Good Friday 2017
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)
The great Father of the Church, St. Augustine, commenting upon this text from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, states unequivocally that by virtue of Christ’s passion and death, which we commemorate in a special way on this holy day, we have much greater basis for our hope for glory than from all His other promises. Augustine 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)
As great a gift as Eternal Life is for us, even greater, far greater according to the great teacher Augustine, is the gift Christ made to us and for us in His death. These are words worth pondering on Good Friday, and throughout our life as well. What does Augustine mean by this greater gift of his death, far greater than even the gift of His Life to us? It is natural that we should look at the death of Christ as simply the prelude to the greater gift of His Life to us, which tends to reduce the death to a mere means to an end, something great in itself but secondary to the greater gift of Life. But Augustine says quite the opposite is true, that the greater thing, the greater gift is the very act of love by which Christ gave His life for us, that is, His death, and not simply the result of that gift which is the gift of His life to us.
Augustine’s thesis, in fact, recalls for us a 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)
This teaching of Jesus applies in general to mankind, that the greatest act of love is to lay down one’s life for the sake of one’s friends. Only a total cynic could doubt the truth of this, that man’s greatest act of love is to sacrifice a great good for the sake of another, and what greater good do we possess as men than our own life? This teaching is the starting point for understanding Augustine’s thesis that the greatest gift that ever was given to mankind was the gift of Christ’s death, and this is true not just because his death resulted in the gift of Eternal life to us, as great as that gift is, but simply taken in itself, the death of Jesus was the greatest gift because it manifested His tremendous Love for us.
Notice that Jesus says there is no greater love than to die for one’s friends, and Augustine comments, yes, but … “Where were the sinners, what were they, when Christ died for them?”
This is where we must begin to understand the greatness of the gift o Goof Friday, His death for Love of us. We are all sinners, because we are all children of Adam, and we are all sinners in our own right as well, and yet Christ died for us, and He did so out of His love for us by which He considered us His friends even while we were in fact his enemies, as St. Paul says in that same Letter to the Romans: “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 all God’s enemies as a result of Original Sin, and our own personal sins as well, which He foresaw even then, and yet God chose to look upon us not as His enemies but as friends. Moreover, God, out of Love, chose to deliver His only begotten Son for us, and this Son, innocent Lamb that He is, out of that same Love chose to lay down his life for us whom he also chooses to consider as His friends even when objectively we were His enemies. If it is true that no greater love is there than a man lay down his life for his friends, what kind of love is this that is manifested before all of creation when God’s only Son chooses to lay down His life for his enemies, whom He chooses to consider His friends, and whose death will in fact make many to be His friends as a result of this gift. Before we ever received Eternal Life, we were already the object of His love, called to be His friends.
“No greater Love,” that is what is manifested to us in the death of Christ, the “no greater Love” that belongs intrinsically to God, and which is made a gift to us in the Only Begotten, who not only lowers himself to become a man, but even chooses to lay down his life for us when were his enemies, because He consider us, and then made us, his friends. This is the greatest gift of God, the gift of His Eternal Love, which is the source and essence of His Eternal Life. It is this Life and Love which became incarnate in human flesh, and which reaches it’s most perfect and astounding manifestation in the act in which Christ laid down his human life for us, as for his friends, so we might share His Life and Love.
We know from revelation that God fully intended and promised from the beginning, from the very moment of man’s tragic rebellion against his Love, to restore man to his friendship, to raise mankind from the death caused by Adam’s rebellion and restore him to the prospect of Eternal Life. It was not absolutely necessary that God should become man in order to accomplish these intentions and promises. It could all have been accomplished in some other way since God is truly all-powerful. Nor was it necessitated by some eternal law that God should die for man in the flesh, for His plan could have been accomplished in another way, had God so chosen.
But then we must ask, why this way, why this horrible way of the passion and death? All we can say is that it has to do with Love, divine Love, that is, with the absolutely “no greater Love” that is manifested to us in the Incarnation and even more astonishingly in the death of God made man, undergone for us, for His enemies who He considered to be his true friends. In this way, God chose to manifest firstly what was truly behind the plan of redemption itself, that is, the divine Love in all its splendor, and, secondly, exactly what it is that constitutes the Eternal Life he won for us by the redemption, i.e, the same divine Love which is in fact the very Life of God, and Eternal Life for us men.
And there is one more consideration here. We poor mortals, being weighed down by our sins would not be capable of easily embracing the gift of Life from God, unless we were drawn to Christ and His gift by some proportionate means. The “no greater love” of the Cross is also that very means, over and above the desire for immortality which it makes possible for us to open our selves to the gift. The “no greater Love” manifested on the Cross is itself precisely what draws man to Christ by his heart strings, as Christ Himself foretold, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” (Jn. 12:32)
By God’s own design, then, human love is rarely if ever so completely dead in the human heart, by virtue of sin, that it cannot be appealed to by the “no greater Love” in which Christ lays down His human life for the sinner, as for a friend. If one but recognizes that gift of love in Christ on the Cross, it will draw his human heart to accept the other gift which in the end is love.
So, as Augustine said so long ago, what can man not hope for once he believes in the Love that is manifested on the Cross, the Love that is in fact the “no Greater Love,” the very Life promised to man by God. That is St. Paul’s teaching, St. Augustine’s teaching, the teaching of the Gospels. No greater love than this, the Love by which we sinners have all been redeemed.