Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for Good Friday
Friday, March 21, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered, and when perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him." Hebrews 5:8-9
Some etymologists believe that our English word "tragedy" derives from the Greek word for goat, "tragos" The reason for this connection between a goat and the literary, dramatic, or religious significance of tragedy remains obscured in the mists of pre-history, but I think that there is a connection which helps us understand what it is we are doing this Good Friday afternoon.
Goats, along with oxen, cattle, and lambs, were considered sacrificial animals in the ancient world, not just for the Jews but also the Greeks and many others. There was one very important use for the goat described in the Book of Leviticus 16. In this Law of Moses two goats were procured. Aaron, Moses¹ successor, was to take one goat and sacrifice it, but the other goat was to be used much as a priest is used in the Sacrament of Penance. Leviticus reads, Aaron shall take the goat and "laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the sinful faults and transgressions of the Israelites and so put them on the goat¹s head. He shall then have it led into the desert by an attendant. Since the goat is to carry off their iniquities to an isolated region, it must be sent away into the desert" (Leviticus 16:21-22). The goat was to take upon itself the sins and failings of the people, in English, the "scapegoat."
Is this not what Jesus does on the cross of Good Friday? In the words of Isaiah, "It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured" (Isaiah 53:4). Jesus is our advocate who always pleads our cause by reason of His redeeming death. In every confession of fault and sin we allow Jesus to absorb, as it were, each weakness and failing into His wounds, so that His offering to the Father of Himself becomes an offering for us. He escapes with our sins so that we might be forgiven and redeemed. We speak our sins not onto the head of a goat, but we speak them into the ear of God through the priest who represents Christ, the crucified, sacrificial redeemer.
Let us return to tragedy, for I think that now we can step one foot deeper into the mystery. The greatest essay on tragedy was written by no one less than Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander the Great and the premier philosopher of the Greek Golden Age. In his Ars Poetica Aristotle said that tragedy consists in something terrible and undeserved happening to an otherwise virtuous hero. For tragedy to be real, however, there must be interaction between the audience and the hero. This he calls "catharsis." In other words, we must so identify with the tragic hero that we empty out our own tragedies into him and in so doing we are purged. Simply said, we go to see a tragic movie or play or read a tragic novel, see something of ourselves in the tragic hero, experience his defeat, pain or sorrow as our own, and empty ourselves out. We cry, our heart aches, we are left relieved of our burden. It is so simple, as simple as Good Friday, yet so profound.
Here we are not dealing with fiction. Here we are encountering reality. Goodness itself has been sacrificed, tortured, beaten, and slain. We are not just witnesses to this tragedy but participants. For that reason the Church has us read the Passion in a dramatic fashion. We may identify with any number of characters. We might be the arrogant High Priest, the indifferent Pontius Pilate, the denying Peter, the loving John, the betraying Judas, the weeping Mary Magdalen. We do not come without faults. We wag and toss our heads, we throw dice, we hammer nails. Most especially, I would hope, we come with our own human tragedies. What sorrows and tragedies have we experienced that are perhaps known only to ourselves and to God? The loneliness, the heartbreaks, the loss of a beloved, the rejection, the relentless human weaknesses that we have had to endure! They are the nails that have pierced our hands, the thorns that have drawn blood from our heads, the spears that have sunk deeply into our chests. Into a garden as lonely as the Mount of Olives or a hall as intimidating as Pilate¹s praetorium, we have descended and stood alone, feeling unknown even to ourselves. With the hero of this tragedy we can say, "It is finished" (John 19:30).
I know of no other religion in the history of mankind in which God makes Himself the sacrificial victim. I know of no other in which God invites us to His tragedy, no other in which God takes upon Himself our tragedy, and no other in which that tragedy involves so intimate a dynamic between the redeemer and the redeemed. The goat of our confession has escaped into the wilderness of pardon, and we do not follow. Unlike any other tragedy, redemption is opened to us. We remain behind, emptied, forgiven, and hopeful, awaiting the Resurrection.