A Bittersweet Time (April 2001)

April 2001

A Bittersweet Time ©

Good Friday is bittersweet.

It is bitter because it reminds us of our sorrows – pain and suffering; rejection and loss.

As we reflect upon the emotional torment of Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, the physical agony induced by lashes, thorns and nails, and the spiritual emptiness of betrayal and rejection, we feel great sadness. Sadness may even understate the feeling we might experience trying to witness those final hours through the eyes of Mary who, despite inestimable suffering, stood by her son as he died the slow and humiliating death of crucifixion.

We are particularly saddened when this scene reminds us of our own vulnerability and loss. We soon come to realise that, as Paul tells us, Jesus did not cling to his divinity. If ever there was a moment when Jesus came closest to our human experience, it was during his passion and death.

Who among us has not suffered some degree of emotional anguish, physical suffering or spiritual emptiness? As we grow older, our legacy of loss grows and, unless we are already one with Jesus, our fears and anxieties multiply as a direct result.

We are indeed blessed as Christians to worship a God who understands us because he experienced first-hand the joys and tribulations of human existence.

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.
– Romans 4: 15

Paul explains to us in his letter to the Romans that our power is in the Lord who suffered and died as we do so that we may share in his resurrection. In fact, we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are.

This, he says, gives us the courage to claim the inheritance earned by our brother Jesus the Christ: Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may received mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Indeed, each time we share in the resurrection – the form of renewal – we are strengthened against pain. (Conversely, without such grace, each blow diminishes our resistance.)

In the process, as Paul points out, suffering leads us to the only true healer – the wounded healer:

(Christ) learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Foretelling his suffering, Isaiah so describes our Saviour, who John the Baptist called the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering …He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.

The prophet also serves to explain how this suffering released us from the clutches of evil: He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

Save me in your steadfast love.
– Psalm 31

Good Friday is also a sweet moment. It is a riveting experience of love and a compelling symbol of hope.

The cross that we venerate is the noblest metaphor for love because it reminds of the unconditional and boundless love that God the Father has for us. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.

Too, it is a vivid reminder of the love that Jesus has for me personally because he accepted death as the price for my sins, so that – unlike Pilate – I might accept the liberating Truth of God’s word.

Most of all, we celebrate Good Friday with full knowledge of the Resurrection. We understand that while Jesus became one with us on the cross, we become one with him in the Resurrection, or at least, we have been offered that possibility. In freedom, we must now chose one of two paths that lead from Calvary: the one that leads though hope to new life; the other that leads through despair to death.

Certainly a person of faith is not immune to anguish. But what is sometimes termed “the anguish of the saint” is manifestly different from the anguish of someone who turns away from God.

The anguish of the saint is a shared anguish. It recognizes that God went to great lengths to help us bear its burden. It urges us to reject the sting of emotional death by accepting Christ’s ultimate gift.

We call him our saviour precisely because he carried onto his cross our anguish and suffered its most extreme consequence, namely death. As the prophet Isaiah had predicted, Jesus the Christ bore our grief and carried our sorrows.

Perhaps the most eminent theologian of our time, Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote: “Christ carried the anguish of the world in order to give the world in exchange what belongs to him: his joy and his peace. His joy and his peace cannot be separated from his life on earth, from his cross, from his descent to the dead, from his resurrection.” But we cannot passively appropriate the redemption from fear and suffering earned by Jesus. Salvation is not a spectator sport. Our redemption requires participation.

But before we wade into the passion of Jesus, we would do well to learn that, in its broadest sense, our night of anguish is framed by joy. As the Swiss-born Balthasar added, it is not possible for God to lead someone to the anguish of the cross without having that person experience the splendour of Christian joy.

Take up your cross and follow me.
– Matthew 16: 24

To understand this, we must assess what is meant by Christian joy. It is not a pain-avoiding, pleasure-seeking illusion, but a consciousness-building, soul-satisfying reality. Christian joy assures us that we can bloom where we are rooted. We are adapted to the soil and the climate which surround us and we are nourished by benevolent elements.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God promised to comfort us in our grief and to turn our mourning into joy. The Hebrew scriptures, in general, points to a brighter future, as do the Beatitudes recounted by the evangelist Matthew: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. This is a deposit of faith, a foundation of hope and an expression of charity, which is love.

From the cross, Jesus revealed the way, the truth and the life. Indeed, he embodied those realities — and still does today, in a mystical manner. The Franciscan theologian and mystic St. Bonaventure certainly saw Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. In his book The Journey to the Mind of God, we read:

“Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant and the mystery hidden from the ages. A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a pasch, that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulchre, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: Today you will be with me in paradise.

“For this pass-over to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.

“If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardour of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: No man can look upon me and live.

“Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough. We may say with Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; and we can rejoice with David, saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage forever. Blessed be the Lord forever, and let the people say: Amen. Amen!”


Francis, lover of Christ Crucified

We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches in the whole world, and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

– Prayer by St. Francis of Assisi

O glorious St. Francis, already in your youth you renounced with a generous heart the comfort and ease of your father’s house in order to follow Jesus more closely in His humility and poverty, in his mortification and passionate love of the cross. You have merited thereby to behold the miraculous stigmata impressed on your flesh and bear them about you. Obtain fir us, we pray, the grace of passing through life here on earth as though insensible to the ephemeral splendour of all worldly possessions, with our hearts constantly beating with love of Jesus crucified even in the darkest and saddest hours of our life, and with our eyes ever serenely raised toward heaven, as if already were enjoying a foretaste of the eternal possession of the infinite Good and His divine and everlasting joys. Amen.

– Felician Book of Prayers