I offer you two things to consider this Good Friday afternoon as we gather prayerfully to recall Jesus, the innocent One, crucified on Calvary's hill.
The first is the universal but uncomfortable reality of death. From the moment we take our first breath outside our mothers' wombs, we've already begun the countdown to dying. At the age of 82, my own death is never far from my mind. Here is a photo of our ordination class hanging in my study at home. There were 36 of us ordained that year! We spent twelve years together in close quarters. We studied Scripture and theology at the seminary of St. Mary of the Lake at Mundelein, Illinois. We shared our hopes and our plans for the future. We developed friendships – some of which have lasted almost 70 years. Our class had two priests who later became bishops – one of Alexandria, Virginia, another who headed Catholic Charities in Chicago; they're both dead now. Two became missionaries in foreign lands. Two others who worked in church diplomacy. Three served as Navy chaplains and another was the personal secretary to the Cardinal archbishop in Chicago. This past week I counted the number of my classmates in this photo who have died to discover there were more deceased than alive. Death is a reality of life!
Then, here at our relatively small faith community of Jesus Our Shepherd, there are now 21 deceased members. They live anew in the company of saints to whom and for whom we pray. These are people who sang and worshiped at our side over the past 15 years, people who spoke and laughed with us at fellowship, who faced suffering and ultimately death, oftentimes with an unusual dignity and courage. Each of the 21 has taught us something of value about living and about dying. Yes, death is a reality of life!
The second thing to consider is the event that brings us together this Good Friday afternoon: Jesus' death on Calvary! Personally, I have never been comfortable with the “ransom” theory that claims God demands the death of Jesus on the cross as payment for our sins. That is not the Abba God, the prodigal Father in whom I believe. I admit the ransom theory is commonly accepted, but it remains unsatisfying to me. I believe Jesus died on the cross to prove the depth and extent of his love for us. There are two dimensions of time to the life of Jesus: the time when he remains active, going about preaching the kingdom, healing people, teaching his disciples what they need to know. Then there is the time late in his life when Jesus is no longer in control, when things are happen to him that are beyond his control, when he is led this way and that – that's his “passion” time, when he ceases to be the “doer” and becomes the one who suffers things “done” to him. This is the dark dimension of his unique human life: humiliation, misunderstanding, total rejection, and the helplessness that accompanies it.
There's a great lesson here for us. Like Jesus, you and I need to understand that we give as much to others in our time of suffering as in our active years. When we are no longer in charge, when we are beaten down by whatever and whomever, we have the opportunity to give our love and give ourselves to others in a deeply personal way. It's the time to embrace our cross, whatever form it takes, as Jesus did. It's a choice we make daily, but especially in our later years. In the face of the physical and emotional suffering life brings to us, do we give up on love? That's the real question of our lives. In those difficult times, do we give up on love? The crucified Jesus answers that question – once and for all. AMEN.