Isaiah 52: 13-53: 12; Psalm 31; Hebrews 4: 14-16, 5: 7-9; John 18: 1-19:42
by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:





Last Sunday we heard Mark’s Passion account; today it is John’s. They stand in stark contrast to one another; each presents a unique perspective on the last day’s of Jesus’ life and their meaning for us. In Mark, Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s Suffering Servant role. The prophet describes him as one who suffers unjust accusations and brutal treatment at the hands of his enemies. Despite this abuse the servant is faithful to God.

Today, in John, we hear another perspective of the Passion and the role Jesus plays in it. Throughout John’s narrative Jesus is not a victim-sufferer, but a royal personage. For example, instead of his being on trial, John describes Jesus as fully in control. In fact, all the others in the account seem to be the ones on trial, Pilate, Jesus’ failed followers, the religious leaders and the crowds. Starting with his arrest in the garden, right up to his death, Jesus shows a calm and in-charge demeanor. Notice how many times in John’s account Jesus is described in royal terms, even when he is being mocked by the soldiers and Pilate.

One can even describe Jesus’ cross less as an instrument of execution and more as a throne from which he rules. From his cross he directs the care of his mother and utters a final triumphant cry, “It is finished!” He decides the moment of his death and in the end he is victorious - from his cross. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ death is a “glorious” death. There is no emphasis on his extreme bravery, or that he is accomplishing a difficult task. Jesus’ death is in an entirely different category of death. God is accomplishing a great work in Jesus, something we cannot imitate or achieve on our own. From the cross we are freed from sin’s evil power over us and death is defeated.

John is showing us that we are the beneficiaries of what God is doing. We are like heirs, on the receiving end of Jesus’ glorification on the cross. We like to think of our selves as a “do-something people.” But not here. John isn’t asking us to meditate on Jesus’ pain and imitate his suffering, in fact, these are almost entirely missing from the story. Nor is our human sinfulness stressed, or our guilt evoked – even though Peter denies Jesus three times and the other disciples (except the three women at the foot of the cross) abandon him. There certainly would have been ample opportunity for John to be quite graphic about the infliction of pain on Jesus. (Mel Gibson did it in his movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”) But John does nothing to stir up our feelings for the suffering Christ. Instead, he writes his Passion in such a way that all through it believers are moved to utter the cry Thomas the Doubter will when he meets the risen Lord, “My Lord and my God.”

The trial scene before Pilate is central in John’s account. The focus of the discussion is Jesus’ kingship. For the Romans, anyone claiming kingship would be considered seditious, a rival to Caesar. Pilate surrenders Jesus to the religious leaders and the crowds when they challenge Pilate’s attempt to free Jesus. “If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar.” But king he is and nothing seems to happen in this Passion story without Jesus allowing it. The innocent one take’s on our sin and guilt and he willingly accepts that role; no one is forcing him to do this. He will suffer in our place and, as a result, we will be the heirs to new life.

We can’t isolate this day from what we celebrated on Holy Thursday, or will celebrate on Easter. These three days of the Triduum are of a piece. There can be no credible reflection on the Passion outside the context of the Resurrection. We are not celebrating three separate days, a chronological replaying of past events. While each of these three days has its uniqueness, they can’t be isolated from one another. Good Friday preaching, for example, is not supposed to draw on people’s emotions, or stir up guilt for “what we have done to Jesus.” John shows that Jesus, with full knowledge and control, willed to die for our sins. So, we are not grieving his death. This day, even with its somber tones, evokes joy for what God has done, in Jesus, for our benefit.

The cross should be no surprise to anyone who has been attentive to John’s gospel up to this point. John told us that the Word became flesh; in Jesus we encounter the loving presence of our God. But darkness could not bear the Creator of light and so the forces of evil start early to try to quench the light. While God was revealed in all Jesus said and did, it is the cross that is the fullness of that revelation, for gazing on the cross reveals what we heard earlier in John, “God so loved the world that God gave the only Son...(3:16).

Today the cross is completing the picture of God’s love for sinful humanity. When Jesus dies blood and water will flow from his side and he will “hand over the spirit,” and the church will be born. We celebrate Good Friday and we wait for the full story to be spoken on Easter, when Christ appears to his disciples and breathes his Spirit on them, empowering them to continue his work of revealing the gracious face of God to the world.

We will venerate the bare cross today. It is both a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice and it is also a symbol of his triumph over death – his resurrection. What Jesus accomplished on the cross is made present to us, as we hear the Passion proclaimed. We are attentive listeners today, faithfully receiving the story and allowing it to continue its work of redemption in us. With the gift of the Spirit we, the church, will live Jesus’ self-giving life. We will give ourselves to those who need us and confront injustice and sin in whatever guises they present themselves – just as Jesus did.

The cross we raise high today and come forward to venerate, links us to one another in this community. We support and stand with those who are in pain or undergoing great sacrifices in order to be faithful Christians. We pray for those undergoing trials and even death for their faith. In the name of the cross we believers give our lives away in loving service to those in need. Each time we make the sign of the cross and trace Jesus’ cross on our bodies, we are reminded that we live under the sign of the cross. Like the women who stood company at the cross with Jesus in his agony, so we too keep vigil with those who are grieving, afflicted and dying. The sign of the cross also reminds us that Jesus is no stranger to our pain and loss. The prophet Isaiah helps us see the role Jesus, the Suffering Servant, fulfills for us, “Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured....”

Christ has taken to the cross our weaknesses and our dyings; our acts of cruelty, injustice and pettiness; as well as our own mortality and fear of dying. What a paradox the cross is: through death, life has been given us. So, we venerate the cross before us today and we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross, renewing our faith in the transformation that continues to take place in us through our hearing the story of our salvation in Christ.