This Friday exists to tell us of one good. This is what you need to know:
Jesus went to his death for the sake of our life. You need to know that. I need to know that. Your children need to know it, and so will their children, and theirs.
We need to know not just in our heads, nor even just in our hearts. We need to know it with profound depth, to the very cellular level, so that if one day in the future I don’t know who you are, or who I am, or what the world might be all about in any of its parts, I will know this: Jesus went to his death for the sake of our life.
Not too long ago Desmond Tutu, a man who believes this is so, was preaching, talking about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ, and how awe-inspiring it is that men and women can stand at the foot of the cross and there be moved and overwhelmed and swept up by the hope of true and lasting life by what they see there of the amazing grace of love.
But then he voiced a tinge of regret when he went on to say this: “Some Christians stay at the foot of the cross and never climb up on the cross to see what Jesus sees.”
Those words really capturet me. The image they conjure up powerfully engages. Climbing up onto the cross to see there what Jesus sees, to feel what Jesus feels, to know what Jesus knows, to hope what Jesus hopes. I don’t even want to face the question of how willing – or not – I am to make that climb. I leave you to answer the question for yourselves.
But I do know this. When a person is willing to make that climb; when someone actually does, things happen that change the world forever. To be that kind of disciple, to follow to that place, is not only to be radically changed, it is to unsettle and agitate that which claims to be settled and undisturbed, determined and in-place. To be that kind of disciple is to be, with Jesus Christ, a revolutionary.
During Lent of 1996, seven Trappist monks of the monastery of Atlas in Algeria were kidnapped, held, and in the end lost their lives to a group of revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the government. The story of their life and death, of their community and their prayer, has been put on the screen in the film Of Gods and Men. The Abbot General of the Trappists drew together what is known of those events in a book, the title of which is a question: How Far to Follow? In fact it is the same question enshrined in Archbishop Tutu’s comment: how far to follow? All the way onto the cross? Or to admire its courage and love from below, or from a safe distance? – if there were any such measure.
The struggle of those monks over several years as to whether to leave Algeria and fly to safety, or to remain with those who suffered around them, was intense. There was no quick or facile answer, as in ‘ah this is what God must want, and so we stay.’ No. These flesh and blood human beings had to struggle long and terribly with fear, uncertainty, doubt; alone and together.
To be called to be a disciple. To be called to believe. To be called to be a monk. Do any – or all of these – mean to be called to be willing to die? Do any – or all of them – mean to be called to climb onto the cross to see what Jesus sees?
In the end, they all answered ‘Yes.’ This is what it means. To say yes to any of it is to say yes to all of it. To say yes to Jesus is to say yes to his way of life, and death. To say yes to his resurrection is to say yes to his cross, and to dare to see it not only as his.
Christian, the superior of that Trappist community, wrote a Testament looking toward what might, and did, happen. Every word was written standing at the border of life and death. He is climbing with his brothers high enough to see what Jesus sees today.
The final words of his Testament are entirely words of thanksgiving, of gratitude for as he says, “everything in my life, from now on . . . .”
He extends his thanks to the one who will one day take his life:
And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . .
I read this, I hear his voice in imagination’s memory, and I begin to fathom at least a direction in which to look to hope to know something of what it is that Jesus sees this Friday.
I think he sees the Father’s work loving all things, in every moment.
I think his heart accepts the pain that mysteriously precedes joy, and that polishes that joy to a glow that it could not otherwise have.
I think he hears the promise of life even in the last hard breaths of death.
I think he looks upon a people whom he loves to perfection.
And I know that for everything, wondrously everything – even this day itself – he is filled with thanks.
The youngest monk of Atlas, Christopher, in his climb to the cross with Christian and the others, left behind a poem. Its words could have been spoken by Jesus on this day of the cross. The Spirit in it is the one that brings us together in faith and prayer; that Spirit who invites us to remember the one good of this day:
Jesus went to his death for the sake of our life.
Christopher called his poem ‘testament’:
my body is for the earth
just earth and me
my heart was made for life
just life and me
my hands were made for work
as for my face
for an easier kiss
and for my gaze
let it see
John P. McGinty
Good Friday 2011