The month of April is upon us. We have already passed the midway point of Lent and we are quickly heading to the celebration of Easter and the Paschal mystery. Our preparation for Easter during this season of Lent will truly bear much fruit in the new life we celebrate in the Lord's Resurrection. April is a fitting month for this. Holy Week is also upon us and this solemn week of the Church's year is our most proximate and intense preparation for the celebration of Easter.
One of the basic messages which our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has consistently brought to us from the very beginning of his ministry last year is the need for the Church to be on the periphery. He reminds us that we cannot be closed in upon ourselves but must go beyond our areas of comfort to make Christ's merciful love manifest to those who are on the periphery of society, whether from poverty, neglect or abandonment. A repeated refrain of Pope Francis has been, "The Church has to be on the borders."
As we celebrate Holy Week, we are reminded in a most vivid manner of how God went to the periphery out of love for us. Christ's becoming one of us brought him to the boundary of human existence including the acceptance of death. By His suffering on the Cross, Christ went to the periphery and took to Himself all human suffering which results from sin. By His willingness to go to the edge, there is no suffering in which He is not present. Even in our most terrible pains, Christ is with us and experiencing our pain through His suffering on the Cross. By God's going to our boundaries, we are never alone and His most merciful and tender love is always with us.
There are many depictions of the crucifixion and those who surrounded our Lord upon the Cross. Most of these depictions are from our perspective looking at the cross. The 19th century French artist, James Tissot, painted a unique watercolor entitled, What Our Lord Saw from the Cross. It is a moving composition of the view of Christ looking down from the Cross upon the crowd looking up at Him. Below His pierced feet, which He sees from the Cross, He gazes upon His Mother, Mary, in agony kneeling next to John the Evangelist wringing his hands in pain. He sees a crying Mary Magdalene at His feet as well as many others standing and gasping in awe before Him. While Jesus hangs from the Cross before His death and looks below Him, the scene is one from the boundary of death to which the Lord is surrendering.
As Jesus was about to hand His spirit over in death for us, Satan returned with his most vehement temptation. On the first Sunday of Lent we were reminded of the temptations which Satan placed before Christ immediately before He began his public ministry. Basically, the temptations came down to abandoning His ministry of mercy and love when He foresaw that His mercy and love would be rejected. Satan reminded the Lord that He was the Son of God and did not have to undergo this suffering and humiliation from those who would not appreciate what He was about to do. As the Lord hung from the Cross, we cannot begin to imagine the physical and psychological suffering which Jesus faced. The physical pain of His crucifixion came nowhere near to the psychological pain of His being abandoned by many of His closest disciples. The temptation was fiercely present to Him to come down from the Cross, as the mocking crowd taunted Him to do, and to abandon His mission of love and reveal His power as God.
However, Jesus rejected this temptation because what He saw from the Cross was not only the crowd below Him but also each and every one of us. God’s power is His love. As Jesus was dying upon the Cross our faces were before Him. We were before Him, not as a group, but individually - face by face and name by name. We were before Him with all of our sins which He freely embraced and which led to this terrible crucifixion. It was love for us that gave Him the endurance in His terrible pain and the reason He rejected the temptation before Him. On the Cross, Christ is at the periphery and His love goes beyond all boundaries and brings us beyond the edge into eternal life.
Good Friday is only part of God's going to the periphery for us. The drama of Holy Week finds Christ descending into hell after His brutal death. Our creed professes that Jesus descended into hell and went down among the dead as one truly dead. Holy Saturday reminds us that the love of God is one that goes to the periphery and to places where we would least expect to find Him. He went there precisely so that we might find Him there and never be far from Him. Among the dead, Christ called to life all those who had gone before Him. As a beautiful ancient homily for Holy Saturday proclaims, "Today great silence reigns on the earth, a great silence and stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began."
Holy Week takes us to the celebration of Easter where Christ goes beyond all peripheries. By His Resurrection from the dead, sin and death are conquered and the gift of eternal life is open to all of us. There is no longer any boundary which keeps us from life as God brings us into His own life which is eternal. Pope Francis reminded us in His Lenten message this year that Christ became poor in order that we might become rich. His going to the periphery brings us beyond the periphery.
This reality of our faith is summed up well in the words of the ancient homily for Holy Saturday as our Lord, who descended among the dead, speaks to them and to us: "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead for Christ will give you life. I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendents I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated."
During this month of April as we move into Holy Week and prepare to celebrate the Lord's Resurrection, may we more fully realize that the Lord who has, in the words of St. John the Evangelist, loved us to the end (cf Jn 13:1), has also brought us beyond the end into eternal life!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 6, 2014