The Liturgy today – the Word of God that we have listened to- brings us face to face with the Gospel of suffering love. Today the meaning of the entrance antiphon of yesterday evenings Mass of the Lord’s Supper comes alive: ‘We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free’.
So, the question that comes immediately to mind is this: How ready to embrace the cross – how real are you prepared to be?
The names of Irene and Victor Chero may mean nothing to you but for a very moment in 1985 they were well known. They were chosen to greet John Paul II on his visit to Lima in Peru. There was a clear protocol. They were to come onto the sanctuary as representatives of the Christian communities of lay faithful and simply say ‘Holy Father we welcome you in the name of all the Christian communities in Lima to Peru’. Then they were to leave the sanctuary.
The great day arrived, and many thousands had gathered for the Mass including the entire government. At the appointed time onto the sanctuary came Victor and Irene Chero and stood before the microphone, Victor began:
‘Holy Father, we are hungry! We suffer affliction, we lack work, we are sick. Our hearts are crushed by suffering as we see our wives give birth to sick children, our children are dying, and our sons and daughters grow weak without a future. But despite all this, we believe in the God of life!
Holy Father, may your visit once again make the words of Jesus come alive and effective among us…our hunger for God and our hunger for bread need to be heard.’
There was am embarrassed silence and Victor and Irene were hurriedly moved off the sanctuary until John Paul, who was visibly moved, asked for them to come back. He embraced them warmly and then said:
‘I have listened to the words of my brother and sister, for they have spoken today the Gospel of life. I want their hunger for God to grow more and more and their hunger for bread to be satisfied. People should hunger for God, but it is intolerable in our day that God’s children should be starved of basic needs’.
To be alive is to be aware of the immense suffering that surrounds us in our personal lives, our families, in the world at large. Being a follower of Jesus Christ in no way protects us from this painful fact of life. Indeed, there is an enormous danger today that people want to hear a version of the Gospel that is anesthetized – sanitized of the reality of life – a gospel of prosperity.
We preach, as Isaiah so clearly put before us in the first reading, a God who was despised, rejected, who had no human beauty, a man familiar with grief and sorrow. We preach a crucified God. To be a disciple of this God made flesh is to take the same road as he did from Bethlehem to Calvary. Looked at with the eyes of raw reality the incarnation was a mess from beginning to end. Rejection, shame, fear, uncertainty, born among animal waste, exiled, misunderstood, acquainted with controversy and then victim of a cursed and criminal death. The bottom line: there was nothing easy about the incarnation. Or as Paul says in Hebrews today, we do not have a high priest who is unaware of our sufferings. The love of God will inevitably, therefore invite us to embrace in our turn all the confused reality of our humanity and that of others. A passion for God goes hand in hand with a passion for humanity.
What did Pope Benedict write in his first encyclical: Deus Caritas Est: n12
‘..it is God himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep’, a suffering and lost humanity…His death on the cross is the culmination of that turning of God himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (Jn 19:37), we can understand the starting point for ‘God is love’...It is from there that the definition of love must begin’.
The passion narrative of John takes us to that pierced side of Jesus. Why? Yesterday I reminded us of the large number of lambs sacrifice at Passover. The altar was specially constructed with drains so that the blood would flow out of the south side of the temple mount into the Kidron valley below. Anyone approaching would see the blood a water mingled. Jesus is the new temple – the genuine meeting place of God and man on earth. If the altar therefore was the focal point in the Jewish temple then the heart of Jesus is the altar of sacrifice. The heart of Jesus opens us to the true meaning of love, which has nothing to do with sentimentality.
As a little boy I had a project. I wanted to buy my mother a small glass vase. To do so I had to borrow money from my father’s pocket when he wasn’t aware – I wasn’t a big thief and I only stole for good projects. I wanted it to be they very first thing that she saw on the day of her birthday. I crept into the bedroom early while my parents were asleep and place the vase on the bed. I waited outside to hear the cry of delight but all I heard was crash! I rushed in to see the vase in many pieces. My mother tried to console me by telling me that she would still treasure this irreparable vase forever. The broken pieces remained at the side of her bed, she died when I was 17.
I lost sight of them until they were rediscovered after my father’s death, at Nazareth House in Middlesbrough, the sister in charge asked me what they were. I said they were the ‘broken fragments of love’. Finding God in the broken fragments of our own lives would seem to me to be at the very heart of our Christian journey. The strange truth that life has taught me is that love and suffering are not two opposites but two sides of the same coin. Only the person who is able and willing to suffer is a person who is able to love.
To be alive, to be willing to love, means we will get hurt, we will face misunderstanding, we will have physical pain, get sick and we will grow old, we will die. Suffering, the Cross teaches me, is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived. Suffering is a fact of life and while we cannot avoid it, we can choose how we are going to live it.
In his great encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, John Paul II wrote:
‘The cross is like the touch of eternal love on the most painful wounds of humanity’. The Gospel that we proclaim, and which guides us through life is not written in eloquent language in a beautifully produced book, but in the torn and bleeding flesh of a young man suffering in great agony on the cross. This is the wisdom of God that Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 1:17f and which Jesus invites us in Lk 9:23-27 to daily take up. No Cross -No Jesus!
What shape this Cross will take in your life or mine we can never predict but it is something that will ultimately shape us for eternal life.
In 2011 I was in Calcutta giving a seminar to 58 Missionaries of Charity from around the world. During a discussion a Sister who worked in a night shelter in Sydney shared this experience. The men could come to the night shelter at 3.00 p.m. to have their clothes washed, a shower and a hot meal and a bed for the night. The shelter closed its door around 9.00 p.m. in the evening. The sister had just done this when there was a ring on the doorbell. She opened a shutter in the door and could smell the man before she could see him. ‘What can I do for you?’ she asked. He said, ‘Open this door, I want a bed!’
She brough the man in and sat him down. She asked his name. ‘Don’t you worry about all that’ he said. By this time the sister’s blood pressure was rising, she explained that the government regulations meant that she need to have a record of everyone staying in the premises in case of fire etc. She asked again: ‘So what is your name’ He replied: ‘Call me Jesus’. The blood pressure was at the point of explosion and she said she felt like banging his head off the wall. However, she didn’t and asked with a slight edge to her voice: ‘Why should I call you Jesus?’ He said, ‘You see sister you wear that cross on your habit – me, I live that cross everyday -call me Jesus!’
Pope Benedict put it well in Cyprus in 2010:
‘The cross is something far greater and more mysterious than it first appears. It is an instrument of torture and defeat but is it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world has ever seen. It speaks to all who suffer, the oppressed, the sick, the poor, the outcast, the victim of violence and abuse – and it offers them hope that God can transform their suffering into life. A world without the cross is a world without hope’.
When we come to venerate this cross in a few moments can I invite us all no matter where we are to bring to the cross in the silence of your hearts everything that is weighing you down, every anxiety, pain and sickness of body and soul. Reach out to Him and know that by his wounds YOU HAVE BEEN HEALED.
Let me conclude with this illustration. A priest in Zimbabwe told me of a very moving experience one Good Friday. At the veneration of the Cross a little girl, when it was her turn to venerate, literally embraced the cross and the priest’s legs: giving the cross a smacking kiss that could be heard all round the church she turned to the congregation and said: ‘Ini ndinomuda chete!’ I just love him so much! You will not find this heartfelt response in the liturgical books but at root here is our response to this powerful act of love.
Abbot Robert Igo, OSB
Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey
2 April 2021