Homily preached at the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday at Ampleforth Abbey by Abbot Cuthbert Madden.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, we have just listened to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the second time most of us have heard the Passion account in the past week. What are we doing when we listen to this text?
One thing is certain: we are not hearing it as news. We know this story very well indeed. We know what happens. We know that this story of the passion ends in the resurrection of Christ; so we cannot hear this account in deep mourning and gloom. So how are we listening to this text? Perhaps the readings from prophecy of Isaiah and the Letter to the Hebrews help us to answer this question.
In the prophecy of Isaiah we listened to the fourth song of the suffering servant. We do not know the circumstances in which it was first uttered but it is a remarkable passage reflecting upon the innocent suffering of an unknown person. Isaiah tells us that the suffering servant offered his life to redeem the sufferings of the people of Israel; he says “Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies the punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5). This extraordinary prophecy continues with these words, “His soul’s anguish over he shall see the light and be content” (Isaiah 53.11). We know that after His resurrection Christ is wholly light and, astonishingly, He utters no word of reproach to His disciples who deserted Him in His hour of need – he is content, completely content. Small wonder then that the Church from the earliest times has offered this passage to help us believers understand what was happening in the Passion of the Lord.
We can say much the same when we turn to the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer here points out that in Jesus Christ we have a high priest who has experienced every human emotion, every human thought, every human suffering. Though he is the Son of God he has shared in the ultimate human dislocation, when the soul is torn from the body in death. Because Jesus Christ knows what it is to be truly human, we need have no fear in turning to Him in every need. We can turn to Him in our sorrows and in our joys. We can turn to him in thanksgiving when we are able to do His will and in repentance when we have walked away from Him. In every circumstance He understands us and cares for us. The writer points out to his readers that Christ’s death on the cross was the supreme high priest offering the perfect sacrifice in obedience to the will of the Father. This sacrifice made him “perfect”, that is to say it enabled Him to achieve the end which the Father had planned for Him: that He should stand in the presence of His Father and our Father. Now when, a few sentences later, the writer speaks of our eternal salvation he is stating that we, too, are destined to stand in the presence of God the Father and he tells us how this is possible: we are to walk in obedience to Christ’s commands which are given to us in the Gospel.
Now we are prepared to answer why we listen to the Passion of the Lord: We are not trying to build up an overwhelming sense of guilt that in some perverse, self-indulgent way makes us feel better because we are feeling overwhelmed with grief; no, we are bearing witness to a journey of love. At each step along the way we should be coming to a deeper, a more profound, understanding of how much God loves each one of us. The Father permits the suffering of the Son in order that we might understand the power of love. And He asks only one thing of us: that we should allow this love to penetrate into our inmost being so that every thought, word, and act of our life should be transformed by that love, should be in accord with His will. And this task is not beyond us: Jesus has promised to pour out the Spirit upon us if only we would permit Him to do this.
The remainder of this Solemn Commemoration of the Passion is our response to this invitation of the Lord. First, we pray for our needs and the needs of the whole world: that all mankind might come to know the saving power of God. Secondly, each one of us makes our way to the cross to express publicly, in front of all our brothers and sister, our love for Him who died for us: to offer a small symbol of our love to Him who gave everything for us. And lastly, we come to receive the sacrament of His love, to receive His Body and Blood, His life, into ourselves that both body and soul might be transformed into Him who we have received. In these ways let us make our own the words He gave us: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven. Amen.