On Good Friday, Christians commemorate – not “celebrate” – the Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a day for thinking about ultimate things. The Church is constantly at pains to remind us that no matter how our temporal lives may run, every one of us will face “the last things:” death, judgment, and either heaven or hell. No one, however great or small his Earthly life in the eyes of others, can escape that trial.
For a starter on this solemn day, please read this brilliant piece from the late Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, better known to the world at large as Pope Benedict XVI. His Holiness Pope Benedict stands among the greatest theologians of recent centuries. His insight and clarity made him one of the foremost “public intellectuals” of his day. No one could read any of his writings without coming away smarter, better informed, and more reverent. The cited essay is an excellent example of his thinking and writing.
When you’ve finished that piece, feel free to continue with my crap below.
Some dismiss the Christian vision of ultimate judgment as a myth. Hedonists dislike the very idea of it; it impedes their focus on Earthly pleasures. The young and willful grow sullen at the suggestion that there are some things, however enjoyable to the flesh, that should be forgone for the sake of the soul. They’re not interested in contemplating Pascal’s Wager. That’s in the nature of youth, which is naturally impatient of restraint.
But Christ died for them, too.
Christ’s church has many enemies. I need not enumerate them all for my Gentle Readers, who are surely well enough informed about that. But I will posit something that, though it seems clear to me, eludes some who are nominally bright enough to figure it out for themselves. Bear with me as I ponder how best to express it.
“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible…and not tell them that?” — Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette is a notable atheist, yet he perceives the core issue of the Wager. As an atheist, he’s personally indifferent to it. However, he can tell a good man from a bad one. He easily evaluates the character of the gentle proselytizer who approached him as good, for he grasps the urgency of the thing at issue, even if he rejects the premise.
Now reflect on Christ as a man, for He was as much man as God…and as a man, He could suffer as men suffer.
As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Had Jesus of Nazareth not been the Son of God, what would you think of Him? A megalomaniac? A deluded mystic? Perhaps a First-Century snake-oil salesman? All that walking, all that preaching, all that “dining with sinners” and so forth? What purpose could He have had? Most especially, what could His purpose have been in accepting His Passion and Crucifixion?
We know from the Gospels that He dreaded what was to come:
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus feared. He feared the awful sufferings He foresaw would come to Him in the following hours. He prayed to His heavenly Father a repeated and earnest prayer to remove this cup of suffering from Him if it was possible. During His prayer, He knelt; He prostrated Himself on the ground; He struggled so hard to reconcile His natural inclinations to the divine will that He fell into an agony and bloody sweat.
A feeling of futility must have been one of the major causes of the interior sufferings of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the one hand was the terrible price He would pay for our redemption; on the other, indifference, ingratitude, neglect, and rejection. That Christ should accept the sufferings of His Passion to redeem even the saints was an act of divine prodigality; that He should accept the role for all of us was an act of generosity beyond all comprehension.
[Father Ralph Gorman, The Last Hours of Jesus: From Gethsemane to Golgotha
Surely, were He only a man, we would be right to think Him insane, deluded beyond all possibility of recovery. But would an insane man do as He did, preach as He preached, or exhort His followers to love one another as He loved them? Would an insane man tell His Apostles who, when the crisis arrived, were ready to save Him by force of arms, to refrain?
And behold one of them that were with Jesus, stretching forth his hand, drew out his sword: and striking the servant of the high priest, cut off his ear.
Then Jesus saith to him: Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot ask my Father, and he will give me presently more than twelve legions of angels? How then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that so it must be done? [Matthew 26:51-54]
What better measure for His love could there ever be? What insane man could love like that? And if He was not insane or deluded, how should we deny Him our love and adoration?
The above ponderings are mental food for any day, but for Good Friday most of all. The tale of Jesus’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection is unique in the history of Man. Though there are those who dispute it – it’s possible to dispute anything that can’t be reproduced on command – the evidence for it is strong. Over the two millennia since then, it has inspired billions, including many thousands who have gone willingly to their deaths rather than renounce it.
And with that, this narrow-gauge preacher will wish you a good Good Friday. Perhaps it’s a day for rejoicing after all, for who would not be exalted by such a gift of love?
May God bless and keep you all.
It has been my habit for more than 20 years now to listen to the complete Bach St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday (as I am doing as I write this), which I consider one of the greatest single pieces of music ever written and one of the greatest expressions of faith and devotion. I highly recommend the practice. (I have over 150 recordings, but my recommended performance is the Otto Klemperer recording, which is available on Spotify).
Say what you will about Penn – he can be an obnoxious horse’s a$$, but he does have standards, and he lives by them.