The Word Embodied
In Human Likeness
“Into your hands.”
“I dread Good Friday this year.” It was an honest and simple statement from the gentle woman sitting before me recounting her faith’s journey. Yet she spoke not only for herself. She bore some weight we all carry when faced with the prospect of the Passion.
How like Jesus himself, I thought. He desired to eat the meal but dreaded the thought of drinking the cup. When the awful time came, he was as clear and straightforward as the reluctant woman who feared Good Friday: “Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” He tasted the anguish. He bled with worry.
But as Isaiah foretold, this God-with-us would not turn back. He remained unshielded before the siege of life and death. Face set like flint, he clung only to the one who sent him.
God, having made us in godly image, made God in Jesus the likeness of humankind. The incarnation and its inevitable result would be a great emptying out into us. It would be the second fall: the fall of God into our human estate, a sublime bankruptcy with no golden parachute.
It is our human circumstance, grand and grotesque, that is at issue in the Passion. Our predicament is the healing of the wounds without the cover of cosmetics. Our problem is the solving of sin without endless stratagems of denial. “Not guilty,” we all say, having taken the ploys of the courtroom as our method of life. We plea bargain our way through while the slaughter goes on. Lacerations we bear in quiet. Cruelties we have inflicted go unmentioned. Deprivations we share in common are unnoticed.
How could any human being ever live and escape the Passion? We would never rear children, never be born, never inhabit such a dear world fraught with peril, and we would probably never grow. Certainly we would never love. It is for that Virgil mourned the “tears of things.” Jesus said more: “Do not weep for me,” he advised the women of Jerusalem, “weep for yourselves and for your children.”
And so we do in our own passion. We weep for ourselves in abundance or deprivation. We weep for the children we never had and the children we have brought to birth. The tears are inescapable, no matter how hard we might try to pretend otherwise. No power of Pilate or pleasure of Herod can preserve us.
My friend who so dreaded Good Friday had it quite right. It is an inevitable, dreaded season of life. We die our thousand deaths. We pour out our hearts and tears for our young, mourn the lost beloved, the broken companion, the unraveling parent. We sweat the love and bleed the sorrow.
If only there were a way out.
But unexpectedly, wondrously, the one who need not have been like us, yet chose to be so, did not flee. He entered the garden of Gethsemane to rectify the garden of Eden. Not clinging to the robes of divinity he took the towel to wash our feet. And we, with Peter, might murmur, “not just our feet, Lord, but our whole being, our pains and terrors, our aging and fading, our agonies and death.”
CS Lewis wrote in his Poems that love was as warm as tears: unsettling, uninvited, cleansing, and comforting. It was fierce as fire, flickering with life, smoldering with rage, constant as some eternal flame. Love, too, was as fresh as spring, new and alive, daring and bold. But he ended this song of Love with the most telling stanza of all:
Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails.
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.
Perhaps it is that cross we dread. We’d rather go some day, bright, shining, and unstained, before the broken servant to thank him for his pains, not for us, but for all those others out there who needed it. We would manage our salvation by our efforts and achievements. “Thank you, but, all the same, I’d rather not need such terrible proof of love.”
But the dream of sinlessness sours to nightmare when we fail and fall. Having counted on flimsy virtue that cruelly betrays us, in our horror we conclude that we were not even worth the Passion and all is lost. The Pharisee who did not need salvation is joined by the failure who judges himself hopelessly beyond its power and grace.
Good Friday’s wood, on which hung the Savior of the world, remains waiting for our kiss. It bore the one who says to us, now and eternally, from the cross: “Yes, you needed this. And yes, you were worth it.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University