Let the Scriptures Speak
See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
On Holy Thursday we celebrated the gift of the Eucharist and the example of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. Now, on Good Friday, we gather to follow Jesus quietly into the mystery of his passion and death. We are doing three simple things: First, we participate in a Service of the Word, listening to readings and then reach out to the rest of the world in ten solemn intercessions. Second, we get up and move to the baptismal font to reverence the cross of Jesus with a wooden replica. Third, we have a communion service linking ourselves to yesterday’s full Eucharistic celebration, as we move into the empty waiting time of Holy Saturday.
That Passion account John is unique among the Gospel accounts of a number of ways. So let me play the Bible teacher that I am. When John tells about the arrest in Gethsemane, where Mark and Matthew focus on the human vulnerability and struggling prayer of Jesus as he lies prostrate on the cold ground, John chooses to stress Jesus’ divinity—without forgetting his humanity. Knowing that Jesus is no helpless victim but that he moves into his Passion as a free and deliberate choice, he portrays Jesus as fully in charge. In this gospel, it is the soldiers who fall to the ground, and Judas is sidelined as Jesus takes the initiative and identifies himself to the posse with the divine name I am. He could easily have disappeared into the festival crowds swelling the streets of Jerusalem and escaped over the hill into the Wilderness; but John would have us marvel at Jesus’ free decision to step forward into the worst that we human beings have to offer by way of rejection, betrayal, denial, mockery and abandonment.
If there is some confusion about who is the high priest in this narrative—Annas or Caiaphas—that only points to the reality that the real high priest in this situation is Jesus. Like the author to the Hebrews, John the evangelist knows that humanly speaking Jesus is a layman and no temple priest. Yet as the eternal Word made flesh Jesus fulfills supremely the function of the high priest as the perfect mediator between the divine and the human. Now, entering into the darkness of humanity gone wrong, his solidarity with suffering humanity becomes complete.
The interview with Governor Pilate also about identity—and who is who. Pilate thinks he holds the ultimate power in this encounter; Jesus reminds him that power and authority come “from above.” During that interrogation, when one of the two is said to sit on the judge’s bench, the original text is not clear about exactly who that is, which is John’s way of raising another question: who, really, is the judge here. It is Jesus, of course. And when the soldiers mock Jesus as king and Pilate writes on the crime tablet “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews,” we know that what is said in mockery is in fact the gospel truth. Jesus, not Caesar, is truly the king—and not just of the Judeans but king of everyone. When John had recorded earlier in his gospel that Caiaphas had said, “It is better for you that one man should die instead of the people so that the whole nation may not perish,” John commented, “He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was indeed going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation but also “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (Jn 11:49-52).
When John says that Jesus was carrying the cross by himself, this was not to slight the significant role of Simon of Cyrene, shanghaied by the Romans to aid Jesus, who was now weakened from the scourging. Once again John highlights the reality that Jesus takes up the cross freely, not as passive victim. And the whole point of carrying the crosspiece in this form of Roman capital punishment was not the pain; it was shame. Romans always made a point of making the criminal carry the crosspiece through the streets so that he could be denigrated and dishonored with insults and spit so as to pump up the deterrent value of this kind of execution. Dead man walking!
When John tells about Jesus speaking those special words to his mother and the beloved disciple, “Woman, behold your son,” and “Behold your mother,” and shortly thereafter, that he “handed over the Spirit,” he is not just showing how Jesus takes care of his mom. In this moment we witness the beginnings of the church, where those who follow Jesus discover to their amazement that they are “brother and sister and mother to Jesus”—and to one another.
When John says with great insistence that blood and water begin to flow from Jesus’ side, this is no mere clinical note. For John, the water recalls the prophecy of Zechariah that linked the piercing of an only son with the outpouring of a spirit of grace (Zech 12:10). What’s more, the flow recalled that Jesus had spoken of his body as a temple and that Ezekiel foresaw a time when waters would flow from the side of the temple of God into the desert and turn the Dead Sea into living water. John cannot speak of the death of Jesus without alluding to the whole promise of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the church as new temple and body of Christ continuing his mission. Brother John the Evangelist knows how this all turns out. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea haven’t a clue, but they step forward to do the right thing. While Jesus’ immediate disciples are hiding behind locked doors, frightened that they might be next, Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple because of his own fears, and Nicodemus, the fearful Pharisee who visited with Jesus under cover of night, come out of their closets to give Jesus a proper burial. Their best hope, no doubt is that Jesus’ body might rest in dignity on the stone shelf of the tomb until the flesh decays and the bones are finally gathered into one of those stone bone boxes fashionable in Jerusalem in those days.
Like John, we too know better. But like Nicodemus and Joseph, this evening we will step forward and own our own relationship to the crucified one by reverencing the replica of the cross. If we wonder how to think about what we do, we can take a cue from St. Ignatius. Already in the first week of his Spiritual Exercises, he writes for the retreatant: “Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins? In a similar way, reflect on yourself and ask, ‘What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?’” (Sp Ex #53). We can do that. But first, like the arms of the crucified one, let us reach out in prayer for the whole church, and for everyone else in the human family now living on this fragile, lovely, lively, sin-filled, and suffering planet.
We were indeed buried with him
through baptism into death, so that,
just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life. (Rom 6:4)
All Those Vigil Readings
The center of gravity in the liturgical celebration of Easter is the Vigil. In the darkness of night, we begin a celebration that launches the seven Sundays of Easter (note, not seven Sundays after Easter). Since nine readings are assigned for the Easter Vigil, eight of them followed by responsorial psalms, we do well to prepare for that celebration by reflecting on how that rich anthology hangs together.
We hear this reading right after dispersing the darkness with the Easter fire, the lighting of the paschal candle and the proclamation of Christ as the light of the world. However we understand the origin and development of the cosmos scientifically, the poetry of Genesis 1 expresses powerfully our faith that it is the God of Israel who ordered chaos, brought light into darkness, introduced life into an inanimate cosmos, and made a watery planet humanly habitable. That same Creator finally introduced the eternal Word made flesh as the ultimate light of the world to address the darkness of human sinfulness. Fire and water come into play in the sacrament that celebrates our participation in that victory.
The promise that Abraham will become the ancestor of a great people who will be a blessing to all the nations—that promise rides on Isaac, and Abraham is asked by the Promisor to sacrifice his only son. This classic and scandalous account speaks to our celebration in at least two ways. Abraham's readiness to let go of everything mirrors the divine outpouring manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”) It also foreshadows the paradox at the heart of Jesus' teaching: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel, will save it.”
This account of the liberation of Israel from slavery through the sea is the key narrative of Israel's experience of divine redemption. The biblical authors describe the moment as a new creation. As in Genesis 1, the God of wind and water orders chaos by separating water in making dry land. In this, God is victorious over that violator of created order, the Pharaoh. Thus early Christian writers, and we, use this narrative to reflect on the new creation of baptism.
This passage from Second Isaiah was first preached to the Judean exiles in Babylon. The prophet proclaims the end of exile and return to the homeland as a renewal of the covenant of peace renewed with Noah after the flood (Gen 9). The end of exile is such a fresh start that the prophet can speak of it as a new creation. For us gathered around the light of Christ, baptism into the body of Christ is also an end to exile, a renewal of creation.
The exiles were invited to a conversion that would lead to participation in the covenant promised to David and to a leadership role among the nations. Similarly, our baptism was a covenant renewal, not only for our benefit but for the sake of the rest of the world. Our renewal calls us to share in Jesus' Jewish mission to be a light to the nations.
Baruch 3:9-15, 32; 4:4
A second-century B.C.E. author writing in the person of Jeremiah's secretary, Baruch, makes a parallel between his situ¬ation and that of the exiles some four centuries earlier: the people are still in a kind of spiritual exile and need to attend to God's wisdom expressed in the Torah. Christians have long applied these words to our situation. For us, wisdom “has appeared on earth and moved among people” in Jesus.
Here another exilic prophet speaks of God's plan to restore and renew Israel. The language of cleansing with water and giving a new heart and a new spirit was ready-made for Christian application to the new life found in the body of Christ.
Paul's reflection on baptism as dying and rising to new life names the event to which all the readings have been pointing.
Matthew's account of the women's discovery of the empty tomb and their commissioning by the risen Lord sounds the full note of Easter joy, peace, and mission that captures for us the new thing that the Creator has been doing for the past two millennia.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University