This is the feast of shattered expectations. All that people hoped that Jesus would be was destroyed. He failed. He was the shoot that sprouted from the stump of Jesse’s line, only to be nailed back to a tree. A star of promise heralded his birth; his final breath brought with it a shroud of darkness. He was to be the political hero to lead the people from the hands of Roman oppression; he died at the hands of Roman soldiers. He claimed to be the Truth; and Pilate looks him in the eye and says with irony more than can be measured, “What is truth?” He said he was “I am”—the very God of Israel—and he is deserted by even those whose feet he washed last night as friends. He was not just a disappointment; Christ this day was and is a devastation. You and I gather here on the Friday we call “Good” not to put back together those expectations but to sit with the shards. And though that at first might seem odd—for we normally try to put difficult things behind us and not dwell on them—something is being wrought in us in our sadness today: something tiny and un-nameable, a feeling that’s hard to describe. So let’s sit with our Lord on Calvary this day—just be there—and see what he might be doing in us.
Though it may at first seem odd, it is important, my friends, that we not forget our earliest expectation as we ponder this wreck. Do you remember the joy of Christmas? A darkened evening, carols on sidewalks, the complete optimism that the God who created and sustains the world in being had taken up human skin—the skin of Adam and Eve, David, Magdalene, Peter, and you and me? He learned to walk and run and laughed with friends. And his miracles were all the things that eternity might bring to our broken flesh—he brought life to the dead, health to the sick, and the generosity of mercy to the worst—yes the worst—of sinners. By taking up our time and our experience, our God came to renew us not from above but from within—the flesh of our flesh and the bone of our bone. This is the only expectation that on this darkened day has not been dashed.
Christ’s sacrifice forgives our sins indeed, but by coming so close to us that he speaks in us, and cries in us, and moves in us, and lives in us, and only so that we might slowly learn to speak and cry and move and live in him. His mercy is lived in our skin; and our mercy is to be found in his. An ongoing love has begun where he makes us his very body—ever nearer to each other in him. And though we know we are sinners, we quite literally know our place—yes—it is in Christ. And we couldn’t believe that it were true, had we not sat at his cross, unworthy and broken, in order that we might be broken in him.
For once we realize this ongoing exchange, the only reaction we can have is not to run away but in our hearts to let him draw near. And the temptation for all Christians has always been to preserve safe distance. You see it is easy for us to hide behind an image that Christ died only as a sin offering—a scape goat for us—that we sent him out to die, heaped high like a loaded beast of burden with our sins. To put it more crassly, there’s no relationship to be had with a critter that we load on our sins and send outside the city walls to die on our behalf. Our God is no goat. His death for our sins is closer to us than we are to ourselves.For you see, when Christ cries out today in abandonment and commends his spirit to God, he has never stopped being the creator of the universe. But this day he has taken up more than our skin—he’s taken up our life, our voice, and our death. He cries out loud in a human voice the sound of human agony at is very worst. And at that lowest moment, suffering, innocent, doomed to die, it is not a voice from heaven that speaks, but the voice of God-made-man. And we believe that a most marvelous exchange happens. Christ—who suffers unjustly—speaks in our flesh, in our words, so that we might speak in his. No longer will the suffering of sinners—great or small, student or professor, brother or sister—ever be undergone alone. We will cry out in him, be silent in him, when we suffer it will be in him, and when we die and breathe our last…yes…that too will be in him. And in those moments such closeness could not even be conceivable unless we can sit this day, my friends, and listen to him speak in our flesh—listen to him speak in us, uncomfortable though his words of agony may be.
This day, when things are not rosy but dark, when God is not conqueror but broken, we renew our exchange with our Christ from the pit of all things. And there in his death amid sadness and strife, something small and un-quenchable grows. A God worth belief; a human just like us…has spoken his devastation in us, that ours might be spoken in him. We hold onto his cross; we kiss it with love. We acknowledge its disgrace and its wounds. For buried beneath the sorrow and pain, he’s spoken a feeling in us. With sober minds and heavy hearts let us let grow that feeling deep down. For from this cross of brokenness, our Savior spoke in us: that we might know, for the very first time, that deep down thing called hope. Hail the cross, our most magnificent hope!
Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C., professed final vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross on August 30, 2009, and then was ordained to the priesthood on April 10, 2010. After two years in parish ministry, he went into doctoral studies in Theology at Cambridge University. He is currently a Residential Fellow in Notre Dame's Institue for Advanced Study