Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
April 22, 2011
Good Friday of the Lord's Passion
“Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” Hebrews 4:14
Jesus Christ is our high priest. He was and is and continues to be our high priest. What does a high priest do? The Letter to the Hebrews tells us.
“Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1). The high priest is a mediator. He also offers gifts to God and sacrifices for sin.
From the beginning the Christian Church has had a profound appreciation of Jesus as high priest. This understanding finds itself embedded in the rich imagery that describes our Lord’s Passion. Since we as Catholics read the Passion account from the Gospel of St. John every Good Friday, let us make note of one very strong image used in this Gospel.
When the soldiers took Jesus to crucifixion at Calvary, it was the custom that they divide the clothing of the crucified as a sort of trophy or memento. St. John writes this description:
divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also
took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece
from the top down (John 19:23).
Why would the Evangelist mention such a small detail? Of course, St. John adds that it was to fulfill the Scriptures. In not wanting to tear the tunic but casting lots for it, the soldiers were fulfilling Psalm 22: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:19). Like a giant sign with a pointing finger, this small reference to the garment Jesus wears shows us the way to Christ the High Priest.
It was a known fact that the garment of the high priest, the chitōn, was woven from a single thread (cf. Flavius Josephus Antiquitates Judaicae III, 7, 4). The high priest would every year on the Day of Atonement enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial animal to make expiation for sin. In order to do so, he had to separate the curtain that enclosed the Holy of Holies to enter the sacred place. With the mention of a small detail, the Gospel is calling our attention to the high priesthood of Jesus Christ and to His priestly liturgy.
St. Matthew alludes to this priestly act, when in his account of the Passion, he writes that immediately after Jesus “gave up his spirit… behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). Christ has parted the curtain of the sanctuary, as it were, to offer sacrifice, the sacrifice of Himself. Again the Letter to the Hebrews does not miss the point.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be,
passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands,
that is, not belonging to this creation, 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 9:11-12).
What is different about the priesthood of Jesus Christ is that Jesus is both the priest and the victim.
To be this priest-victim, Jesus is above all obedient. The high priest is, after all, chosen from among men (Hebrews 5:1). The high priest freely accepts the task of priestly office. Jesus, in turn, willingly responds to the search for Him by responding, “I told you that I am” (John 18:8). When the earthly high priest asks Him about His teaching, Jesus answers, “I have spoken publicly to the world” (John 18:20). When one is obedient, one’s actions are open to scrutiny and never hidden. This obedience continues to manifest itself throughout—in the interrogation before Pilate, in the scourging, and, yes, at the moment of crucifixion.
In the Passion of St. John, the final words of Jesus are: “It is finished” (John 19:30). Pope Benedict XVI in his newly published second volume of Jesus of Nazareth points out that the word in Greek for finished (tetélestai) “… points back to the very beginning of the Passion narrative, to the episode of the washing of the feet” (p. 223). The washing of the feet at the Last Supper begins with the sentence, “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (John 13:1) “End” in Greek (télos) is the form of the same word for “finished.” The final episode of Jesus’ life before His death on the cross begins and ends with a reference to a love that is total and complete, because it is free and obedient. It is like the love of a mother for a child.
For this reason, I think, Mary becomes the mother of every believer. Jesus would have it so. He says from the cross, “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26), “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27). She, who is the example of loving fidelity, points to her child as the obedient son. How appropriate it is that in Jesus’ final act of obedience He should give His disciple to His mother, a disciple who is unnamed and referred to only as the disciple “whom he loved” (John 19:26), because he represents each of us.
From the cross of sacrificial obedience, we hear the words, “I thirst” (John 19:28). He thirsts for our obedience. The reference is to Psalm 69: “… for my thirst they gave me vinegar” (Psalm 69:22). We must not respond with “vinegar” to the cry of thirst. He thirsts for us, that we might turn from disobedience to imitate Him in a willing obedience to God’s will. The Passion of Jesus Christ is a cry for repentance and an act of redemption, perfectly so because it is free and obedient.