holy cross sermon for good friday, year c, march 29, 2013

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit,” (John 19.30).

We have come to the very end. We have ascended with Jesus to what Romano Guardini called the “highest, thinnest” pinnacle of all creation. We have come to the summit of Calvary, to the Place of a Skull, and we have watched and listened in darkness as the Messiah approaches the outermost edge of creation, and transgresses the boundary of life. We have come to the end. It is finished.

Last night at the Maundy Thursday mass, I spoke of how the Last Supper interprets and is interpreted by Jesus’ death on the cross. How at the Last Supper, already Jesus was sacrificing himself, being broken and distributed, being poured out for the life of the world. And today, surely, we see these mysteries yoked together. And this connection is veiled beneath the surface of the text of the Gospel of John:

In John’s account [of the Passion], Jesus’ last words are: “It is finished!” (19.30). In the Greek text, this word (tetelestai) points back to the very beginning of the Passion narrative, to the episode [from last night] of the washing of the feet, which the evangelist introduces by observing that Jesus loved his own “to the end (telos)” (13.1). This “end”, this ne plus ultra of loving, is now attained in the moment of death. He has truly gone right to the end, to the very limit and even beyond that limit. He has accomplished the utter fullness of love – he has given himself.  (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2, p. 223)

The mystery of Good Friday, the mystery of the Holy Cross, is the mystery of true love. Jesus, in his inimitably scandalous, breathtaking way, shows the Creator of heaven and earth to be LOVE. And he reveals this by being tortured to death.

Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey said:

[Jesus’] Church on earth is also scandalous, with question marks set against it by bewildered men and women, and with the question mark of Calvary at the centre of its teaching. Yet precisely THERE is the power of God to be found, if only Christians know whence they come and whither they go. They are sent to be the place where the Passion of Jesus is known, and where witness is borne to the resurrection from the dead. Hence the philanthropist, the reformer, the broad-minded modern person can never understand, in terms of their own ideals, what the Church is or what it means. Of course it is scandalous, of course it is formed of sinners whose sinfulness is exposed by the light of the Cross, of course there is an awful question mark at its centre. These things must needs be, if it is indeed the Body of Christ crucified and risen from the dead. (Michael Ramsey, Glory Descending, p. 100)

Modern people indeed seem less and less willing to put up with this scandal, this stumbling-block – the scandal of God’s love revealed by the cross. And so ever more and more is the prophecy fulfilled, spoken by Simeon to Mary and the Child Jesus at the Purification: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed,” (Luke 2.34ff).

And likewise the mystery of the cross reaches much further back. Luigi Giussani speaks of the cross’s evocation of another Father and Son and another, more ancient sacrifice: that of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah:

…that strange morning, [Abraham] set out with his son towards a place he did not know, for an unknown reason, ready to make the sacrifice wherever God indicated, which, by God’s will, he would not, in the end, have to make. In that moment, Abraham is a paradigm of the drama of man in his full stature, of man set in that vertigo, pulled into the whirlwind in which the Mystery envelops him. It is a dizziness man normally tries to forget, a whirlwind that ordinary man cannot withstand.” (Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, p. 9)

This is the vertigo of Calvary, the dizziness that the broad-minded modern person runs away from. It may be keenly felt in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the unborn, victims of domestic violence – in solidarity with every innocent victim since righteous Abel. It is the dizziness that comes from looking into the abyss of our deepest and most intense desire. It is the whirlwind of wounded love.

John says, “one of the soldiers pierced [Jesus’] side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water,” (John 19.34). And so just as the cross interprets and is interpreted by the Last Supper that preceded it, so likewise it interprets and is interpreted by the resurrection which succeeds it. Out of this wounded love, out of his pierced side, out of the treasury of his broken heart, blood and water flow – the wellspring of everlasting life.

Is this not central to the word of the cross? Once more: Be not afraid! In union with this wellspring of boundless love, in union with the pierced heart of the Savior, be not afraid of being broken and poured out for the life of the world. It is this very brokenness that is the gateway to the paschal mystery, the gateway to resurrection and glory, the gateway to HAPPINESS.

I want to read to you a news story from last year. One that, to me, exemplifies all of this – that exemplifies what it means to embrace the cross in union with Jesus, to adore and to kiss the cross, as we will do here in a few minutes:

Rome, Italy, Jun 21, 2012 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- Hundreds of Italians gathered at the Church of St. Francisca Romana in Rome on June 16 for the funeral Mass of Chiara Corbella, a young Catholic woman who died after postponing her cancer treatments in order to protect her unborn child.

At 28 years of age, Chiara was happily married to Enrico Petrillo. They had already suffered the loss of two children in recent years who died from birth defects. The couple became popular speakers at pro-life events, in which they shared their testimony about the few minutes they were able to spend with their children, David and Maria, before they died.

In 2010, Chiara became pregnant for the third time, and according to doctors the child was developing normally. However, Chiara was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and was advised to begin receiving treatment that would have posed a risk to her pregnancy.

Chiara decided to protect the baby – named Francisco –  and opted to forgo treatment until after his birth, which took place on May 30, 2011.

Her cancer quickly progressed and eventually she lost sight in one eye. After a year-long battle Chiara died on June 13, surrounded by her loved ones and convinced that she would be reunited with her two children in heaven.

“I am going to heaven to take care of Maria and David, you stay here with Dad. I will pray for you,” Chiara said in a letter for Francisco that she wrote one week before her death.

The funeral Mass was celebrated by the Vicar General of Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who recalled Chiara as “the second Gianna Beretta,” the 20th century saint who sacrificed her life in similar circumstances to save her unborn baby.

Chiara’s spiritual director, Father Vito, delivered the homily and remembered Chiara as a young woman who chose to risk her own life in order to be an example to other pregnant women, “a testimony that could save so many people,” he said.

Chiara’s husband, Enrico, said he experienced “a story of love on the cross.” Speaking to Vatican Radio, he said that they learned from their three children that there is no difference in a life that lasts 30 minutes or 100 years.

“It was wonderful to discover this love that grew more and more in the face of so many problems,” he said.

“We grew more and more in love with each other and Jesus. We were never disappointed by this love, and for this reason, we never lost time, even though those around us said, ‘Wait, don’t be in a hurry to have another child,’” Enrico said.

The world today encourages people to make wrong choices about the unborn, the sick and the elderly, he noted, “but the Lord responds with stories like ours.”

“We are the ones who like to philosophize about life, about who created it, and therefore, in the end, we confuse ourselves in wanting to become the owners of life and to escape from the cross the Lord gives us,” he continued.

“The truth is that this cross – if you embrace it with Christ – ceases to be as ugly as it looks. If you trust in him, you discover that this fire, this cross, does not burn, and that peace can be found in suffering and joy in death,” Enrico explained.

“I spent a lot of time this year reflecting on this phrase from the Gospel that says the Lord gives a cross that is sweet and a burden that is light. When I would look at Chiara when she was about to die, I obviously became very upset. But I mustered the courage and a few hours before – it was about eight in the morning, Chiara died at noon – I asked her.

I said: ‘But Chiara, my love, is this cross really sweet, like the Lord says? She looked at me and she smiled, and in a soft voice she said, ‘Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.’ In this sense, the entire family didn’t see Chiara die peacefully, but happily, which is totally different,” Ernico said.

When his son grows up, he added, he will tell him “how beautiful it is to let oneself be loved by God, because if you feel loved you can do anything,” and this is “the most important thing in life: to let yourself be loved in order to love and die happy.”

“I will tell him that this is what his mother, Chiara, did. She allowed herself to be loved, and in a certain sense, I think she loved everyone in this way. I feel her more alive than ever. To be able to see her die happy was to me a challenge to death.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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