Way of the Cross, Phoenix Park Dublin, Elements for Reflections of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Good Friday, 22nd April 2011
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. There are many idyllic pictures in the history of Christian art about the Good Shepherd. A shepherd’s task is much less romantic and sentimental than those images. Jesus’ task as Good Shepherd is not a sentimental one. Jesus who wishes to guide his flock in selfless love is faced from the first moments of his ministry with challenge. There are those who accept him and there are those who reject him.
The sad thing is that he was rejected by his own. He was rejected by his own on the very same evening in which they had sat with him at table as he established what was to be a bond of communion which was and is to last forever. Their fidelity, however, lasts just a few minutes.
As on so many other occasions, Jesus is recognised by some and he is rejected by others. We saw on Palm Sunday how those who are at the gate of Jerusalem, those who are journeying to Jerusalem in humility, cast their poor garments of little worth on the grounds before Jesus. They cried out “Hosanna” as they recognise the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem the cry of the crowd was to change quickly. The cry was no longer “Hosanna” but “Barabbas” and later “Crucify him”. The crowd is fearful of Jesus. Their fear turns to rejection. They do not know who Jesus is and they do not want to know. They will only accept Jesus if he is the Jesus that they want. All of us are tempted to create a Jesus that we would like, rather than allowing Jesus to make of us the people that God would like us to be and who thus can become be like God.
Many of those who rejected Jesus then and who reject him today know the correct language about him, but they misunderstand its true meaning. They interpret his words and deeds wrongly because they start out in the wrong context. Jesus is truly recognised only at the moment of his humiliation.
Jesus is the fulfilment of the scriptures because he is the one who takes upon himself our sufferings and gives himself totally out of love for our sakes, even in the face of the rejection by his friends. He takes upon himself death itself so that he can free us from the death of sin.
Judas betrays Jesus. Peter despite all his promises denies him. The other disciples pledge their fidelity, but then they all flee. The Shepherd who was about to give his life for the many is abandoned by his very own. But Jesus never flinches in his fidelity. He is the revelation of the God who has always been faithful to his people even after they repeatedly were unfaithful.
Lord help us to be faithful. Help us to follow your fidelity. Help us to be faithful to you, faithful in all our commitments and responsibilities and relationships. Support those who marriages are going through trial. Support priests and religious who are tempted today to betray or falter in their faithfulness to their calling. Support those who are tested under persecution.
Help all of us Lord to be steadfast in our faith, to deepen our faith so that it goes beyond just the repetition of mere words and formulae. Keep us faithful in the darkness that so often obscures your presence from us: your presence ahead of us, leading us as the Good Shepherd.
The disciples cannot get it right. When Jesus needs them, when he needs the human support of those who are his friends and those whom he has chosen to be his witnesses, they sleep. Three times they are overwhelmed by sleep: they fail to recognise how dramatic this moment is. They close their eyes to reality and flee into the comfort of sleep.
Then when Jesus is already clear that he is going to enter into the path which his Father has destined him to take, the disciples feel that they can now help him; but their reaction once again is the wrong one. One of the disciples turns to violence. He takes out his sword. He reacts to those who ignominiously come to take Jesus with swords and clubs by becoming just like them, squalid men of violence. The disciples fail to understand how Jesus’ hour has come. Jesus has begun his journey of self-giving for our sake and he will keep steadfastly on that journey in obedience to his Father. Jesus prays: “Let it be as you and not I would have it”.
As Christians we are taken into God’s service. Our Christian life and ministry are no longer something then that derives from us ourselves. We are called to follow Jesus along the path which he takes from Gethsemane into the drama of death, the path we remember today when Jesus emptied himself for our sake. Jesus is not a prophet for himself or of himself; all his actions are entirely at the service of the Father’s mission. His does not cling to equality with God; he does not seek himself but lives for the One who sent him.
Jesus faces the human emotion of entering into painful journey which his Father is demanding of him. Jesus is fearful and humanly uncertain in himself. He feels within him all the natural resistance that each of us also experiences when faced with trials. But in rejecting his own will and following that of his Father he transforms that resistance and gives us the power to do likewise if we unite ourselves with him.
Jesus prayed. True renewal of the Church necessarily requires renewal in communion with Christ. That communion finds a special help in prayer. Prayer is placing ourselves in the presence of God and recognising the otherness of God. Prayer is opening our hearts to God. It is never just introspection. There is a real temptation in our world today where the dimension of transcendence can remain suppressed, that our prayer might become what Pope Benedict called “a form of self-contemplation”. When that happens we become like the disciples who flee from reality and take refuge in sleep, in unreality, in self-centred unreality.
Prayer involves going beyond ourselves; it involves overcoming self-preoccupation; it involves going beyond just what I think, going beyond the limitations which are inherent in me when I stay closed within myself. Overcoming self-preoccupation is a precondition for attaining the freedom and the peace which only God can give.
Lord guide your Church in the confusion of our day. Help us, your people and your ministers, to face the challenges of the day with the mind that it is in Christ Jesus. Give us the strength not to flee from reality into sleep or indifference. Do not allow us to react to the ways of the world by conforming to the ways of the world. Touch the heart of the violent. Conform our hearts and our wills to your will. Strengthen us when we are tested by our own selfishness and sense of self-importance.
Who is this Jesus? Why does he seem always to give an ambiguous answer to the direct questions of the Sanhedrin and the priests? They have the power to condemn him and yet he refuses to say even one word in his defence.
The stark integrity of Jesus stands out in the face of the complicity and falsehood of those around him. Jesus stands alone. Hired witnesses appear to support the accusations against him. The priests and the lawyers and the elders have their minds made up already and push the accusations that they have collected to condemn him. Others mock Jesus and tempt him with the temptation of power and with total disrespect for him. Witnessing to the truth can be a lonely witness.
Betrayal and falsehood also appear on the margins of the trial when Peter, as Jesus had foretold, denies him three times. Poor Peter is a man of contradiction: he is afraid and does not have the courage to be identified as one who was with Jesus. And yet, he was still there observing. He had not fled in total abandonment. He still has hope that all of this might pass, but his courage is only half hearted. He betrays Jesus while Jesus is within just meters of him. But he also still has within him tears with which he regrets his failure and his lack of courage. Poor Peter is a man of contradictions.
Jesus, his accusers say, had spoken of destroying the Temple. He was speaking about his own body which would be destroyed and would rise in three days. But he was also reminding his hearers that one of the signs of the presence of the Messiah was to be a moment of religious renewal, a moment of new holiness and new lustre in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Jesus is the new holiness and the new lustre who would transform the prayer of the Temple into prayer in spirit and in truth. He would transform Jerusalem into his own holy people, the Church, which would embrace faithful believers from all corners of the earth.
Jesus is present today in his Church. He calls us as in every generation to renew ourselves, to renew the Church, to renew it in holiness and in the splendour of integrity of life. He is with his people to overcome the conflict between good and evil which still rages within the contradictions of our own hearts and lives.
The Church is not our construction; its strength is linked with the way in which each of us as individuals and as believing communities enters into personal communion with Christ. We need a real renewal in the Church; we need a renewal in our catechesis which is not about formulae or history or comparative religion but about developing that sense of personal communion with Christ.
Lord renew your Church. Renew your Church as a people of integrity which can stand out as a beacon of what is good and true and loving in the confusion and selfishness of our times. Help all of us repent those fruits of lack of integrity which wounded the lives of so many who were abused with our Church. Lord make your Church like Jesus: a Church which can stand, silent yet fearless, as a witness to truth and integrity, rather than to any form of the compromise of untruth.
Lord, help us in the contradictions of our own lives, in our cowardice, to have the courage to seek the good and the loving and the integrity which should be the sign of those who bear your name.
“Truth is outwardly powerless in the world”, these are the words of Pope Benedict as he reflects on the ongoing trial of Jesus which is founded on untruth and the falsity of pitiful paid witnesses, exploited by the powerful for their own ends.
Jesus once again stands alone and silent. He is not one to attempt to find a quick compromise with untruth and apparently satisfy all. He is not one to find ways out through the language of compromise. He does not bow to public opinion.
Indeed his accusers are the ones who try that card. They try to win a compromise by offering the crowd to free a known and feared criminal, hoping they would prefer to free Jesus. Then as now, trying to manipulate the truth by appealing to the popular opinion of the moment only backfires. The crowd prefers the brigand. Then as now the truth is to be found in personal integrity and not in the will of the crowd of the day.
Judas who thought he could buy cult status and popularity with the authorities realises soon his own weakness and comes back to his patrons in remorse. They have no interest in him. They only wanted to use him and they reject him with scorn and disinterest leaving him abandoned in his guilt, while they huddle in discussion to find a formula which will convince themselves that their hands are clean. The truth is treated with the same scorn and disinterest as was Judas. A culture of untruth perpetuates itself and imprisons us. The truth alone sets us free.
There is a curious turn in the manner in which Matthew sketches his Gospel narrative. The terms which refer to the One who was to come are all used in the text, but curiously by those who are Jesus’ accusers and their entourage. It is Pilate who uses the term “King of the Jews” or “Jesus who is called Christ”. It is Pilate’s wife refers to Jesus as “an upright man”.
Pilate sits on the judgement seat and yet he judges in falsehood. The Jesus who stands before him is the way, the truth and the life. Pilate knows in his heart that Jesus is innocent, yet he lacks the courage to go against a powerful interest group, which curiously is just using him on this day because it suits them. Pilate lacks the courage to go against the crowd, and they cry Barabbas.
What is truth? Where is truth to be found in today’s world? No one wants to be called a liar or one who is untruthful or unprincipled in his or her life. Yet we float in spin. The truth is manipulated, it is blurred and it is buried and covered up.
The truth often appears powerless but it has a unique power to set us free and it has a unique power eventually to burrow its way out of all attempts to bury it. When truth eventually burrows its way out from under the tombstones with which we try to bury it, it emerges with renewed power and energy and its revelations are all the more shocking in their sheer nakedness, as we have seen within our Church, as we have seen in political and economic life and as we see in smaller yet in no less catastrophic ways with the secret sins and lies of our own lives and hearts.
Lord help us to understand that it is better to remain apparently powerless with the truth on our side, than to spend endless time and ideas and money in trying to launder the truth. Help us build a society founded on truth rather than on the illusions of spin and so much empty imagery of marketing. Help us to realise that the crowd is not the measure of truth. The crowd will cry Barabbas when it suits. Help us to give our coming generations a real appreciation of the fact that the integrity of their lives and thus their success in life depends on their ability to live in truth and to defend the truth.
The Jesus who was born in utmost humility and simplicity; the Jesus who went from town to town preaching Good News and doing good; the Jesus who cared for people, healed them and lifted the burdens which bore them down: this Jesus dies the death of a criminal. Close to him are just other criminals and the course soldiers numbed of any sensitivity by the cruel life that they have to lead.
There is no trace of human sensitivity or tenderness. The more Jesus draws near to death, the greater the callousness and uncouthness that surround him.
Again Jesus is alone. The Son of God hangs helpless on the cross made by men and those who pass by mock and jeer him. Again they jeer him, again curiously with the language of religion. They use the names of the prophets. They mock him with imagery of what he could do if he were truly Son of God. But they have no idea who God is, they have the right terminology but their idea of God is the wrong one. They want a God who exercises power in the way that their own corrupt rulers exercise power. God’s power is not that.
Jesus who is the revelation of the God of power and might shows his power in recognising his abandonment. He recognises that it is when all our human supports have been taken away from us, when we feel abandoned by all that we place our hope in, that the power of God comes to us in a totally different way.
Jesus goes through the abandonment of the Cross by giving himself totally out of love for us. Jesus was divine, but his love for us was also human love. It was not the cheap love of the movies. It was love that cost in every sinew of his body. It was love that tore at every emotion of his heart. It was love which endured the cynicism and the mockery and the humiliation of those around him. He could have called on Elijah; no, his self-giving was total as was his fidelity. Jesus abandons himself to God’s will and yielded up his spirit.
Jesus emptied himself but the gained the name that is above very other name. Lord By your Cross and resurrection you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the World.
This death had epochal significance. The veil of the Temple was torn in two, rocks split, the earth quaked. And in the midst of all this natural upheaval Matthew draws our attention away from the scene to something else. We read: “And many women were there, watching from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee and looked after him”.
In the midst of the turmoil and the uncouthness and the violence, there is still a humble presence of women of faith and care who despite the dramatic spectacle and all the appearance of closure of their hopes stand there still, at a distance. They had looked after Jesus. It is those who care and not the hostile and indifferent who remain faithful even at moments of doubt.
Lord make us cautious of going with the crowd or following the story of the day. Lord keep us faithful. Keep us caring. Let us not be weakened by the busyness and the uncaring, by the slanderous and the gossip and tittle-tattle of our world which has little to do with what our lives are really about.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus crucified.