In a solemn liturgy that began with Pope Francis prostrating himself before the Cross, the Celebration of the Lord's Passion was held today in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica. Following tradition, the Good Friday homily was given by the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap. The Capuchin father's message is titled, "Justified as a gift through faith in the Blood of Christ".
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith in his blood. He did this to show his righteousness [...] to prove at the present time that he is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus”(Rom 3:23-26).
We have reached the summit of the Year of Faith and its decisive moment. This is the faith that saves, "faith that overcomes the world" (1 Jn 5:5)! Faith – the appropriation by which we make ours the salvation worked by Christ, by which we put on the mantle of his righteousness. On the one hand there is the outstretched hand of God offering man His grace; on the other hand, the hand of man reaching out to receive it through faith. The "new and everlasting Covenant" is sealed with a handclasp between God and man.
We have the opportunity to make, on this day, the most important decision of our lives, one that opens wide before us the doors of eternity: to believe! To believe that "Jesus died for our sins and rose again for our justification" (Rom 4:25)! In an Easter homily of the 4th century, the bishop pronounced these extraordinarily modern, and one could say existentialist, words: “For every man, the beginning of life is when Christ was immolated for him. However, Christ is immolated for him at the moment he recognizes the grace and becomes conscious of the life procured for him by that immolation” (The Paschal Homily of the Year 387 : SCh, 36 p. 59f.).
What an extraordinary thing! This Good Friday celebrated in the Year of Faith and in the presence of the new successor of Peter, could be, if we wish, the principle of a new kind of existence. Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, converted to Christianity as an adult, looking back on his past life, said, "before meeting you, I did not exist".
What is required is only that we do not hide from the presence of God, as Adam and Eve did after their sin, that we recognize our need to be justified; that we cannot justify ourselves. The publican of the parable came to the temple and made a short prayer: "O God, have mercy on me a sinner". And Jesus says that the man returned to his home "justified", that is, made right before him, forgiven, made a new creature, I think singing joyfully in his heart (Lk 18:14). What had he done that was so extraordinary? Nothing, he had put himself in the truth before God, and it is the only thing that God needs in order to act.
Like he who, in climbing a mountain wall, having overcome a dangerous step, stops for a moment to catch his breath and admire the new landscape that has opened up before him, so does the Apostle Paul at the beginning of Chapter 5 of the letter to the Romans, after having proclaimed justification by faith:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5: 1-5).
Today, from artificial satellites infrared photographs of whole regions of the Earth and of the whole planet are taken. How different the landscape looks when seen from up there, in the light of those rays, compared to what we see in natural light and from down here! I remember one of the first satellite pictures published in the world; it reproduced the entire Sinai Peninsula. The colors were different, the reliefs and depressions were more noticeable. It is a symbol. Even human life, seen in the infrared rays of faith, from atop Calvary, looks different from what you see "with the naked eye".
"The same fate”, said the wise man of the Old Testament, “comes to all, to the righteous and to the wicked...I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well"(Ecc 3:16; 9:2). And in fact at all times man has witnessed iniquity triumphant and innocence humiliated. But so that people do not believe that there is something fixed and sure in the world, behold, Bossuet notes, sometimes you see the opposite, namely, innocence on the throne and lawlessness on the scaffold. But what did Qoheleth conclude from all this? " I said in my heart: God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for everything" (Ecc 3:17). He found the vantage point that puts the soul in peace.
What Qoheleth could not know and that we do know is that this judgement has already happened: "Now”, Jesus says when beginning his passion, “is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself"(Jn 12:31-32).
In Christ dead and risen, the world has reached its final destination. Human progress is advancing today at a dizzying pace and humanity sees new and unexpected horizons unfolding before it, the result of its discoveries. Still, it can be said that the end of time has already come, because in Christ, who ascended to the right hand of the Father, humanity has reached its ultimate goal. The new heavens and new Earth have already begun.
Despite all the misery, injustice, the monstrosities present on Earth, he has already inaugurated the final order in the world. What we see with our own eyes may suggest otherwise, but in reality evil and death have been defeated forever. Their sources are dry; the reality is that Jesus is the Lord of the world. Evil has been radically defeated by redemption which he operated. The new world has already begun.
One thing above all appears different, seen with the eyes of faith: death! Christ entered death as we enter a dark prison; but he came out of it from the opposite wall. He did not return from whence he came, as Lazarus did who returned to life to die again. He has opened a breach towards life that no one can ever close, and through which everyone can follow him. Death is no longer a wall against which every human hope is shattered; it has become a bridge to eternity. A "bridge of sighs", perhaps because no one likes to die, but a bridge, no longer a bottomless pit that swallows everything. "Love is strong as death", says the song of songs (Sgs 8:6). In Christ it was stronger than death!
In his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People", the Venerable Bede tells how the Christian faith made its entrance into the North of England. When the missionaries from Rome arrived in Northumberland, the local King summoned a Council of dignitaries to decide whether to allow them, or not, to spread the new message. Some of those present were in favor, others against. It was winter and outside there was a blizzard, but the room was lit and warm. At one point a bird came from a hole in the wall, fluttered a bit, frightened, in the hall, and then disappeared through a hole in the opposite wall.
Then one of those present rose and said: "Sire, our life in this world resembles that bird. We come we know not from where, for a while we enjoy the light and warmth of this world and then we disappear back into the darkness, without knowing where we are going. If these men are capable of revealing to us something of the mystery of our lives, we must listen to them". The Christian faith could return on our continent and in the secularized world for the same reason it made its entrance: as the only message, that is, which has a sure answer to the great questions of life and death.
The cross separates unbelievers from believers, because for the ones it is scandal and madness, for the others is God's power and wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:23-24); but in a deeper sense it unites all men, believers and unbelievers. "Jesus had to die [...] not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God"(cf. Jn 11:51f). The new heavens and the new Earth belong to everyone and are for everyone, because Christ died for everyone.
The urgency that comes from all this is that of evangelizing: "The love of Christ urges us, at the thought that one has died for all" (2 Cor 5:14). It urges us to evangelize! Let us announce to the world the good news that "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the law of the spirit which gives life in Christ Jesus has delivered us from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:1-2).
There is a short story by Franz Kafka that is a powerful religious symbol and takes on a new meaning, almost prophetic, when heard on Good Friday. It's titled "An Imperial Message". It speaks of a king who, on his deathbed, calls to his side a subject and whispers a message into his ear. So important is that message that he makes the subject repeat it, in turn, into his hear. Then, with a nod, he sends off the messenger, who sets out on his way. But let us hear directly from the author the continuation of this story, characterized by the dreamlike and almost nightmarish tone typical of this writer:
"Now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng; if he encounters resistance he points to his breast, where the symbol of the sun glitters. But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fists on your door. But instead how vainly does he wear out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate—but never, never can that happen—the imperial capital would lie before him, the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself”.
From his deathbed, Christ also confided to his Church a message: "Go throughout the whole world, preach the good news to all creation" (MK 16:15). There are still many men who stand at the window and dream, without knowing it, of a message like his. John, whom we have just heard, says that the soldier pierced the side of Christ on the cross "so that the Scripture may be fulfilled which says 'they shall look on him whom they have pierced"(Jn 19:37). In the Apocalypse he adds: "Behold, he is coming on the clouds, and every eye will see him; they will see him even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the Earth will lament for him "(Rev 1:7).
This prophecy does not annouce the last coming of Christ, when it will no longer be the time of conversion, but of judgment. It describes the reality of the evangelization of the peoples. In it, a mysterious but real coming of the Lord occurs, which brings salvation to them. Theirs won't be a cry of despair, but of repentance and of consolation. This is the meaning of that prophetic passage of Scripture that John sees realized in the piercing of the side of Christ, and that is, the passage of Zechariah 12:10: "I will pour out on the House of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and consolation; they will look to me, to him whom they have pierced".
The evangelization has a mystical origin; it is a gift that comes from the cross of Christ, from that open side, from that blood and from that water. The love of Christ, like that of the Trinity of which it is the historical manifestation, is "diffusivum sui", it tends to expand and reach all creatures, "especially those most needy of thy mercy." Christian evangelization is not a conquest, not propaganda; it is the gift of God to the world in his Son Jesus. It is to give the Head the joy of feeling life flow from his heart towards his body, to the point of vivivfying its most distant limbs.
We must do everything possible so that the Church may never look like that complicated and cluttered castle described by Kafka, and the message may come out of it as free and joyous as when the messenger began his run. We know what the impediments are that can restrain the messenger: dividing walls, starting with those that separate the various Christian churches from one another, the excess of bureaucracy, the residue of past ceremonials, laws and disputes, now only debris.
In Revelation, Jesus says that He stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20). Sometimes, as noted by our Pope Francis, he does not knock to enter, but knocks from within to go out. To reach out to the "existential suburbs of sin, suffering, injustice, religious ignorance and indifference, and of all forms of misery."
As happens with certain old buildings. Over the centuries, to adapt to the needs of the moment, they become filled with partitions, staircases, rooms and closets. The time comes when we realize that all these adjustments no longer meet the current needs, but rather are an obstacle, so we must have the courage to knock them down and return the building to the simplicity and linearity of its origins. This was the mission that was received one day by a man who prayed before the Crucifix of San Damiano: "Go, Francis, and repair my Church".
"Who could ever be up to this task?" wondered aghast the Apostle before the superhuman task of being in the world "the fragrance of Christ"; and here is his reply, that still applies today: "We're not ourselves able to think something as if it came from us; our ability comes from God. He has made us to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; because the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life"(2 Cor 2:16; 3:5-6).
May the Holy Spirit, in this moment in which a new time is opening for the Church, full of hope, reawaken in men who are at the window the expectancy of the message, and in the messengers the will to make it reach them, even at the cost of their life.
Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring