Not only did Jesus manifest Himself as the Logos so long desired in the pagan West on that Friday afternoon, but He also manifested Himself as the Christ, the true and eternal king. In some mysterious way, it was the death on Friday that revealed all of this, not the resurrection on Sunday.
As Jesus looked down from the cross, so close to three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, he saw his “mother, with her sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.” Next to the three Marys stood “the disciple whom he loved,” St. John. For nearly four decades, this scene has haunted me. As Catholics, we focus so much on Jesus’s physical suffering on the cross, the pain his mother must have felt, and the forthcoming death and resurrection that we often readily and understandably skip a person who is vital—actually, fundamentally and profoundly critical—to the entire story: St. John. Tradition tells us that John was the youngest, that he was the last to write his Gospel, and that he was the only apostle not to have been brutally martyred. At the moment that Jesus looked down from the Cross, He gave His mother to John, asking him and his house to shelter her. “’There is your mother’; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home.” While I have often wondered what St. John must have felt—the pain and the anguish—at seeing his savior crucified, I have wondered far more often what Jesus must have felt, especially given that He was fully man as well as fully God. No doubt, it meant a great deal to Him to have the four by his side in His greatest moment of agony. All to the good.
But, as a man, what must He have thought knowing that all eleven of His closest male friends had betrayed Him, deserted Him in His hour of greatest need? Judas the worst, to be sure, but even Peter had denied Him three times, and not a single one of them dared suffer with Him or even next to Him that Friday afternoon. Only John. Might this not have been a blow as great as any dealt to Him in his entire thirty-three years of Incarnate life on this world of sorrows? Though I have no idea, perhaps these betrayals were the greatest blow to Jesus. It’s possible I’m projecting too much of myself on the situation, but given that Jesus already knew what God the Father’s response would be, how the people would (pen)ultimately view him, and the fortitude of His mother He had come to cherish, the only real unknown in the entire Passion was the response of His closest friends. We expect nothing of Pilate, but of Peter and James? While their betrayal is, of course, forgivable, it’s deeply disturbing. We expect our leaders to lead, but we—even more—expect our friends to stand by us, no matter the cost. After all, is there a greater definition of friendship? Or, of love?
Could we imagine Beowulf without Wiglaf, or Frodo without Sam?
When Jesus died on the cross, He revealed Himself—at least as St. Paul tells us—as the King of the Universe, the touchstone of all creation.
Through Him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself, making peace through the blood upon the cross—to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through him alone.
Not only did Jesus manifest Himself as the Logos so long desired in the pagan West on that Friday afternoon, but He also manifested Himself as the Christ, the true and eternal king. In some mysterious way, it was the death on Friday that revealed all of this, not the resurrection on Sunday. And, yet, we regard the resurrection as the ultimate joy in a Christian life, the conquering of death itself. If we take St. Paul at face value, however, Jesus conquered death not by His resurrection but by His surrender to death, some forty-odd hours earlier.
Though I am no theologian, I have often thought St. Paul’s understanding came from St. John, with Paul—having been deeply anti-Jesus at the time of Jesus’ death—in hindsight, wondering with some disgust what happened to Peter, to James, and to the others who betrayed their savior.
St. Paul’s meditations on suffering are nothing short of profound, perhaps some of the wisest in all of Western literature. They are worth quoting at length and meditating upon.
In his letter to the Colossians:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. (St. Paul, Letters to the Colossians 1:24)
In his letter to the Romans:
Let us exult in the hope of the divine splendour that is to be ours. More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope. (St. Paul, Letters to the Romans 5:2-5)
In his letter to the Philippians (3: 12-14):
My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Or, as the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote:
And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed. (Author unknown, Letter to the Hebrews, 12: 5-13)
Jump forward, nineteen centuries. Of all meditations on suffering in the twentieth-century, perhaps none have struck me as hard as did Whittaker Chambers in his own memoir, Witness (1952), as he admits to his children that he might very well fail in this world and take his own life, knowing how much pain one can or—simply—cannot tolerate.
My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening. In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pinewoods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have let you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls. This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there; my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman, and child on earth, you will be wise.—Whittaker Chambers, 1952
I do not doubt that St. Peter and St. James grew in wisdom, but I also have no doubt that they never grew in wisdom as did St. John. Or, maybe St. John was wise even before that Friday afternoon.
This afternoon, as you contemplate the death of Our Lord, don’t forget that John remained. Fully man and fully God, Jesus saved all of Creation, but John, so unbelievably human, shows us what the true man does in the face of adversity.
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The featured image is “Golgotha” (1884) by Mihály Munkácsy, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.