Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 3)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"I thirst." (John 19:28)

It’s approaching three o’clock in the afternoon. For nearly 20 hours Jesus has endured torturous treatment at the hands of the chief priests and Romans. He’s been tried, beaten, scourged, dragged his cross through the city and finally nailed to it. Since noon he’s hung on the cross, the hot sun beating down on him. He called to mind Psalm 22 when he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” That Psalm goes on to describe his condition when it says, “My mouth is dried up like clay, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.”

But, Christ's thirst was for more than water, and his words call out to each of us today just as they did to those at the foot of the cross. Jesus thirsts for us. Stop and think about that for a moment. God longs for us. His desire for us isn't born out of necessity, as if there is something lacking in God, but springs from his love for us. He longs for us to know him because he knows that only then will we be fulfilled. The only thing that will bring us true joy and healing is relationship with him and he thirsts for us to enter into that peace.

At the same time we thirst for God whether we realize it or not. In the words of the Psalmist, "As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My being thirsts for God, the living God." (Ps 42) When Jesus called out from the cross those standing nearby offered him a sponge soaked in vinegar to drink. Have you ever tried to drink straight vinegar? It's not exactly a thirst quencher. Yet every day we choose the vinegar of sin to try to quench our thirst rather than come to Jesus who offers living water.

Jesus calls out from the cross to let us know that he longs for us who unknowingly thirst for him. This Lenten season may we choose to drink deeply of the living water Jesus offers through having a personal relationship with him.

"It is finished" (John 19:30)
"Father into your hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

When the Allied Forces successfully invaded France on D-Day it marked the beginning of the end of World War II. That victory all but assured the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. It was only a matter of time to finish the job. Certainly there were many more battles to fight, but once the Allies were able to establish their front lines there was no hope for a German victory.

Jesus came preaching, "The Kingdom of God is near!" Jesus spoke more about the establishment of God's Kingdom than anything else. All that he did was oriented towards this message. The miracles he performed were signs of the presence of the Kingdom. He cast out demons, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and forgave sins all to demonstrate that in the Kingdom of God there is no enemy, no disease, no blindness, and no sin. In short, Jesus came to establish a beachhead for the Kingdom of God to defeat the works of the devil and redeem our fallen world.

Hanging on the cross, Jesus was aware that he had accomplished his mission. By his death and coming resurrection he would guarantee God's victory over sin and death. He had withstood all that Satan and this world could throw at him. He wrestled with the weakness of human nature and triumphed through obedience. He took on our loneliness, fear, and pain. He endured insults, curses and temptation. He did it all, and when the last enemy, death itself, came to claim him he proclaimed, "It is finished" and entrusted himself to his Father. He gave his life; it was not taken from him.

Jesus' victory on the cross won our salvation and liberated us from sin and death, just like the people of Nazi occupied territories were freed by the Allies after D-Day. There are still many battles ahead and the way is not easy. The enemy stills claim victims and inflicts casualties while fighting a losing effort. But we can draw strength from knowing that while there are battles to fight the war has been won. If we endure we will win. This is what Paul means when he writes: 

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:37-39)
As our Lenten journey draws to a close let us look forward with hope that we too can experience the power and presence of God's Kingdom in our lives as we wait for the day when the last battle is done and we can enter into the rest that Jesus has prepared for us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 2)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother." (John 19:26-27)

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. As we listen to the final words of Jesus before his death and resurrection we also call to mind the words of Mary to the angel, "Be it done unto me according to your will." How similar is Mary's abandonment to the will of God as her own son's prayer in the garden the night before he died, "Not my will but your will be done." Here at the cross the obedience of Mary and Jesus come together to free us from our slavery to sin so that we may use our will to say yes to God as well.

In these simple words Jesus entrusts his own mother to the Church, represented by the beloved disciple, and the Church to his mother. We can be confident that as we look to Mary she will always lead us to her son. She was there when he was conceived, there when he performed his first miracle, there when he sacrificed his life for us, and there when he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Scripture tells us that along the way Mary pondered these things in heart. She is our model for living a contemplative life of reflecting on what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. 

May we follow the example of the beloved disciple and take Mary into our homes. May we learn from her humility and faith in God. She said yes when it wasn't convenient to do so. She trusted God even when she couldn't fully understand how he would fulfill his promise. She accepted the joys and sorrows equally because she ultimately knew that God was in control and could be trusted to "work all things together for the good of those who trust in him." May our  prayer be that Mary, our mother, will reveal her son to us in ways that are new and meaningful to transform our lives by the power of his cross and resurrection.

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

Where was God when terrorists attacked churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday? Where was he when women and children were gassed in Syria? Is he all powerful but uncaring, or is he all loving but impotent?  Where is God when over 1 million abortions take place each year in United States alone? Why did God allow the cancer to return? Where is God when life hurts?

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Jesus cried out from the cross with the very questions that shake our faith. The great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar reflected on the depths of the suffering Jesus endured for us on the cross. In his homily, “The Scapegoat and the Trinity”, he said, 
“Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it ... there is nothing familiar about it to him: It is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering ‘hell,’ for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.”
As Catholics we reject the notion that the Father could forsake the Son; that God could turn away from God. But Jesus was not merely God, he was the God-man and in his humanity, hanging on that cross it is not beyond reason to see that he felt abandoned and forsaken. In that moment, in the midst of suffering that goes beyond what we could imagine, in the fullness of his human nature Jesus experienced that dark night of the soul when it seems that even God has turned away. 

What does this have to do with answering questions about evil in the world? How does this apply to the problems of our pain and suffering? Because the Son of God passed through the way of suffering he was able to redeem our pain. It means that though this world is fallen and broken we must pass through the way of suffering, the way of the cross, if we want to experience the joy and glory of the resurrection. The good news is that we have a Savior that will go through it with us, or as Catholic author Melinda Selmys explains, “For Christ, in being forsaken on the cross, entered into this, the deepest of human sufferings, so that even in the greatest darkness we will never be alone.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 1)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

Dr. Bernard Nathanson passed away on February 21, 2011. Dr. Nathanson was a leader of the pro-abortion movement and founding member of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL, now the National Abortion Rights Action League). He estimated that he had supervised or performed over 75,000 abortions including the abortion of his own child. He admitted that he and his associates purposely feed misinformation to the media and deliberately attacked the Catholic Church in order to change public opinion to support legalizing abortion in the late 1960’s. Then something happened. Dr. Nathanson started to question the pro-abortion claim that the unborn child was merely a collection of cells and not a human life.

A longtime atheist, Nathanson still continued to support abortion rights despite his growing doubts until the mid-1980’s when he finally became convinced through advances in medical science that abortion was, in his words, "unjustifiable murder." He then helped to produce one of the most famous pro-life videos, The Silent Scream. Nathanson devoted the rest of his days to fighting legalized abortion. More significantly, he came to faith in God and was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1996.

At the moment of his baptism, every sin he had ever committed, every abortion, every lie, was forgiven. Think about that for a moment. The guilt of 75,000 murders was wiped away, cast as far as the east is from the west. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t he have to pay for all those innocent lives he claimed? Welcome to the scandal of the cross. 

When I think about it, really think about it, I want Bernard Nathanson to be completely washed clean. I don’t want him to have to pay for his sins because I know I can’t pay for mine. If God can forgive Dr. Nathanson then I know he can forgive me. The cross means there is nothing I can do that’s too big for God to forgive. This is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

Forgiveness is the meaning and purpose of the cross. Jesus focuses our attention on this fact by praying for the forgiveness of his executioners. Most victims of crucifixion shouted out curses at their executioners, Jesus cried out for mercy for them. Nowhere else is the scandal of the mercy and grace of God on display more than at the cross. Humanity’s greatest sin, killing God's Son, is met by God’s greatest display of love, the life of his Son given for us.

"I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

Tradition tells us the name of the Good Thief was St. Dismas. We know nothing of his life other than the fact that he was sentenced to crucifixion for being a criminal. Many would say that his final act was to steal heaven on that Good Friday. After the first thief mocks and scorns Jesus, Dismas rebukes him and offers a simple request to be remembered by Jesus. Somehow he recognized in the beaten, bruised and broken body of Jesus what the crowds of Jerusalem could not or would not see. Somehow he was able to see Jesus as the King of Kings ready to enter into his kingdom. His simple act of faith was rewarded by Christ’s promise of salvation.

It’s easy to be skeptical of death row confessions. We hear how hardened criminals suddenly “find Jesus” when it seems most convenient for them and it’s difficult not to react with some level of incredulity. We often ask ourselves how God could be so gullible as to accept the last minute “conversion” of someone who appears only to be trying to avoid going to hell. It seems unfair that someone who devotes their life to serving and following God and someone who ignores God until their final days would both be welcomed into heaven together. 

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who goes to town in the morning and hires men to work in his vineyard for a set wage. The man goes back to town near noon and again in the late afternoon each time hiring more workers for his vineyard. At the end of the day he pays all of the men the same amount. The men hired in the morning grumbled because they thought they should get more. He reminds them that they agreed to work for the price they were paid and tells them not to be envious of his generosity. 

Does this mean that we can put off conversion so we can do what we want? Certainly not, for no one knows when their life will be required of them. Jesus and the scriptures are clear that we must remain faithful and vigilant. The moral of the story is not that the wicked prosper by fooling God, but that God's mercy knows no bounds and is always available to us. Indeed, it is God who makes a fool of the devil by mercifully accepting those who call on him even with their last breath. 

Jesus’ words to the Good Thief should give us all hope. While we have breath, it is never too late for any of us to turn to Jesus. It's not too late for the friend or family member we love who has turned from God to come back to him.