THE CONUNDRUM OF THE CROSS
N.B. I DUG UP MY FILES AND NOTICED A REFLECTION I WROTE YET IN 2007 WHICH I HAD NOT ACTUALLY POSTED IN THIS BLOG. HERE, THEN, IS AN ALTERNATIVE REFLECTION FOR TODAY
Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
April 6, 2007
Readings: Is 52:13 – 53:12 / Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9 / Jn 18:1 – 19:42
THE CONUNDRUM OF THE CROSS
The serene and joyful silence that ended our celebration last night after the Lord’s Supper extends to today, broken only by the sedate and simple recitation of the Morning Prayers. Our afternoon liturgy timed more or less on the hour of the passion and death of the Lord on the cross begins with utter silence with the celebrant prostrating before the bare altar, stripped of all the usual paraphernalia attached to it. The bells are silent. The majestic music of the liturgy gives way to unaccompanied somber songs that smack of simple joy, and silent rejoicing.
Silent joy and rejoicing on Good Friday? Are we in our right frames of mind? Do we get the readings right? If Good Friday liturgy were a passion or a morality play (called a Cenaculo in Philippine popular culture of yore), wherein the focus is on historical reconstruction, then joy and rejoicing have no place in the liturgy of this afternoon. But as I have made clear in yesterday’s reflection, our task in the Catholic liturgy is not to stage a shallow historical reconstruction. Our task is to re-actualize, to make present, make active, and make alive once more an event that transcends our common past, present, and future in God. Liturgy is a celebration of faith as a people, not a gathering around a historical monument that is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
This afternoon, we gather around the cross. The central focus of our celebration, not a gathering in grief, but a grateful convocation of believers, is none other than the cross. But this cross around which our celebration revolves is not one to be likened unto the monument built in honor of our national hero. Nor is this cross to be reduced to an artifact of history that merits a symposium of sorts to keep the same alive in people’s memories.
Quiet glory, not glaring grief, is what gathers us together in this celebration. We have not come here to attend a funeral wake of the Lord. Our focus in not on the corpse of the Lord, but on the cross of the Lord … Yes … the cross with all its contradictions … the cross with all its initial confusion … the cross with all its questions and conundrums.
If there is anything in our human history and faith history that disturbs and confuses, I must say it is the idea of the cross that looms large in the tapestry of our faith. Our biological and natural selves are automatically programmed against pain and suffering. We cringe and twinge when the slightest sign of pain attacks us. We naturally run away from people and things that make us miserable. We simply do not want to suffer. The Cross is not, was never, and will never be associated with anything pleasant. In fact, it was associated with one of the world’s most cruel and most painful mode of capital punishment ever invented by sinful man.
The cross is a conundrum. But it is so and will remain so, if and only if, this liturgy were just a shallow historical reconstruction … if this were an Obberammergau play, or a “Cenaculo” passion play of Philippine folk culture of yore.
But we people of faith, we people of the memorial, are a people with a story. We have a big narrative – in fact, a meta-narrative – that looms large in our story that is linked right from the start with God’s own story. His story has become our own history. And this history is what we now re-actualize, re-live, and make present and alive in our official act of recounting of that same story in liturgical celebration.
Allow me to recount to you the story that unfolds for us from the readings. First, Isaiah recounts to us the afflictions of a just and righteous man (Is 53:1-11b). This account flies in the face of the commonly held belief then that suffering is brought about by one’s personal sin. Isaiah takes pains to tell us that from this just man’s humiliation arose his own exaltation, and that it was precisely in his humiliation that he is exalted.
The Letter writer to the Hebrews develops the idea of Jesus as High Priest who intercedes for us. But such a lofty and noble state was reached only because Jesus took on human flesh and so took on our human limitations and weaknesses as well (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9).
The Passion narrative of St. John tells us three things: first, Jesus’ arrest; second, the examination made by the high priest; and third, his trial before Pilate. But what surfaces in the account is that throughout the ordeal, Jesus is shown to be in total control of the events that eventually culminate in his death. His sovereignty triumphed even in the heights of adversity. The lower they went in bringing a good man down, the higher Jesus rose in the estimation and glory of God and man.
The cross with all its initial confusions and questionings, strikes me very personally at this time of my life. Pain, particularly the inflicted and undeserved kind, makes one come face-to-face with one’s own understanding and appropriation of the Cross of the Lord. Good Friday is more than just a story for me this year. It is real … as real as the prayer of the Lord in Gethsemani who begged his Father: “If possible take this cup away from me … but not my will but yours be done.”
I am blessed by the good Lord to be preaching a retreat at this time of year to a sisters’ congregation (Hospitaller Sisters of the Sacred Heart) co-founded by a very human saint, human in his pain, human in the undeserved pain inflicted by others who ought to have been the last persons to be causing him such untold suffering in life – St. Benedict Menni, who died in 1914 and canonized only in 1999. His story, like the very story of Christ Himself, speaks to me in a very special way. As his Italian biographer nicely puts it, he was “K.O in terra; O.K in cielo” (Knocked out while on earth, but OK in heaven). Like the suffering servant in Isaiah, he went through so much suffering, most of it undeserved.
But I am forgetting the real focus of our story today – the Cross – with all its conundrum and contradictions. Yes … this is the only time in the whole liturgical year when we venerate the cross. And why not? For it has become not a sign of death, but of good news – of life, of hope, and the guarantee of eternal life. This is the reason why the veneration of the cross is the summit of today’s liturgy. It expresses the Church’s faith in Christ who, by embracing it, turned what once was a symbol of and tool for a torturous and shameful death into an instrument that wrought redemption and stood for God’s boundless love. Indeed, as we acclaim today, “in the cross is salvation; in the cross is hope; in the cross is victory.”
St. Benedict Menni Formation Center
Pasig City, April 2, 2007