“I like to know in advance precisely what I’ve got to pay. I like to work to a tariff. What I found attractive in mercenary love was, probably, that it had a fixed price.”
These are not the words of Jesus Christ; these are the words of Louis, the central character and dominant voice of Francois Mauriac’s novel, Vipers’ Tangle. Louis is a master interpreter. The psychological profile that Mauriac creates shows a man who, over the course of a lifetime, has learned how to reinterpret nearly every event or action on the part of others according to his own predetermined narrative. In a passing thought he admits how he despises interactions with waiters and cab drivers because, as is the custom, customers respond to their services with tips, which, ostensibly, exceed the stated price of the service. Louis hates tipping. He hates what he can’t calculate in advance because it thwarts his control of the narrative.
Many of us are accustomed to tipping, but I imagine rather than standing apart from Louis here, we rather tend to hide what Louis makes bear: we, too, hate tipping. We create certain rubrics in our minds as to what the service rendered should be like, calculating the cost of that quality of service—measured according to our expectations—at the end of a meal or the end of a ride, or throughout either with an internalized ledger, so as to calculate what we owe in the context of this commercial exchange. In this way, tipping ordinarily becomes a form of compensation within a modulated but still quite fixed schema for determining the meaning of things, which here happens to concern the transaction of fee for services. Louis didn’t want to be bothered with adjusting his scale while many of us are practiced in doing so. In the end, though, most of us really do hate tipping… real tipping, which confounds calculation.
At the risk of making this rather too crass, I can’t help but think that with his last breath, Jesus leaves a tip. A real tip. An uncalculated, incalculable tip that is not only in excess of what is earned and what is owed, but which also relinquishes him of the very power to interpret. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23:46, RSV).
This man Jesus, who returned again and again to prayer—as was his custom (Luke 22:39, RSV)—drew in the words of the Psalter as his living breath so that when he exhaled that last time those words came out as his own. (They were, after all, His words to begin with: the Word.) What he received is what he gave, without sluggishness or guile. And so when the words of the 31st Psalm accompany the handing over of his spirit, he makes himself into that definitive act of trust of which the Psalmist mused: You will not abandon me into enemy hands, but will set my feet in a free and open space (Psalm 31:9, NAB).
What are these enemies but scheming men (31:21), those who construct tiny worlds in which to control meaning? Scheming men set up ledgers to preserve themselves from loss, the ones who “know in advance what I’ve got to pay” and obstinately refuse to give an iota more than what is justly required, according to one’s own reckoning. The true enemy, then, is not any man himself or even the whole lot of men, but rather the scheming in which men become entangled, in which they allow themselves to become twisted and turned so that giving something freely, without interpretation, is no longer possible. It is their custom.
The untangling of this mess of calculations and gaming, these knots of measurements that wrap around often unannounced but nevertheless operative scales of value and compensation is not—as we might expect—to try to find someway to justify giving more. The grip of the enemy is the urge to control meaning; this is what must be cut.
To be and to create and to give and to live… and then to let go of the meaning of it all, to give that power over to another—this is the peculiar genius of the Christ, the logic of God. His life is his work of art and his work of love and, as Hans Urs von Balthasar comments, “he is not so tasteless as to interpret himself,” (Life Out of Death, 39). In short, Jesus leaves a tip: he deposits his power of interpretation into the hands of his Father—the hands of the one who does not scheme—as the absolute act of trust, of radical gratitude that does not say thank you for some thing but just says thank you, pure and simple, no strings attached, without consulting a ledger, absolved of calculation and measurement.
Jesus’ tip is the move outside the framework of fixed prices, beyond the tit for tat and furtive quid pro quo of a scheming world. He hands over the interpretation of himself to his Father, his own ‘freedom of interpretation’, that power to make any claim as to what he himself means or what he himself meant or what he himself will mean. All at once he releases all of it in this final act, the only act of his entire life: I give myself to You.
I have had the privilege of standing both with my father and grandpa as they each took their final breath. Two years and one day after my grandpa breathed his last, I stood again beside a hospital bed holding the hand and stroking the forehead of one whom I loved, watching intently for the next rise of the chest, an indication that life still lingered.
For both of them the end came suddenly, but not unexpectedly: my grandpa after a week long struggle to recover from a heart attack, and my father after an extended period of time in and out of the hospital for a variety of cardiac and pulmonary issues. But knowing the end is coming did nothing to prepare me for standing there as it happens, gazing upon one beloved in the midst of the complexity of human relationships.
Saying goodbye to my grandpa was difficult, as was witnessing the pain and grief carried by my grandma, my mother and her siblings along with my brother, sister and my cousins. Yet there was satisfaction in a life well lived, a man well loved. Listening to the stories and memories shared by my family as I began to plan his funeral, one message shone forth so strongly that I insisted on using it as the first reading.
I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:3-11).
My family – my mom, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings – continue the good work begun in my grandpa by God. For my grandpa, “it is finished” meant not the end of the work of God in him, but the drawing to a close of his role here on earth.
Standing beside my father as he died was a very different experience. The years before had been filled with anger, pain, estrangement and isolation. Yet over the previous year grace had broken through bringing about a measure of reconciliation, healing and hope.
Yet there was so much still unresolved.
Questions yet unasked.
Answers yet unspoken.
It can’t be finished.
I have so much more to say . . .
to apologize for
Yet as his lungs continued to fail, we knew it was time to let go. To cling to him would only prolong his suffering. As the medical equipment was cleared away, his entire body relaxed and upon his face came a look of peace at odds with the churning in my heart.
With each raspy breath, we wondered if it was his last. As the time between each gasp lengthened, my brother, sister and I sat together in the tension between clinging to our dad and letting him go. At some point we realized – it had been silent for some time.
It is finished.
Our father is dead.
For the disciples at the foot of the cross, how broken must they have felt?
For Mary, who just watched her son die, would she ever feel whole again?
The days leading up to the cross were filled with joy, feasting and celebration until suddenly – but not unexpectedly – things changed.
Their world was upended and their Savior
lay dying on the cross.
To them, to us, Jesus speaks.
He uses his last breath to utter words confounding to our hearts.
It is finished.
Jesus’ time on earth was done. For us to cling to him would trap us in this place, in this moment, in death. But to allow ourselves to relinquish our grasp on who we thought he should be, how we thought this should end makes space for the Spirit to move in us, continuing the good work begun in our creation out of love and brought to perfection on the cross.
The past is finished.
We hold the memories in our hearts
and turn our faces to the sun, for salvation has begun.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46)
Ordinary people and extraordinary intellectuals alike have long pondered need for Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Surely, the Son of God does not need baptism for the remission of sins. Yet, there he stood in the waters of the Jordan and instructed his cousin John, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). In his act of submitting to baptism and descending into the waters of the Jordan, Jesus accepts without exception the will of the Father as his will. This act discloses not the necessity (as we in modernity construe necessity) of Jesus’ baptism; rather, it discloses the love of the triune God. This love reveals itself perfectly in the person of Christ whose submission to baptism is an act of prayer, in which he proleptically accepts all that it means to be human, “even death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
In his masterpiece, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes the baptism of Christ as his “Yes to the entire will of God,” a Yes which at one and the same time “expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness” (vol. 1, 17). Jesus’ baptism anticipates his Cross.
I have the very bad habit of establishing boundaries around the stages in Jesus’ life. First, there is Christ’s infancy. Next, his public ministry. Finally, his death and resurrection. While these distinctions can be incredibly helpful, I find that when these boundaries become impenetrable, it is all too easy to forget the unity of the person of Christ. The child who lies wrapped in swaddling bands in the manger is the same person who plunges into the depths of the Jordan, who teaches in parables, and who announces the Kingdom of God. And it is this same one hangs broken on the Cross, praying the Psalms, the same Psalms the people of Israel prayed for centuries, the same Psalms Jews and Christians alike continue to pray daily. From infancy to death, Jesus’ life is “the perfect prayer the Psalms are meant to form” (Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ, 61). His entire life presses toward the event of the Cross. Here, the inner meaning of the Incarnation, that is, the event of God’s love, is revealed. Here, the parables are explicated. Here, the depth of God’s solidarity with humanity is enacted, and perhaps none of the seven final words of Christ make this more evident than his cry of abandonment. In the words of Simone Weil, Christ’s lament expresses “infinite distance between God and God,” the “supreme tearing apart,” the “agony beyond all others,” the “marvel of love” which penetrates the crucifixion (Waiting for God, 123–4).
The words of Psalm 22, which find explicit expression in the final hour, are inscribed in the entire Passion narrative. “The public humiliation,” writes Benedict XVI, “the mockery and shaking of heads by the scoffers, the pain, the terrible thirst, the piercing of Jesus’ hands and feet, the casting of lots for his garments—the whole Passion is . . . anticipated in the Psalm” (vol. 2, 214). At the ninth hour, the Word of God made flesh cries out in a loud voice, the words of Psalm 22 in his mouth. The Son of God dies speaking not a word of his own, but the word of Scripture, the words that become the event of love nailed to the Cross. He dies misunderstood and reviled. Misinterpreting his cry of lament, bystanders in the crowd call out, “This one is calling for Elijah” (Mt 27:47).
Christ dies in prayer. Even in his hour of affliction when God withdraws, his cry of abandonment already contains within it “the gift of an answer to prayer, the gift of transformation” for his is no ordinary cry of abandonment (vol. 2, 215). Benedict XVI explains the uniqueness of Christ’s lament. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under “God’s darkness”; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself—and in doing so he transforms it. (214)
The Passion and Crucifixion is the event of Psalm 22, wherein Christ takes to himself the depths of human affliction and separation from God. Yet, as the enactment of the Word of God, even as these most profound words of despair pierce the darkened sky, they anticipate the glory of God revealed in the resurrection. Psalm 22 begins in the depths of lament, in a grief that cannot be glossed over, but neither can we ignore its conclusion which consists of the psalmist’s praise and profound joy of life in God:
“You who fear the LORD, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away* from me,
but heard me when I cried out.
I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
The poor will eat their fill;
those who seek the LORD will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!” (Ps 22:24–27)
Christ’s suffering, his supreme expression of God’s love and solidarity with us, already contains within it the inner reality of redemption.
My son loves his mother. The depths of this love, this total trust of his mother, is often revealed in those moments in which he encounters a source of pain or discomfort. At these times, he looks upon my wife with pure hope, aware that it is only her tender embrace that could rescue him from the terrible pain or fear that is undertaking him. Of course, as he grows up, he will learn that his mother is not always able to save him from such terror-stricken moments. And his mother, in the midst of such moments, will be equally terror stricken, her heart pierced with the recognition of her own powerlessness in shaping her son’s entire future.
Something of this maternal and filial relationship is captured in the intimate encounter shared by Christ with his mother upon the cross in the Gospel of John:
…standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag’dalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (Jn. 19:25-27).
The God-man gazes with love upon his mother, who is herself looking with total pathos upon the suffering of her son.
Mary, who held her infant son that night in Bethlehem, when there was nothing but a cave for shelter.
Mary who went with her son into Egypt, encountering the terror of a world in which violence reigns.
Mary who lost and found her beloved son, her only son, the son she loved, while on pilgrimage back from the Temple.
Mary, who held her dying husband, Joseph, soothed by the presence of her child, Jesus.
Mary, who let go of her son as he was manifested to the world not merely as the son of Mary but the beloved Son of the Father.
Mary, who must have known the threats faced by her son, by the Son, as he loved the world unto the end, a world not used to such love.
What must Mary have been thinking as she gazed upon the cross, seeing the lonely suffering of her son, the rest of the disciples absent (except for the beloved disciple). Romanos the Melodist, thinking through this moment of encounter, writes:
‘You are on your way, my child, to unjust slaughter,
and no one suffers with you. Peter is not going with you, he who said,
‘I will never deny you, even though I die.’
Thomas has left you, he who cried out, ‘Let us all die with him!’
The rest too, your own and your companions
who are to judge the tribes of Israel; where are they now?
Not one of all of them, but you alone, my child,
one on behalf of all, are dying. Instead of them you have saved all.
Instead of them you have made satisfaction for all, my Son and my God (“Lament of the Mother of God,” 3).
How much the mother of God wanted to interrupt her Son’s suffering, to take it upon herself just as thousands upon thousands of times she soothed the infant and toddler Jesus, who ran into her arms for protection. And now, his arms are nailed to the cross, unable to run to his mother for protection.
Yet now, it is the Son who offers his mother a healing balm. She will not be alone but will be the mother of the beloved disciple. That beloved disciple, who is not simply another character in the Gospel, but is all of us who are “lying close to the breast of Jesus” (13:24). Upon the cross, Mary becomes not simply the mother of Jesus but the suffering and tender mother of all of us.
Charles Peguy in his Portal of the Mystery of Hope takes up this theme. Describing a father, who gives his three children in sickness over to the Blessed Virgin, writes:
And yet She, who had taken them, she was never short on children.
She had had others before these three, she will have others, she had others afterwards.
She had had others, she will have others through centuries of centuries.
And She, who had taken them, he knew for sure that she would take them.
She wouldn’t have had the heart to leave them orphans…
She couldn’t have just left them by the gate…
She had been forced to take them,
She who had taken them (28-29).
Because she is the mother, who knows the suffering of her son, she gazes with the same pathos upon all of humanity, who are destined to belong to her Son’s Body, the Church. All of us are part of her brood.
And we contemplate (this week above all), with our dearest mother Mary, the suffering of our brother, Jesus:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine (Stabat Mater);
We contemplate the suffering of the Son with Mary, our mother, not simply upon the cross but as we gaze at a humanity still undergoing the torment of sin and death. We see his face in the child aborted, in the immigrant spat upon, in those who seem to have no one to love them at all. And together with Mary, our hearts are filled with the pathos of love, desiring that the mercy of her Son might be experienced by all.
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away (Stabat Mater)…
Echo Faith Formation Leadership Program
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Lk 23:34)
Forgiveness is hard. I find it especially difficult when I think I deserve to be angry or annoyed: “Well, I’m right, and you’re wrong. I should be irritated, so I don’t need to forgive you yet.”
I recently had a bit of a tiff with my sister. She refused to do something for me that I thought she should, I was personally offended, and—in display of my impeccable maturity—I stopped talking to her. To be honest, I’m not even sure she noticed that I stopped talking to her. It only lasted for about a week.
But in that week I put my self-righteous anger on display. I vented to friends and coworkers, making sure to let everyone know that I deserved their sympathy because my sister is awful. (She’s not.)
In one particular conversation, a friend asked me, “Why are you so mad? You told me before that you knew she would say ‘no.’” Because I deserved to be mad, that’s why!
Or maybe not. Why was I mad? I was mad because I could easily list off the selfless things I’ve done for her, but she couldn’t do this one thing for me. After listing those off to my friend, I started to think of the many selfless things she’s done for me, and my argument evaporated almost immediately.
I then recalled something I had read recently: it’s not true generosity if you expect something—a returned favor, gratitude, even acknowledgement—in return. Regardless of whether my sister had a history of selfless generosity on my behalf, I was being selfish by refusing to forgive her for offending me. I was not being generous.
St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Generosity Prayer is one of my favorite prayers. Whenever I’m feeling especially resentful, self-righteous, and/or unwilling to forgive another human being, I often find myself repeating the words of this prayer:
Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and to ask for no reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.
In that week of not speaking to my sister, I prayed these words many times. They helped me to turn my focus away from myself and accept that the world does not in fact revolve around me. (You’d think that lesson would sink in by now.)
In our moments of weakness, when we are unable to find the strength within ourselves to forgive, we need to turn to the One who is the source of our strength. Despite agonizing pain on the cross, Jesus was able to turn outward and offer forgiveness: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Lk 23:34). Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was an act of perfect generosity. Forgiveness requires generosity. In a moment when any of us would easily harbor feelings of abandonment, self-righteous anger, and just plain old hurt, Christ chooses to forgive. He forgives without receiving anything in return and demonstrates for us that it is actually humanly possible to forgive, even under the worst circumstances. If Christ can forgive from the Cross, what makes me too good to forgive as I carry my own crosses?
I held a grudge against my sister because I wanted to control the ways in which she demonstrated her generosity; turning to God reminds me that I am not in control and that, as the recipient of boundless generosity, I should be seeking opportunities to share generosity rather than to receive generosity.
As we journey through this Holy Week, a week in which we remember Christ’s generous sacrifice for the sake of our forgiveness, may we be mindful of the ways we can be more generous and ask God to help us forgive.
When Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie Gran Torino first came out, I had no interest in seeing it. From what I could tell, it was just another movie with Clint Eastwood being violent but this time he was violent and old. When a friend showed it to me recently, I was surprised and moved to find it’s a story about sensitivity, vulnerability, and redemption.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, the last Caucasian in a Detroit neighborhood of Hmong refugees from Laos. His wife has died and he is frustrated that the Hmong have not cared for the neighborhood. Gangs gain control. Walt, a hardened Korean War vet, has no patience for this.
When marauding gangsters try to coerce his young next-door neighbor into joining, Walt appears with his Army rifle and threatens to kill them if they harass the boy again. When they do, Walt trails one of the gang members and beats him. It’s hard for the viewer not to rejoice a little at Walt’s skilled and efficient justice.
But the violence worsens and Walt’s anger with it. While he’s been a vigilante peacekeeper who desires justice or at least a quiet neighborhood, he becomes genuinely furious. The man who hates neighborhood disrepair tears up his house, punching cabinets and kicking furniture. Presumably his anger is at the gangsters.
He plots some unnamed vengeance and goes to the gang’s house, where he clearly wants confrontation. Gangsters stand outside, guns ready. He takes out a cigarette. “Do you have light?” he asks the thugs. He answers for them. “Oh . . . I’ve got light.” He reaches into his jacket to pull out a gun. They fire. He falls back to the ground, arms stretched outward.
All he has is his old lighter.
The police arrive and the viewer realizes Walt never brought a gun. He had no intention of killing anyone or of setting anything afire. He wanted the gang members to kill him so they’d be arrested.
When he hits the ground he’s on his back, arms perpendicular to his body. It’s not hard to see the meaning.
Walt, the drinking, cursing, threatening vet — a powerful man who makes himself a lamb and leads himself to the slaughter. His death brings light into a troubled world.
Walt is life and light. After so much retribution he sees it’s his own death, death by yielding and not firing, that can shed any light. In retrospect one sees his earlier frenzied anger was not at the gangsters; it was at himself for creating more violence. What he brings to light is not merely the gangsters’ guilt. He restores calm and peace in a community that is no longer what it once was. By his death Walt restores the right order.
This is what the Paschal Mystery does. Christ’s suffering does not only forgive sins; it does not only eliminate what’s bad. It begins doing work that might be harder: showing us what’s good. This happens in two ways. First, Christ’s death sets the example we are to follow. “Christ suffered for you and left you an example” not to edify you or make you complacent but “to have you follow in his footsteps.” (1 Pt 2:21) Second, in destroying death Christ also actually restores life to creation. It is finished, God says, and it is good.
As the Church draws closer to Calvary, we might do well to recall where we’ve been. At Christmas the Church nestled by the manger and sang, “O come, let us adore Him.” On Friday someone will lift the cross and process down the aisle from the back of the church. The joyous Christmas hymn will mutate into a mournful strain: “Behold the wood of the cross, on which was hung our salvation. O come, let us adore.” Christmas and the Cross culminate in the same call to adore: let us adore God being born, adore God dying.
Three days later the Paschal Candle will travel the same slow path down through the church and become the new center of our attention. Its light spread in our candles will fill the whole church. The priest might intone, “Lumen Christi.” The light of Christ. We might think, “Lumen Crucis.” The light of the Cross.
From the Cross shines light that is never snuffed out. In the burning bush, God shone forth in a fire and revealed his very name; he revealed: God is. At the Cross, other wood becomes the instrument of God’s self-revelation. That wood does not burn; God Incarnate blazes on it and reveals: God is love. When God said, “I AM,” He revealed his entirety, yet there is always more to learn of Him. On the Cross we see the meaning of His words, “I AM the light of the world” (Jn 8:12; 9:5b).
Christ’s blinding light does not diminish with His death but grows. “The light shineth in the darkness,” says John, “and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Jn 1:5, KJV) The darkness has neither understood nor overcome the light. Perhaps Satan thought Jesus would lose His power when He died. Perhaps Judas thought financial woes would end with some silver. Perhaps Pilate thought his political crises would disappear.
But as is always the case, God did far more than anyone expected. Far from snuffing out Christ’s light, His death attests to it all the more. The light expands, widens and rises with His death because in death we begin to see Him more clearly. Because of how He breathed His last the centurion can say, even before the Resurrection, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 14:39).
“Oh, I’ve got light,” says Walt Kowalski. His light is neither the firearm he’s presumed to bear nor the old Army lighter he’s actually carrying. The real light is in what he’s doing—suffering for his neighbors because he wants them to flourish. This is the kind of light that illumines the Christian’s path. Like the light that fires the Christian heart. The Cross’ fire and the Resurrection’s dawn are the same light.
Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine: et sanctam resurrectionem tuam laudamus et glorificamus: ecce enim propter lignum venit gaudium in universo mundo.
We adore your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify your holy resurrection: behold, by this very wood joy has come into the whole world.
“‘By the grace of God’ Jesus tasted death ‘for everyone.’
In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only
‘die for our sins’ but should also ‘taste death,’
experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body,
between the time he expired on the cross
and the time he was raised from the dead.
The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell.
It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb,
reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfillment of man’s salvation,
which brings peace to the whole universe.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, §624, citing Heb 2:9 and 1 Cor 15:3)
After the mystery of Holy Thursday and the sorrow of Good Friday comes the silence of Holy Saturday. On this day the Church watches. She waits. The stone has been rolled over the entrance of the tomb and the guards stand sentinel against the possibility that disciples will come and steal the body of Jesus. Yet while His human flesh lies in the sleep of death, His soul sleeps not: the divine and eternal Word of God descends into hell, where he “brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (CCC, §634). “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (§632). In other words, “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (§637).
At various points in Christian history, this dwelling of the just souls—our fathers and mothers in faith—has been called “limbo,” from limbus patrum. The word “limbo” means “hem” or “border,” as the souls within this realm stand on the border of the realm of eternal life, waiting for the Messiah to come and open its gates for them. In his painting “Christ in Limbo,” Blessed Fra Angelico depicts the moment in which Christ arrives in the realm of the dead, literally blowing the door off its hinges with His divine power. The souls of the just stand ready to greet Him, the long-awaited One, and now they are prepared to accompany the King of kings to the realm of endless day that He has opened forever by His Death on the Cross.
Fra Angelico scholar Stephan Beissel ably unpacks this scene: “Christ carries the standard of the Resurrection and Victory in his left hand, and extends his right hand to Abraham, behind whom one sees Adam, Eve, Moses, David, and the other Patriarchs. … Christ does not touch Satan and advances on a light cloud. He is magnificently dressed in luminous garments and surrounded by rays of glory, while two demons are seized with fear and take flight.”
Not only does Christ “not touch Satan,” but, as Fra Angelico depicts with even a slight shade of joyous humor, Christ utterly squashes Satan beneath the door to the netherworld, recalling the words of the prophecy God addressed to the serpent in the garden of Eden at the dawn of salvation history: “I will put enmity between you and the women, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). The love of Christ poured out on the Cross has created an unstoppable force that breaks the chains of sin, shatters the door of the realm of death and cracks its very foundations, sends demons fleeing, and crushes the head of the serpent; and now he calls to the souls of the just, who have waited patiently for His coming: “‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. … I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead’” (CCC, §635, citing an ancient homily for Holy Saturday).
Christ has burst through the chains of death by “[giving] His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28b; see also Mk 10:45); now He bursts through the doors of hell, releasing the souls of the just from their time of waiting and bringing them to the heavenly Kingdom where they will dwell forever in the very heart of God. We who are still on this side of death keep silent vigil at His tomb, awaiting the moment when He will “burst His three-day prison” and reveal the glory of His resurrected Body and the promise of eternal life for all who believe in Him.
 Stephan Beissel, Fra Angelico (Parkstone Press, 2007), 113.
In this extraordinary work, Pacino di Bonaguida depicts the Cross of Jesus as the Tree of Life. In a cave at the root of the tree lies the devil (his image was scratched out sometime in the 15th century), and at ground level, the Genesis narrative of creation and fall unfolds, indicating that Christ’s death upon this Cross, this tree, sprouted from the seed of Adam and Eve’s sin. Twelve branches sprout from the trunk, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles of Jesus. Hanging from these branches are the fruits of the Crucifixion, and each fruit depicts a scene from the life of Christ. Read left to right, beginning with the bottom branch, these images take the viewer from the Incarnation to the eschaton. By depicting the Crucifixion as the central image among many images, the artist establishes Jesus’ complete gift of self on the Cross as the crowning event in salvation history, yet he also declares that the Cross contains within it the entire breadth of the divine plan for redemption. The Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the proclamation of the Kingdom, the institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the return of Christ in glory—all are rooted in the Cross. “The desire to embrace his Father’s plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus’ whole life, for his redemptive passion was the very reason for his incarnation” (CCC, §607).
To engage in a fully-fledged explication of this rich painting would diminish its power to help us pray through Good Friday. Instead, I offer some of the words the Church herself gives us for our liturgical celebration both as theological commentary on this image and as a means of entering more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate today.
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth; there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance
that would attract us to him. He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom
people hide their faces, spurned,
and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken,
as one punished by God and afflicted. But 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.
We adore your Cross, O Lord, we praise and glorify
your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree, joy has come to the whole world.
(Antiphon for the Adoration
of the Holy Cross)
For, when Adam first offended, eating that forbidden fruit, not all hopes of glory ended, with the serpent at its root: broken nature would be mended by a second tree and shoot. …
So the Father, out of pity for our self-inflicted doom, sent him from the heavenly city when the holy time had come: He, the Son and the Almighty, took our flesh in Mary’s womb. …
Hear a tiny baby crying, founder of the seas and strands; See his virgin Mother tying cloth around his feet and hands; Find him in a manger lying tightly wrapped in swaddling bands! …
So he came, the long-expected, not in glory, not to reign; Only born to be rejected, choosing hunger, toil, and pain, Till the scaffold was erected and the Paschal Lamb was slain. …
No disgrace was too abhorrent: nailed and mocked and parched he died; Blood and water, double warrant, issue from his wounded side, Washing in a mighty torrent earth and stars and oceantide. …
Noblest tree of all created, richly jeweled and embossed: Post by Lamb’s blood consecrated; spar that saves the tempest-tossed; Scaffold-beam which, elevated, carries what the world has cost!
Faithful Cross the saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare. …
Sweet the timber, sweet the iron. Sweet the burden that they bear.
(Hymn for Good Friday Adoration of the Holy Cross)
With the arrival of Holy Thursday, the Church enters into the most sacred days of the entire liturgical year. Throughout the world, millions of people will spend these days in prayerful contemplation, celebrating the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene. Through the grace of the sacrament of the Eucharist, these same people throughout the world will be mysteriously bound together, united with one another in the love of Christ through the Spirit and presented as an offering to the Father. Since the infancy of the Church, the Eucharist has stood at the center of her liturgical life as the fount of grace and the end toward which every Christian life is oriented—it is “the source and summit of Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, §11; see also CCC, §1324).
On Holy Thursday, we recall and celebrate the last night in the life of Christ, when He “gave the supreme expression of his free offering of himself,” and “transformed [the] Last Supper with the apostles into the memorial of his voluntary offering to the Father for the salvation of [all]” (CCC, §610). Jesus, in offering His Body and Blood under the veil of bread and wine, anticipates the complete and utter gift of self He will make on the Cross the next day. In the fathomless grace of this sacrament, by the working of the Holy Spirit, Jesus draws all who receive Him into unity with Himself and with one another, and in this communion, He offers them to the Father. The sacrament of unity, the sacrament of love.
Yet the Gospel passage proclaimed on Holy Thursday is not that of the institution narrative as recorded in the synoptic Gospels (although the second reading recounts the institution of the Eucharist through St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians). Instead, the Church proclaims the narrative from John’s Gospel in which Jesus demonstrates for His Apostles the unity and love He desires them to embody in the world after His return to the Father:
So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper
and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. (Jn 13:2b-5)
It is this narrative of love, enfleshed in a Eucharistic life offered in humble service, that draws our gaze on Holy Thursday, and it is this narrative of love that provides the inspiration behind today’s painting by Ford Madox Brown (1821-93): “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” (1852-56).
The artist behind this work was associated with a movement in Victorian England known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though not a full-fledged member of the organization, Brown adhered to the group’s ideals, particularly of painting works in the artistic style from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Vibrant color and realistic detail were of the utmost importance; moreover, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to reclaim the spiritual nature of that art and thus produced many works with sacred subjects.
In “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet,” the vertical perspective is compressed, and the vantage point is quite low. In this, the artist conveys the sheer humility of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, through whom all things came into being, and without whom “nothing came to be” (Jn 1:3). By compressing the vertical perspective, the artist demonstrates that, in Jesus Christ, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14), descending from the heart of God in order to bridge the chasm between God and humanity that had been caused by sin. By incorporating such a low vantage point, the artist demonstrates that the Word made flesh, in His immeasurable love for the human race, descends yet further, literally lowering Himself down for the service of sinners so that He might cleanse those who cannot cleanse themselves. And yet, in the Eucharist, this same Word made flesh lowers Himself even further than He does in the act of washing His Apostles’ feet. The eternal Word of the Father, the only-begotten Son of God, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep, so desires to remain on earth with His flock that He willingly descends yet further and veils His Real Presence under the forms of simple bread and wine.
Across time and space, the beauty of this mystery has captivated the hearts and souls saints and scholars, laborers and peasants, artists and composers, parents and children. Yet such a mystery defies total comprehension, as Brown reminds us in the all-too-human expressions of shock and confusion seen on the Apostles’ faces. Each face is worth pausing over, beginning at the far right with young John, who gazes at Jesus over Peter’s shoulder with rapt attention. His fellow-Apostles are tight-lipped with brows furrowed, scandalized at the sight of their beloved Master performing the task of a servant, yet John’s slightly-parted lips and clasped hands indicate that he is fully engaged in what is transpiring before him, and he is learning from Jesus that love of others is shown in a life poured out in service. To John’s right (the viewer’s left) sit two more disciples: the hands of one are folded, while the hands of the other are wrapped around his brother in a comforting, protective gesture. Perhaps the fair-haired disciple on our left has been struggling to comprehend the evening’s events; perhaps he is distraught over Jesus’ mysterious words about departing from them soon. Whatever their thoughts, these two men find strength and solace in their mutual love of Jesus, and in this love for their Master, they are perhaps able to overcome their own confusion and fear and enter more fully into the mystery unfolding before their eyes.
Continuing around the table, it seems as though the quartet of disciples in the shadows is struggling more than the others in accepting Jesus’ humble actions. Beginning on the viewer’s right and moving left, the first disciple in this subgroup has a pained expression on his face: his deeply-furrowed brow and wringing hands indicate not only anxious confusion, but also sorrow. It almost seems as if he wants to get up from the table in order to stop Jesus from washing Peter’s feet. The man seated next to him is almost completely hidden from view, yet he appears to be watching thoughtfully, seeming to rest his chin on his hand in a gesture of deep contemplation. Perhaps he has been graced with a greater understanding than the others. The third man in this grouping draws the viewer’s eye far more than the remaining Apostles: wrapping his head in his hands, this man can scarcely bear to watch such his Master perform the abject task of a servant. So, too, with the fourth man in this subgroup, head resting on folded arms, watching Jesus with an expression of quiet disbelief. Finally, there is the Apostle who is next in line in the foot washing: he readies himself to receive Jesus’ act of love by untying his sandals, perhaps calling to the viewer’s mind the words of John the Baptist regarding Jesus: “I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandals” (Lk 3:16; see also Jn 1:27 and Mk 1:7). John the Baptist—called by Jesus Himself as the greatest born of women (cf. Mt 11:11 and Lk 7:28)—deemed himself unworthy to loosen Jesus’ sandals, and yet here, the sandals of Jesus’ Apostles lie cast aside on the floor, and it is Jesus Himself who ministers to them as Servant-Master.
And then, there is Peter. Impulsive, headstrong, whole-hearted Peter, who initially refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet and then, upon learning that he could have no part of Jesus otherwise, begged for his hands and head to be washed as well. Here Peter sits, hands folded in prayerful contemplation, head downturned so as to gaze upon Jesus. Perhaps he still cannot believe that he is actually allowing Jesus to wash his feet. Perhaps the import of Jesus’ actions is beginning to sink in. Whatever thoughts are crossing Peter’s mind, the image is one of intimacy and closeness, at least for the moment (lest we forget the denial that will come only hours later). For now, as Peter thoughtfully regards Jesus, we see the seeds planted that will blossom into witness on Pentecost Sunday and beyond, blooming to full flower in Peter’s ultimate witness to Jesus in his own crucifixion.
Finally, we turn our attention to Jesus Himself. During its first exhibition, this painting was heavily criticized because Brown portrayed Jesus as lightly clad, as described in the Scriptures. The artist sought to portray the Incarnate Word realistically—in all of His humanity; however, Victorian audiences favored depictions of Christ in which He seemed to be set apart from the world, so Brown added the tunic for future exhibitions. Nevertheless, this depiction of Jesus exudes a beautifully human quality, especially in the facial expression. With head turned downward, Jesus is impervious to the tense confusion at the table behind Him, entirely focused on the task at hand in washing His friend’s feet. This same single-minded intensity also characterized the face of the woman in Daniel F. Gerhart’s painting “Forgiveness” (discussed earlier in this series). This mysterious facial expression can only be summed up in one word: love.
Love descends from on high to make his dwelling among us. Love endures life as a refugee. Love grows up in poverty and obscurity. Love retreats into the wilderness and overcomes temptation. Love proclaims the Kingdom of God and seeks out the sinner. Love restores sight to the blind and life to the lifeless. And love gives itself unto the end: washing the feet of friends; offering Body and Blood in bread once bread and wine once wine; enduring the traitor’s kiss, the scourge’s lash, the crown’s thorns, the cross’s weight, the nails, the jeers, the scorn, the abandonment, the humiliation. Love dies, so that love may rise in newness of life and bestow that life upon those who would follow suit in offering themselves in turn as oblations of love. Indeed, love invites such faithful friends to participate in the very life of the Triune God.
As we enter these most sacred days, let us heed the command of Christ: “As I have done for you, so you should also do.”
Once again, Judas Iscariot is the principal actor in both today’s Gospel and today’s painting. Yesterday we witnessed his departure from the Last Supper in order to hand Jesus over to the chief priests. Today, we see that action unfold through a striking image by Barna da Siena from the mid-14th century . The figures in this image are framed by a windowed structure; however, only darkness can be seen out of the windows and beyond the roof, suggesting that the action taking place within the structure is of a nefarious nature.
Apart from the ominous atmosphere created by the dark background, the structure itself creates a feeling of claustrophobia. The figures are crowded within its walls, and its ceiling hangs low above the heads of those plotting to kill Jesus. The shallow depth in the structure also contributes to this impression of confinement. By packing the figures into such a small space, the artist creates a feeling of heightened tension and drama, yet this painting operates on a theological level as well. The claustrophobic nature of this scene suggests that those participating in the plot against Christ are closed in upon themselves—that they refuse to accept a Messiah who comes on any terms apart from their own.
Thus, we see the figures in the painting negotiating the terms by which they will dispatch this unacceptable Messiah. Judas holds several coins, looking expectantly at one of the chief priests, whose right hand appears to be placing more coins into Judas’ outstretched hand as his left hand clutches a bag, presumably filled with more money. The furrowed brows of the chief priest counting the money, the chief priest standing between him and Judas, and even Judas himself, indicate the evil intention behind the action taking place, as do the expressions of those crowded around them to watch the proceedings.
What is perhaps most striking in this painting is the artist’s use of curved lines, particularly in the body language of the figures. The fingers of Judas’ right hand curve inward around the coins in a grasping manner; the fingers of the chief priest holding the money curve downward. The fingers of the chief priest standing behind the two key players curve inward toward each other, and the man on the far left gestures to himself with his left hand in an almost defensive position. Moreover, the lines created by the backs of the figures in this painting all curve inward. Not a single person is standing straight and tall; rather, they are all hunched over, curving in upon themselves as individuals and, more importantly, as a collective entity of religious leaders. Body language of this sort calls to mind St. Augustine’s description of the sinful nature in man which causes him to curve inward upon himself. When a person thus curved inward, he or she cannot be open to receiving the love and grace of God. Instead, such a person has closed himself or herself off to the possibility of God’s love breaking through barriers of sin in order to bring about conversion.
In the Christian tradition, this day of Holy Week is often referred to as “Spy Wednesday,” because it is on this day that Judas began in earnest his journey from disciple to betrayer. In a few days’ time, the scene in this painting will be reversed, as Judas desperately attempts to return the money and undo his actions depicted here. Despite his remorse, however, Judas remains curved inward upon himself and despairs of the mercy of God. The chief priests, too, remain curved inward upon themselves, as they continually refuse to accept the mystery that the Messiah comes, not as a powerful ruler, but as the Suffering Servant.
This refusal to be open to God’s grace ends Judas’ suicide, and chief priests’ handing Jesus over to be tortured and executed. Yet such is the power of God’s grace, made manifest as love that gives unto the end, that God is able to bring life out of death. From Spy Wednesday, we continue the journey to Easter Sunday, when sin and death will be trampled by the risen Christ as He bursts forth from the tomb in resurrected glory.
Image courtesy of ARTstor.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life