Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
April 1, 2015
“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.” Revelation 1:5
During the year, parishioners in the Diocese have been meeting with me to read the Acts of the Apostles. We are studying this unique record of God’s revelation, in part, because Acts is regrettably one that is least known. Nestled in the writing of St. Luke and firsthand descriptions of apostolic preaching is the kerygma. And it is the kerygma which is the very heartbeat of our Christian message and which every pope in our lifetime, including our present Pope Francis, has said needs to be the center of our preaching.
St. Peter in his Pentecost sermon summarizes the message as follows: “Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). In St. Peter’s second sermon in Acts, he expresses the same kerygma in this way: “The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15).
St. Paul did not deviate from this kerygma. In Acts and throughout his writings, St. Paul will repeat in these or similar words what he says to the Corinthians: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).
There are two seemingly contradictory components to this message: the cross and the Resurrection. The cross appears to spell defeat but the Resurrection gives us a new alphabet. Where the cross would seem to mean that death defeats life, in the Christian dispensation death translates into life. Life to death becomes death to life. And this is possible because of Jesus Christ. There is no Resurrection without Jesus accepting the cross. Christ must embrace death on the cross in order to bring about this transformation. As priests of Jesus Christ, we must follow the Master. We must grasp the cross personally before we grasp what the cross means to those we serve. I would suggest that to understand the transformative nature of the cross we must first understand what it originally meant to those who saw it on the first Good Friday.
To the men and women of the First Century the cross would have been complete humiliation. To be sentenced to death, left beaten and naked, publicly nailed to a cross was the most disgraceful execution the Romans could devise. The cross was filled with contempt and reserved for the most notorious criminals, those whom the Romans wished to make an example. Twenty centuries later, the cross is often seen antiseptically, as separated from its original disgrace. Our crucifixes seldom display the excruciating pain of the true event. Sometimes we even remove the body from the cross. Certainly there is little in the typical American church to remind us of how disturbing were St. Peter’s words when he proclaimed, “… this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The cross would have been shocking and utter defeat. Nothing else could be worse.
However, it was not a criminal who was crucified but the Son of God. This one fact changes everything. The “author of Life” was nailed naked to a “tree” to collapse and suffocate. And all this was done to an innocent victim, not just innocent as we define it in a court of law but intrinsically without sin. “[O]f this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15), in the words of St. Peter. The witness is that innocence itself suffered a punishment intended for the condemned. Implied in the kerygma is that nothing worse could happen. It is so “over the top,” as we say today, that there is almost a suspicion of something serendipitous about it. This insight is what prompts the “good thief” at the Crucifixion to say “… but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Recognizing the good that might come from this deplorable circumstance, he can then ask, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). St. Dismas gets it. The innocent victim is going to be the criminal’s salvation and ironically because of the cross.
The kerygma never leads us to despair. Why? Because God takes this painful humiliation of His Son and turns it into victory, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (Acts 1:24). Like a turnstile, God reverses the cross. It is no small turning point. The cross becomes victory.
What both St. Peter and St. Paul are saying is that if the worse can happen to the most innocent victim of all and the defeat is reversed, then think of what God can do for you. There is great hope, even for those who think their sufferings are the worst possible. And this hope is ours in so far as we are united to Christ Jesus in His own Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
This is the message we bring with our own personal lives as priests to the sinner in the confessional, the lonely homebound, the sorrowful widow, the disillusioned youth, and the terminally ill. We never make light of their suffering. Their crosses are real. But the kerygma assures them that nothing is happening to them that is worse than what Jesus Christ suffered, and he was innocent. We are not. And the victory that is His can be ours. We say to the wounded, “I was scarred myself but not as severely as Jesus. And through Jesus I came to know His Resurrection, His life of grace. You can not only know this yourself but also experience it in your own life. And this experience is not some superficial happiness, some passing pleasure, but an intrinsic transformation that leaves you changed by God’s grace. It redeems you.”
This is no dream, no myth, no fairy tale, but a reality, a transforming opportunity, which God offers us. If the worst can happen to the most innocent and victory comes from it, then what can happen to us united to Christ?
I cannot get out of my mind the picture of the 21 Coptic Christians on the beach in Libya, kneeling with the Islamic terrorists looming over them with knives poised. What were the victims’ final thoughts? Pope Francis tells us that as they knelt on the sand, their heads being severed, they called upon Jesus to have mercy. His name was the last word they spoke, their last act one of faith, their last moment a share in the cross, a witness to the kerygma proclaimed by St. Peter and St. Paul. They rejoiced to have a share in the sufferings of Christ. Their hope was in the Resurrection. Everything else paled by comparison. They were living witnesses to the kerygma, no mere story but a union with the sufferings of Christ, bringing them eternal glory, fulfilling a promise to which we, as unworthy priests, strive to give witness.
Bishop Glen John Provost