Good Friday – 2021
April 2, 2021
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne
Today, Good Friday, the Church commemorates with deep spiritual union the death of the Son of God on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus changed human life and history forever. The Latin word for cross is crux. The crucifixion of Jesus is the very crux of Christianity. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “You will not be able rationally to read the Gospel and regard the crucifixion as an afterthought or an anti-climax or an accident in the life of Christ; it is obviously the point of the story.”
For many In our secular society today, today is no different than any other day. Many may note – yes, today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death, but that’s about it. I’ve noticed throughout my life a progressive decline in a serious observance of Good Friday. When I was a child, stores were closed, churches were full, we really fasted, not just from food, but even from speech. The three hours from noon to 3 p.m. — was a solemn time – we kept silence. We spent many hours in church. This was common. We attended the Good Friday liturgy to venerate the cross. We attended the Stations of the Cross.
The crucifixion of Jesus is not something incidental to our faith. The crucified Jesus is at the heart of our faith. There is no Gospel without the crucifixion. One cannot fully celebrate Easter, the Resurrection, unless one has first entered into the mystery of Good Friday.
And so we are here in the cathedral this afternoon. We have attentively listened to St. John’s account of the Passion and death of Jesus. The ancient Roman orator Cicero called crucifixion “the most horrendous torture.” And so it was. But the Gospel account of Jesus’ Passion and Death is not merely the account of a terrible execution. The crucifixion of Jesus was very different from any other Roman execution or any other execution for that matter. First of all, the one executed was not just any man – He was the Son of God. He didn’t have to die that way. In fact, He didn’t have to die at all. His execution was, most importantly, a sacrifice, a sacrifice that He freely offered. His was the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Another reason Jesus’ crucifixion was unlike other executions: His crucifixion was not His defeat. It was the defeat of Satan. And the story does not end with the body of Jesus laying in a tomb. It ends with an empty tomb.
St. John’s account of the Passion emphasizes that Jesus was in complete control over the events of His Passion. Jesus is the Son of God. He has divine power. The events of His Passion happen because He allowed them to happen. St. John underscores the freedom with which Jesus went to the Passion. Our Lord had earlier said in the Gospel: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again” (John 10:18). Jesus freely went to the cross and offered His life in sacrifice as a perfect gift of love, given to the Father for the world’s salvation, for our salvation. In doing so, Jesus reveals the revelation of the infinite depths of the Father’s love and mercy toward us sinners. So what some may see as a mere execution, we see, with the eyes of faith, as the greatest act of love that no one could ever have ever imagined: God Himself descending to the very depths of human suffering and experiencing our deepest pain in every possible respect: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and existential. He embraced our deepest sorrows: failure, loss, betrayal, abandonment; and our deepest fear and final enemy – death. Jesus was lifted high on the cross in order to descend to the abyss of our suffering. And what did His Passion and Death accomplish? What did His sacrifice of love do? It redeemed and transformed us. Jesus atoned for our sins and reconciled us to God, restoring us to communion with Him. As the letter to the Hebrews says: His sacrifice is “the source of eternal salvation.”
Every Catholic Church displays the crucifix. And most Catholic homes display the crucifix. You may have heard a common Protestant critique of Catholics for displaying the crucifix: that we keep Christ on the cross, thus drawing attention away from the fact that Christ rose from the dead. A Dominican priest had an evangelical friend who suffered a lot in his life. He told the priest that he enjoys going to his church for the lively praise music, the incredible fellowship and many activities. But he also said to the priest that when he is struggling and hurting, he’ll visit a Catholic church and gaze on the crucifix. He said that looking at a crucifix, rather than a plain cross, gives him great comfort since it shows him how much God loves him.
When I was Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, I would regularly celebrate Sunday Mass a few miles away at Camp David, the presidential retreat. George W. Bush was president. He and Laura would spend many weekends there and they would attend the Protestant service after the Catholic Mass was over. We had Mass there because several members of the Navy and Marines who guarded Camp David were Catholic. Also, several of President Bush’s friends were Catholic and would come to Mass when they were guests at Camp David. I’ll never forget one Good Friday when I celebrated this liturgy of the Passion at Camp David. It was a little long, so the President and First Lady were waiting for us to end so the minister could begin the Protestant service. When I finished, the Protestant chaplain invited me to stay for their service, so I did, sitting in the pew behind President and Mrs. Bush. In that chapel at Camp David, there was a cross which on one side was the bare cross and on the other side a crucifix, a cross with the corpus, the body of Jesus. During Mass, the crucifix would face the people. After Mass, it was turned around to the bare cross for the Protestant service. On that Good Friday, as usual, the crucifix was turned around after the Catholic liturgy, so the plain cross was in view for the Protestant service. Well, during his sermon, the minister looked at President Bush and asked him, do you mind if today we turn the cross around and look at the crucifix like the Catholics do? The President turned around and looked at me with a smile and a thumbs up. The minister went on to say that on Good Friday, he wanted everyone to look at the crucifix to appreciate better what Jesus suffered and to contemplate more viscerally the reality of God’s love for us.
The oldest item in this cathedral is the crucifix behind me. It came from the first Catholic church in Fort Wayne, the wood-frame St. Augustine’s church, that stood on this very site before our cathedral was built. The first Catholics here in Fort Wayne prayed before this crucifix and contemplated God’s love. We do the same.
In our lives, we all encounter suffering. It may be physical. It may be emotional or psychological. It may be spiritual. Jesus endured it all, not because He had to, but because He wanted to – for us and our salvation. When we suffer, it may be difficult to think straight or to understand why. We might even feel abandoned. At such times, the saints teach us to gaze upon the crucifix. Like that evangelical Christian I mentioned who would visit a Catholic church when he was hurting and he would feel God’s love and comfort when he prayed before the crucifix, we too can experience that comfort and receive the strength to persevere in hope. Even more, when we look at the crucifix, we should remember that Our Lord invites us to offer our sufferings in union with His. Our suffering then acquires a new meaning as a participation in the saving work of Jesus, in His redemptive Passion. Thus it becomes a way for us to grow in holiness, a sacrifice of love for the sake of others.
When we meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus and when we gaze on the crucifix, we do not merely see a horrible execution, the end of a life or a defeat. We see a sacrifice of love and the victory of that love. We see the cross not as a sign of a curse or of death. We see the cross as the tree of life. Jesus transformed that symbol of torture and death into the instrument of our redemption. When we look at the crucifix, we also gaze upon the face of Jesus and, in His holy face, we see the face of the Father. We see the true greatness of God. We see His glory. We see the truth that truly “God is love.”
In this liturgy, we will adore the holy cross. It is a sign of hope for us because ultimately it is a sign of victory, the victory made manifest when the Father raised Jesus from the dead. Because of the Resurrection, the cross can no longer be separated from glory and the crucified Christ cannot be separated from the Risen Christ. Jesus is always our Crucified and Risen Lord.
Today, let us pray with special devotion the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.”