Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for Good Friday
Friday, April 10, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Hebrews 5:9
Jesus came to die. This is a truth we moderns find hard to grasp, and many today ignore its harsh reality. We would rather think of Jesus as the kind, gentle shepherd or the healer of diseases or the teacher of the Golden Rule. However, we cannot ignore Good Friday. The Church will not let us forget the very reason for Jesus’ coming.
Jesus tells us Himself that He has come to suffer death. After the third prediction of His passion, death and resurrection, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the mother of James and John approach Jesus with a request. “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 21:21). In a truly human way, this is a person who does not grasp reality. After just announcing the need to suffer and die, Jesus is asked to grant a favor of prestige. Jesus takes this opportunity to speak these words about why He came into the world. “Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 21:28).
In saying this, Jesus fulfills the words of our first reading from Isaiah. This is an important passage, often referred to as the “Song of the Suffering Servant.” It reads: “… he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed…; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all…. If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life…” (Isaiah 53:5-6, 10). When Jesus speaks of Himself as a “servant”, he is not using a domestic metaphor. He is referring to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, whose prophecy He is fulfilling by giving Himself totally as a sacrificial offering.
Jesus is the perfect High Priest. He is the perfect priest because the sacrifice He offers is Himself. The account of the Passion is filled with priestly imagery. Recall that the tunic Jesus wore “… was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down” (John 19:23). The soldiers are careful not to tear it and cast lots to see who receives it as a trophy. From Jewish writings of the First Century, we know that the garment worn by the High Priest of the Temple was a seamless robe (Josephus, Antiquitatum Judaicarum libri XII, III, 7:2). Saint John is speaking in this precious detail of Jesus’ offering and His priesthood.
When Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, we are told by Saint John that “it was about noon” (John 19:14) on the Preparation Day for the Passover. We know that at noon the priests of the Temple would begin the slaughter of the lambs for Passover. St. John the Baptist had pointed to Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel and said, “Behold, the lamb of God” (John 1:29). All was coming to pass, as it had been foretold. The lamb, who would take away the sin of the world, was being led to the slaughter. At the same hour the lambs for Passover, used to recall the Jewish deliverance from slavery, were being killed, the Lamb of God was going to His death for our deliverance.
When Jesus is finally crucified, the soldiers came to break the legs of the crucified to hasten death by suffocation. “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:33-34). Saint John is intent on letting us know that this is what really happened. “An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true” (John 19:35). For Saint John the piercing of Jesus’ side fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah: “…they shall look on him whom they have thrust through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). It is a Messianic prophecy.
For the early Christians, the blood and water were symbols of the Eucharist and Baptism. From Christ’s wounded side flowed the Sacraments of Redemption. The Lamb of God redeemed, and from His open wound came the waters of Baptism that make an end of sin and the Blood in which we participate. “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
And so we come to Good Friday. We enter into a profound reflection on the meaning of death. For the non-believer death is merely the end of life. For the believer, however, death transforms. We come to look upon Jesus who has been lifted up, and we join our sufferings to His. Because of this priestly, redemptive death, death can never be the same. In our daily dying, our loneliness, pain, distress, sufferings known to us alone, there is a sweet hope that reveals itself in the redemptive cross of Jesus. Because of the cross of Jesus, death can never be the same.