Friday, April 10, 2009

A Meditation For Good Friday And Holy Saturday

(I’m posting this late, since obviously I wasn’t going to be on the computer at all this afternoon, but I thought I would still share this meditation I wrote last year for a Lenten evening of reflection on the “Seven Last Words” at the university from which I recently graduated.)

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

—Mark 15:34

In my mind at least, these words are the very essence of the entire Passion. Even while Jesus’ physical and emotional torments were truly horrible, they are nothing when compared with this, Christ’s spiritual suffering.

God is truly the source and sustainer of everything good. Without Him, even things which we would consider good for their own sake—things like friendship and human sympathy, or natural beauty or artistic accomplishment—are empty and valueless. God is incalculably greater than all that He has made, and He is the only source of all joy.

This is why we are called to love God “with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength” (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5), because as we grow in our faith God should become everything to us. I think this is also why thousands of martyrs were able to relinquish all the things they held most dear in their earthly life; they understood that they were trading a small puddle for the ocean.

Of course Christians are still human, and we will feel pain when painful things happen to us. If we were to become seriously ill or lose someone close to us, it would be completely normal and healthy for us to grieve. Still, our faith could help us bear our grief with peace and hope.

But what if God Himself were to abandon us? Theologically, we know that God would never forsake any of us, His children. But in some sense, the question is not irrelevant.

For example, we now know that Bl. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, like many other great saints, spent most of her life under the subjective impression that God had rejected her, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Even if we ourselves never have a similar experience, we may still find it troubling that God would seem to behave this way towards someone so close to Him.

On a corporate level, the people of Israel—the nation whom God had chosen to be His own in a special way—seemed to have felt that God abandoned them during the period of the Babylonian captivity. Their experience is recorded in some of the psalms, as well as in the haunting lyrics of the book of Lamentations:

He has broken my teeth with gravel, /pressed my face in the dust;
My soul is deprived of peace, /I have forgotten what happiness is;
I tell myself my future is lost, /all that I hoped from the Lord.

The thought of my homeless poverty /is wormwood and gall;
Remembering it over and over /leaves my soul downcast within me.

(Lamentations 3:16-20)

In some ways, many of the crises plaguing the Church today can evoke similar reactions from contemporary Catholics. While issues such as the “culture of death,” the breakdown of the traditional family, and the increasing secularity of our society may not always seem as dramatic as the Babylonian exile, they are nevertheless able to shake many people’s faith and prompt them to question Providence.

And yet even apart form all of this, this question is important simply because it was a part of Jesus’ Passion. By virtue of our baptism, we are all called to be with Christ in His Passion to at least some degree. As Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) and “Can you drink to cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)

We don’t stay with Jesus in His Passion because we like suffering, but rather because we love Jesus. I think probably most of us can wrap our minds around the idea of staying with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane—we probably feel that we could keep watch for an hour.

Perhaps with great difficulty, we can even manage to stay with Jesus at the scourging, along the Via Dolorosa, and at the crucifixion. But how could we possibly manage to be with Jesus during the moment he uttered this cry of complete desolation? It would almost seem akin to finding ourselves in Hell!

I honestly don’t know exactly how it is that we can remain with Jesus even here. The only thing I can say is that if God calls us to it, then He must give us the strength that we would need.

But here in the deepest darkness it’s important to remember some other words from the book of Lamentations, found even here in the midst of arguably the most anguished verses in all of Scripture:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted /His mercies are not spent;
They are renewed every morning, /so great is His faithfulness.
My portion is the Lord, says my soul; /therefore I will hope in Him.

Good is the Lord to the one who waits for Him, /to the soul that seeks Him;
It is good to hope in silence /for the saving help of the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear /the yolk from his youth.
Let him sit alone and in silence, /when it is laid upon him.
Let him put his mouth to the dust; /there may yet be hope

(Lamentations 3:22-29)

If, with the help of grace, we choose to continue to love God through darkness, He will use it as an opportunity to configure us more closely to Christ. Our faith will be strengthened, our hope will be increased, and our love will be purified.

Even while we will seem to have lost all of our joy, we will be given newer, deeper joys that we would not have understood before. We will understand Christ in a new way when he said, “Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.” (Revelation 1:18)

And this is the Pascal mystery—the center of our faith and the gift we in inherited at Baptism.

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