It may be a singular Catholic devotion to contemplate deeply and often the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. These days, not even many Catholics want to keep Christ company in such a manner. Human nature begs us to move on to the glory and comfort of the Resurrection. Why stay in the ignominy and suffering of the cross when you can bask in the light and promise of Easter?
Because upon the cross hangs Extreme Love and there is nowhere else to experience such a love as this.
Real life has so much to do with the Cross of Christ. Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect because it encompasses all of the common and uncommon crosses of the human experience: betrayal, despair, physical pain, poverty, fear, abuse, rejection, seeming failure, loss, death.
On Good Friday all of the suffering that afflicts the world is addressed in an act of Extreme Love by the only person Who can effectively reconcile death with life, and sin with salvation. As Jesus hangs in love upon the cross, He answers every hard question that has ever plagued us: Why do the innocent suffer? What is the purpose of death? What will be my own end?
We can only grasp a small part of the explanation Christ offers, as we gaze at Him in His willing agony. With the crucifixion we have arrived at the painful apex of God’s mysteries, and it confuses and repels us. “If you don’t like mysteries, stay away from Christianity,” says Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR. We know love is there, dying on the cross, but we can’t understand the mystery of its presence.
We’re taught by Jesus that God’s purpose is to die, so that mankind can be raised to new life. Our response to love must be love. “Love is repaid by love alone,” wrote St. Therese of Lisieux. We demonstrate our great love for God by doing the work of God—dying to ourselves and rising to Him, conforming ourselves so completely to Christ that we cooperate in His work of salvation.
Returning love, when it comes in such a form as crucifixion, is a challenge that requires grace, the type of grace that comes from prayer and meditation before the very scene we would rather flee. How can such a grotesque scene of suffering, contain the beauty of love? How can such violence be so healing? How can such a death be life-giving?
It is because Jesus Christ is both human and divine. He is God and He is man. God accomplishes this act of extreme love through the supernatural dualism of His Son. This revelation of His nature rejects the secular myth that portrays Jesus as no more than a likeable, historic figure who preached charitable love. As Fr. Angelus Shaughnessy, OFM Cap, has said, “He couldn’t have been just a nice guy. He is either the Son of God, as He said He was, or the biggest liar in the history of the world.”
More than telling the truth, Jesus was the Truth. His Humanity made the crucifixion possible. His Divinity made the crucifixion purposeful.
Additionally, we must regain the lost meaning and understand the necessity of sacrifice. To the ancient Hebrews, and to the Jews of Jesus’ time, the need for sacrifice was woven into their existence. Even a Jewish child could tell you what a sacrifice was, and why it was necessary to make right with God what men and women had perverted through sin.
This strikes directly at our attitude about sin. A society that denies sin can’t understand sacrifice because without sin there is no reason for sacrifice. Further, without sacrifice there can be no love, no matter how hard we try to capture it.
Anyone being remotely truthful must admit that things are not right in the world. Even outside of a religious perspective, people understand that suffering exists because of selfishness and injustice. They know that these bad things are definable and have damaged our ability to be humane to one another. They also know that someone needs to make what is wrong, right again.
“Something must be done. Otherwise we live in a world without moral meaning,” states Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, in his seminal book, Death on a Friday Afternoon . “Forgiveness costs—it must cost—or else the trespass does not matter.”
Someone needs to make a sacrifice, to pay a price, to “make good” on all the bad things. This enormous sacrifice must also be undertaken by someone who is above the fray, someone whose sense of justice is unmarred by his own sin. It must be made by God Himself.
“The Father and Son have colluded on a thing most astonishing,” wrote Fr. Neuhaus. “The perfect self-surrender of the cross is, from eternity to eternity, at the heart of what it means to say God is Love.”
Love hangs on the cross silently teaching us that the sacrifice above all sacrifices has been made perfectly. Jesus calls us to stay near, to listen, and to witness His transformation of our sins into forgiveness.
Challenging us to understand Who is on the cross, and why a such a sacrifice is necessary, the crucifixion also calls upon us to accept death itself. This is the final hurdle between us and the Cross of Christ. If the horror of the passion and crucifixion isn’t enough to make us turn away, the reality of death will. It may be mystifying to contemplate our existence, but it can be despairing to consider the end of that existence. “One can no more look steadily at death than at the sun,” said the 17th century writer and moralist Francois de La Rochefoucauld. Yet it may be said we spend our lives in a state of dying, being propelled towards the unknown chasm.
By the merits of Jesus’ crucifixion, we know that on the other side of the chasm of death is infinite life. Beyond the pain is joy. Christ urges us to look death in the face, to look Him in the face on the cross, and be not afraid as He goes before us always, transforming death itself into life.
“Man calls in despair, ‘Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.’ And the Cry answers, ‘I AM BEYOND. Stand up!’" These words, written by the Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, describe man’s fear in following God into the jaws of death, and the Father’s promise that He awaits us in eternity.
This Good Friday, stay with Jesus through His agony and suffering. Be a silent witness to the Extreme Love Who singles you out to be His companion through the long hours of death. While the world still mocks Him, be a faithful friend and believer who remains in the moment, bitter as it is, and is not tempted to rush on to the thrill of Easter. Gaze at His Extreme Love and make some small return.There He hangs—pale figure pinned against the wood. God grant that I could love Him as I really know I should. I draw a little closer to share that Love divine and almost hear Him whisper “Ah, foolish child of Mine! If I should now embrace you, My hands would stain you red. And if I leaned to whisper, the Thorns would pierce your head." Then I knew in silence that love demands a price ‘Twas then I learned that suffering is but the Kiss of Christ.
(“Poem to Christ Crucified” by Caryll Houselander)