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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Facing Our Mortality and Immortality

Although there is no Mass, the rituals for Good Friday are very moving and evocative. However, it is the faith that we bring to the ceremonies which gives it importance for us. An outsider to our faith, might look upon such ritual with awe towards its simplicity and yet confusion as to its meaning. This is because we celebrate a theme which much of our culture seeks to ignore or postpone. We commemorate death. Assuredly, it may not be death as many people understand it, but nevertheless it remains something mysterious and even feared. Our society, with its newfound confidence in science, ironically hides the tragic death of the unborn behind the guise of linguistics while many in the medical field go to elaborate techniques to keep certain other people alive, no matter what the cost. One of the tasks of the Christian is to visit the sick; and yet, how often have we hesitated from that duty? And we know why — because to meet an elderly or handicapped or sick person is to face the specter of our own mortality, death. We dye our hair, or wear something over our heads that lost recently at the horse races; we cake our faces in makeup to cover the blemishes and wrinkles of age; we diet to wear clothes that we could not fit into even as teenagers; we take an assortment of drugs to maintain our vitality; we do all this and more to escape the prospect of age and the ghost of death which lingers in the periphery of our lives.

Even believers on Good Friday might view the death we recall as simply a commemoration of an historical event. But, it is much more than that. The Lord on Holy Thursday washed the feet of his disciples as a sign to them that we are called to humble service. Good Friday is the day that he gives us a summons to imitate him. From our Christian initiation onward, we are baptized into the saving death of Christ. It would set the whole pattern of our lives in which we would experience many dyings and risings. It may sound fatalistic, but it is still true that we are on a pilgrimage from the womb to the tomb. To live means we must suffer. To live we must die. The uniquely Christian message is that although we may not escape death, Christ will give us a share in his story of the empty tomb and triumph over death.

To some extent, all the sacraments are a living out of what we celebrate in the Lenten season leading to Easter. The Mass is a special case in point whereby the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is not only commemorated but is recalled by a living memory. Christ died once and for all for us, but in the Eucharist, that death breaks through the bonds of time and space; we are there. Celebrated in an unbloody fashion, what was missing on Calvary is now provided, ourselves and our faithfulness. If it were by our sins that Christ was crucified; then now in the various Masses of the year we are able to get to the other side of that Cross, to offer ourselves with Christ, as an acceptable offering to the Father. We offer ourselves in our prayers to God, asking him to hear us and to transform us to the likeness of his Son.

As Christians we view death as the consequence of our primordial disobedience, sin. In the ministry of Jesus this perspective is retained. When he healed the sick, he often added an admonition, to sin no more. He also showed that he was the master of both life and death. When the little girl Tabitha and his friend Lazarus had died, he restored them to health. However, he did not use this very same power to avoid his mission in the world. Why? Certainly, he had not sinned. He did not deserve to die, especially not a criminal’s death. Why then did he accept his Cross?

There is a movie which came out a number of years ago entitled, Saving Grace; in it the Pope while gardening gets locked out of the Vatican and begins to roam the street with the ordinary people. He eventually ends up in a small town where apathy has crushed the people’s spirits. They live off charity and refuse to try to improve their lot. Not surprising, the village church is in ruins; after all, what need had a dead people of a church. The Pope, who looks like any other poor man, becomes determined to help stir these people back to life. He starts work upon a primitive irrigation system with the help of children. The adults think he is mad. Lazy thugs in charge of the town try to prevent his work from coming to completion. Just when the project is about finished, the gang leader of the town throws a stick of dynamite destroying part of the works. The townspeople look on. Among the debris is a child, a small boy. All seems lost. All seems for nothing. A boy dies, and what does the successor of Peter have to show for it? And yet, the women and later the men of the village start coming to the wreckage and begin to build. What a price this boy paid. He must not die in vain. How evil an act it was, a deed their sluggishness and despair of life had allowed. They rebuild. Water comes pouring into the town. These simply people begin to rejoice and some even dance in the water. They were dead, and are now alive again. I tell you this story because it speaks to us in a small way about the Cross of Christ. Sometimes to redeem a people, takes a life.

We don’t have to dig any deeper than that for the reason why Christ allowed himself to be betrayed, tortured, and murdered. He did it for us. The words from Caiaphas in John’s Gospel took on a meaning even deeper than he would have ascribed, that there was an “advantage of having one man die for the people” (John 18:14). Jesus was betrayed by his very own friends, the ones who should have protected and loved him. His own people disowned him. Peter denied him. Judas turned him in, with of all things, a kiss! Imagine someone whom you love more than life, betraying your love and doing so with a sign of false affection. I know for some of you this would not be hard to envision. Think about the deep agony it causes. It is at the core of what the Cross is about. I cannot tell you how many men and women have come to the rectory door, crying uncontrollably, because a spouse or a loved one abandoned them. It is the Passion of Christ all over again, a story of a love rejected. And yet, if this were all that the Cross was about, we would be the most pitiful of people. The story of Good Friday is also about a love fulfilled and accepted — a love so great that Jesus was willing to stretch out his hands and feet upon the Cross to show us just how much. Taken in connection with what we celebrate at Easter, it is the message that love is ultimately stronger than pain, betrayal, or death.

Despite how we try, I doubt if any of us can completely cast the thought of death out of our minds. I am sure that among the readers, there is pain for loved ones lost. I do not have to remind you of the suffering and regrets which haunt us. We can take comfort in the Christian message that death is not the end but is rather a new beginning. It is a doorway from this life to another. Because that door closes quickly, we might easily despair as to what is on the other side. However, we do not need to fear. God has promised us that we would never be abandoned. Just as he vindicated his Son after the world’s intolerance had done all it could to him, so shall we be rescued. Jesus himself said that he has prepared a place for us and that in his house there are many rooms. When we encounter the reality of Good Friday, let us remember that we are mortal; that we are not totally in control of our lives; that we do suffer; that we are sinful; and that death is a part of who and what we are. But, let us also recall that we are so much more and that there is a part of us that death shall never reach. Where we are weak, God is strong. Where we are sinful, God can forgive. Where God forgives, there is redemption. Where there is redemption, there is eternal life.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

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