Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday Homily

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City stands directly across from Rockefeller Center. At the entrance to Rockefeller Center there’s a huge sculpture of the Greek god Atlas holding up the world. On Good Friday, when the doors of the cathedral are opened, persons on the street can see the cross inside the church. So if you turn in one direction, you see Atlas holding up the world, and if you turn in the other direction, you see Jesus broken by the world. Commenting on this contrast, one writer asks: “Which image speaks the truth? Is the world upheld by our godlike strength or by the crucified love of God? Upon that decision everything, simply everything, turns.”[1]

The faith we enact in the Good Friday liturgy claims that the world is, indeed, upheld by the crucified love of God. That’s a bold claim to make, for it often appears that nothing could be farther from the truth. Wars, disease, lies, the death of the innocent, manipulation and coercion, the gulf between rich and poor, the domination of the weak by the strong – isn’t this the stuff that makes the world tick? Isn’t it unrealistic and perhaps even dangerously naïve to believe otherwise? Aren’t the Pilates of this world right in the end?

In response to those kinds of questions, John’s Gospel gives an emphatic “No!” For in the aftermath of the collision between the kingdom of Pilate and the kingdom of Jesus Christ, something startlingly unexpected happens. It appears that Pilate’s power crushes the defenseless Jesus, casting him aside as yet another failed upstart. But appearances are deceiving. For in reality, the crucifixion of Jesus is the exaltation of Jesus.

In Jesus Christ lifted high upon the cross, things which were cast down are being raised up. The first are now last and the last are now first. God's kingdom is not far off in some distant, irrelevant heaven, but is coming on earth. And not even death itself can stop it.

This is central to the meaning of our Lord’s dying words when he says, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).

“It is finished.” This means more than, “It’s over.” It’s more than saying, “Jesus is no longer suffering,” or, “Jesus is now dead.” In John’s Gospel the words “It is finished” mean something deeper and more profound. They mean: “It is consummated, fulfilled, [and] brought to perfection”; and applied to Jesus, these words signify “a life brought to completion.”[2]

Lifted high upon the cross, Jesus completes his mission, the purpose for which God consecrated him and sent him into the world. On the cross, he who knew no sin became sin for our sakes (2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross, Jesus fulfils God’s determination to do something decisive about sin, evil, and death. On the cross, Jesus takes human suffering and death into the heart of God’s life for healing and transformation. On the cross, Jesus throws the Pilates of this world out of office and crushes Satan under his feet. On the cross, Jesus rises above the world to reign as the true Lord of the world.

“It is finished.”

“For this I was born,” Jesus tells Pilate, “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn. 18:37). The truth to which Jesus testifies is God’s truth. And God’s truth stands the “truth” of the world – a “truth” which relies for its justification on manipulation, coercion, violence, and the domination of the poor and powerless by the rich and the ruthless – on its head. For God’s truth expresses itself as crucified love. And on Good Friday, crucified love prevails.

My friends, it is finished. It is complete. The victory has been won. The Good Friday paradox is that Jesus’ moment of humiliation is the moment of his exaltation. The apparent defeat of the cross is the moment of God’s triumph over sin, evil, death, and decay. By the power of God, an instrument of shameful death becomes for us the means of abundant and eternal life.

And so we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.


[1] Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic Books, 2000), p. 203.

[2] Ibid., p. 187.

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