34) and the work and the will of His Father, the LORD, is that Jesus should accomplish the redemption of mankind in no other way than by his passion and death. Indeed, this “work” of the redemption is the greatest of His works, for otherwise His true image in the creation, man, would have been entirely lost due to the sin of man. So this the great hour of Jesus which he has been announcing throughout his mission to his disciples. Several times during his mission, according to John, Jesus says that his hour has not yet come, beginning with his first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. Now, after the supper He prays, and He openly declares that his hour has at last come, and this hour, He says, will simultaneously glorify the Father and glorify the Son. This will be an hour of great sorrow but also of the greatest glory, and we need to ponder this mystery we will miss the whole point of John’s Gospel.
Actually there are two different ways of describing this same hour of glory. For instance, Jesus also speaks of an hour in the account of Luke, but with quite a different reference. There, He says to those who arrest him in the Garden, “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” [Luke 22:53] This is simultaneously the hour of the “power of darkness” and that power is Satan, and so He is addressing Satan even more than the men who betray and arrest him. Thus, this is the hour of darkness, and simultaneously this is the hour of His glory.
In truth, what we have here is the intersection of two time lines in one hour of time; the intersection of the hour in which all the forces of evil are gathered in their most extreme assault on goodness, on God, and the hour in which the greatest act of human goodness and love will triumph over that assault of evil. For Christ’s love and self-oblation will absorb all that evil has to throw at God and man, and His work will triumph over this 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 to the Romans: 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? (Rom. 8:32) Christ has truly robbed the devil of his “power” over man, and he has done so not by force, or power, but by the force of a love that conquers even death itself. In His hour, this one act, Christ redeems man and glorifies God by the greatest act of love that will ever take place in this world or any other.
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 great gifts promised us as a result of these events. He says:
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 as Eternal life obviously is for us, according to St. Augustine, far greater, as a work, is the glory that Christ gave to God on our behalf in 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 thing in glorifying God than even the gifts it purchased for us, forgiveness of sin and Eternal Life?
There is always a danger here that we might view the death of Christ as simply the prelude to the gift of Eternal Life that it makes possible for us, that is purely or primarily in its reference to us. But to see it and value it in this context, simply or primarily as a prelude to the gift of Life, tends to reduce His death to a mere means to an end, something great surely, but yet secondary to its effect on us: the gift of Eternal Life. But Augustine says quite the opposite is true, that the greater thing, the greater reality here, is precisely that the act by which Christ gave His life for us is more importantly the act by which He, as man, as our Head, gives supreme glory to the Father, while meriting Life for us.
Augustine’s thesis that the glory of the death of Jesus is the greater reality, in fact, also begins to make sense if we recall another statement of Jesus Himself 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 glory of the death of Jesus is the greater reality because it is the greatest act of love in human history, the central act of human history in which God manifest his infinite love for us, and thus makes it possible for us to posses that Love and the Eternal Life of God, and simultaneously the greatest act of human love, the act of the new Head of the human race, in which God is glorified and man is redeemed.
This statement of Jesus about the “no greater love” is the starting point for understanding Augustine’s thesis that the greatest thing that ever happened in human history is the glorification of God in Christ’s death, which is at the same time the supreme manifestation of God’s love for mankind. This is what makes it possible for us to believe that the offer of Eternal Life is absolutely grounded in the Eternal Love that God has for us.
The problem we have as sinners comes down to this; how can we sinners firmly believe that God, who knows our sins, truly wants us to be saved more than we desire to be saved? The assuredness comes from this double truth, that 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, while we were his enemies, but the fact that this act of love by the Son of God and Son of Man glorified the Father in a supreme act of redemptive adoration.
Yes, we are all sinners because we are all children of Adam and in our own right as well. Yet Christ died for us, and did so as our friend, even while we were his enemies and, even more importantly He did so to give supreme glory to the Father. Thus, St. Paul says that this two fold love of Christ, which gives glory to the Father and wins redemption for us is the firm basis of our faith and hope. In the passion and death of Jesus, we see that God loves us with an everlasting love because God has gone to this extreme to manifest His love and His desire for our salvation, and Christ has gone to this extreme of showing His, and thus our, love of the Father and desire to give all glory to the Father:
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’s will was to deliver His only son for us, and this Son, innocent Lamb that he is, chooses to lay down his life for us, objectively His enemies, to show His eternal love for the Father and supremely glorify Him as man’s representative. 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 freely chooses to consider friends, I order to glorify God in saving us.
“No greater love,” indeed we might also rightly say “no greater glory,” that is what is manifested to us in the passion and death of Christ, the “no greater love” that is God’s and is the God-man’s. This is the greatest gift of God, the gift of His saving love, a gift which became incarnate in human flesh, and a gift which reached its most perfect and astounding manifestation in the act by which Christ lay down his life for us, as for his friends, in order to glorify the Father.