March 29, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Good Friday
Sermon for Stations of the Cross
Reading (Isaiah 52:13 Ė 53:6)
The reading that we just heard is part of what is known as the fourth of the Suffering Servant Songs. We also heard that same reading this afternoon in the service for Good Friday. In this particular passage taken from the fifty-second chapter of the prophet Isaiah, we hear, with remarkable precision, the prophet telling us what was going to happen to the Messiah, that He was going to suffer. And it was not just a little bit of suffering that He was going to endure. Again, when we listen to those words: "There was in Him no stately bearing that would make us look at Him, nor appearance that would attract us to Him. He was spurned and avoided by people, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom people hide their faces," this is suffering that is beyond what the human mind can even begin to grasp.
For us as 20th century Americans, when we think of the suffering of Christ, we oftentimes have the ability to keep it at an armís distance, to make it very antiseptic as though it really does not have much bearing on us. We look at beautiful crucifixes with a nice brass corpus on them, and it looks more like a piece of art than a man who is dying on a cross. They are very beautiful to look at, but they do not exactly give us much of an idea of the suffering that He endured.
But when we stop to think about the fact that "His appearance was beyond that of the sons of men, and so marred was His look beyond human appearance," that begins to tell us much more of what Our Lord endured. It is critical that we have a concept of this. We do not want to get to the point where we are beating ourselves up about it or getting scrupulous about these things, but we need to have a proper understanding because the only way we are ever going to understand the love of God for us is when we understand the suffering of Jesus Christ. The saints tell us that the measure of love is the measure of suffering that you are willing to endure for the one you love.
It is also critically important that we understand Our Lordís suffering because the second paragraph of the reading that we just heard starts this way: "It was our infirmities that He bore, our sufferings that He endured, while we thought of Him as one stricken, as one smitten by God Ö But He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, by His wounds we are healed." In other words, when we think about what Our Lord endured, as God so often does in the spiritual life, things are often backwards of what they would appear to be. So we can look at Jesus and we can hear about His appearance being marred beyond that of human form, we can hear about Him taking on our sufferings and all of these horrible things that He endured for us, but then comes the twist: It is our infirmities that He bore.
When we look at Him flogged, crowned, crucified, beaten, and all of the horrible things that happened to Our Lord, we realize that what He did was to hold up a mirror to ourselves to show to us that, as He took on all of the suffering for our sins, this is what we have done to ourselves. We need to consider this very seriously because on the day that we were baptized, God gave to us a dignity that no other creature has: the dignity to become His own sons and daughters, the dignity of sharing the divine nature, the dignity of sharing the divine life. God made us in His own image, and remade us in Baptism in His own likeness. And what we have done with our sins is to make our soul in such a way that it marred us beyond recognition of who we really are, that no one looking at us in our sin would ever be able to say, "You are a son (or a daughter) of God. You are a member of Jesus Christ. You share the divine life. I can see it in you." No one would be able to say that to us because sin had destroyed that in us. No one would be able to see because when we have mortal sin on our soul the life of God is no longer there.
And so when we think about the suffering that Jesus endured in His human body, we need to stop to think about what we have done to our immortal souls, and to the divine life which God placed within our souls. It is we who have destroyed that image. He took on that image so that we could be restored. That is why this is so critically important for us. It is not something which is meaningless. It is not something which is a nice thing that somebody did 2,000 years ago for us. It is the single most important event in human history, and it is the single most important thing in each and every one of our lives, individually. If Jesus Christ had not demonstrated His love for us by enduring all of the indignities that we heaped upon Him, we would not be able to have our sins removed, we would not have the divinity restored to us, we would still be in that state where our souls would be marred beyond recognition. And so the love of God for us is seen and understood only when we understand how horrible our sins are.
When we consider what Jesus really looked like on the Cross, think about a man flogged 39 times, but not with just one lash apiece. The Roman flagellum had anywhere between three and eight lashes on it. At the end of each of those strands of leather would be tied a piece of broken glass or a piece of steel or something that would cut into the flesh and added some weight. And so with each of those 39 times that the soldiers flogged Our Lord, between three and eight stripes went across Him, and between three and eight weights dug into His flesh. The crown of thorns pierced the skin of His head and pressed into His skull with unimaginable pain. They pushed it upon His head, and then they took a reed and they beat Him. When He spoke before the high priest, the soldiers struck Him across the face. As He carried the Cross, it dug into His flesh upon His shoulder. And each time that He fell down, His knees would have been scummed; and perhaps, by the weight of the Cross, even His face would have been pushed into the pavement. The thorns in His forehead would have pushed once again into His skull.
It is only when we stop to think in these kinds of details that the nice brass-looking crucifixes that we like to hang up in our bedrooms suddenly do not look quite so pretty; but rather, the reality of what Jesus Christ endured for our sins begins to take shape. We need to meditate upon the Passion of Jesus Christ because it is only in meditating upon His Passion that we will come to understand how much He loves us. And only by meditating upon His Passion will we come to understand the price of our sins and what it is that we have done to ourselves when we see His image as a mirror of what our souls looked like before the sins were forgiven. Not a nice, gold, shiny, brass image that we have hanging on our bedroom wall, but a real human being with His flesh torn in tatters - bloody, dirty, pierced, and finally crucified.
We must make this real for ourselves. For all too long, most of us have been able to keep the Passion of Our Lord as just an annual remembrance at an armís distance. It cannot be so because the Lord is going to look at each one of us now and say to us, "Now that I have proven to you how much I love you, how much do you love Me?" Remember that the measure of love is demonstrated by the measure of suffering. So the question really comes down to how much we are willing to suffer for Jesus Christ. If we do not recognize what He has done for our souls, if we take the forgiveness of sin for granted and it is just something that is no big deal to us, then we are going to say, "I am not willing to suffer. It was nice of Him to do that for me, but He really didnít have to." Only when we begin to see what He has done for us do we really begin to understand, not only the necessity of what He did for us, but what our response to Him, then, must be in return. What are we willing to give in return for what has been given to us?
Jesus did not count the cost, nor did He say to us, "Because Iíve done this for you, now I expect something in return." He does not do that. Love never counts the cost and love only seeks the good of the other. Therefore, if we are going to claim that we love Him, then we need to seek what is best for Him - without counting the cost and without looking for anything in return. In other words, we need to do for Him what He has done for us. What He wants, more than anything, is souls - starting with your own and then going out from there: your spouse, your children, your family, your friends, your neighbors, the pagans who have never heard of Him, the atheists who have rejected Him, the people who have apostatized from the Church, who profess their hatred for Him. He loves them. He suffered for them and He died for them and He wants their souls.
Saint Paul says, in his Letter to the Colossians 1:24, "I make up in my body for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church." Jesus has left for each one of us a small share in His suffering. He has given to us the dignity, not only to be able to share His nature and His life, but to share in His Passion if we are willing to do it. He extends to each one of us the Cross, and asks us if we are willing to mount the Cross with Him, to be crucified with Him, to be rejected with Him. He does not require it; He invites it. And if we love Him, we will accept His invitation because where else would we want to be than where our Beloved is? He is on the Cross for us, and if we love Him, we want to be united with Him, meaning that we need to share the same nails that will hold us firmly to Him.
How much do we love Him? Are we able to look beyond all the wounds - and how badly He was marred, beyond human semblance Ė to be able to see that He is God, and that God loves us so much that He took on our humanity so that we could love Him and take on His divinity? Are we willing to do for Him what He has done for us? To offer our sufferings to Him for the conversion of sinners, for the salvation of souls? Are we willing to carry our cross or do we whine and complain and moan every time some difficulty comes into our lives? Do we turn, after a small bit of suffering, and look up and say, "What did I ever do to You? Why are You doing this to me? Why are You allowing all of these bad things to happen to me?" as though we are innocent, and as though we do not really know the answer to the questions that we have just asked.
We need to humble ourselves. We need to look at the Cross, not the nice, fancy brass ones, but the ones that really portray the truth of what happened to Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago, Pontius Pilate, sitting on the Stone Pavement and speaking for all of humanity, passed a judgment on God; as did the high priests of the Jewish people when they said, "He deserves to die." We looked at God and we decided that He needed to die. We stood in judgment of Almighty God and put Him to death. Now He stands in judgment of us and He offers us life. But there is only one means to life and that is through the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Are we willing to unite ourselves with Him there? Do we love Him enough to offer back to Him what He has offered to us Ė a willingness to suffer in order to save souls and bring ourselves and as many as we can to eternity with Him?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.