I have a vivid memory from when I was a young boy – under ten years old – of Good Friday. From the time we got up that morning, we were not allowed to watch TV, go out to play with friends, or even play inside with our toys. We were to sit and to be quiet. My mom explained that this was the day Jesus died for us. We are to think about what Jesus suffered. Our little sacrifice helps us to be closer to Jesus and, by reflecting on this experience, we can come to know better his great love for us. I think my mom even put a crucifix on top of the TV stand. This was not easy. In fact, as a little boy, it felt like a punishment. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the “good” in this exercise. But most of us, as children do not appreciate or see the good in the punishments we receive at the time we receive them. From the parent’s perspective, they are given not to harm us, but to teach us something – to rehabilitate us in some way – to help us to grow and to change for the good. When I was a child, my parents didn’t use the term “Time Out”. We were just sent to our room or had to sit on the steps or sit facing the corner of the room for a while. The intention of this time of silence and sensory deprivation was for us to think about what we did and the consequences of our action. Ultimately, the purpose of this time of self-reflection was to prepare us for a conversation with our parents – to help us to receive their instruction and ultimately to understand better their love and care for us. Without that conversation, it is just a punishment. I am reminded of what Jesus said to his disciples from the Gospel that we heard on Ash Wednesday, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mt 6:6). This penitential act is only effective if we engage it on an interior level – in the “inner room” – on a personal level. It is meant to bring us to prayer with God, and the fruit of that prayer – the “payment” – is not a checked-box or a receipt for putting in our time, but a closer relationship with the Lord.
I am struck by how the liturgy today – this unique liturgy for Good Friday – outlines for us a pattern of prayer and guides us in the way to enter into this Mystery of the Cross so that it bears fruit in our lives. First, we enter in silence. We lay still in front of the altar and humble ourselves in silent prayer. We then listen to the Word of God. We reflect on the Passion of our Lord and meditate on Christ’s response to the deceit, betrayal, denial, cruelty, and violence that surround him. We meditate on his response to our sin. This is an invitation to look at Jesus – to look him in the face. Not to see merely what our sins did to him, but how he responded to our sin with love. If we focus on our sins and failures only; if we think of all the things that we could or should do better, we become tired and worn out and things go back to the way they’ve always been. But if we focus on Christ and his love, that is what changes us. We need to look him in the face with the desire for good and the desire for truth – the truth about ourselves. Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient. By ourselves, we founder. We need the Lord. And we are capable of all things if we are with him who is our strength. But we have to ask – to pray. The liturgy of the word is followed by the Solemn Intercessions. We state our petitions for the Church and the world and all in tribulation, and pray that Almighty God looks on us with favor and grants us his mercy. We then adore the Holy Cross – beholding that through this instrument of death, Christ saved the world. The liturgy concludes with Holy Communion. This journey of silence, meditation, prayer, and adoration, culminates in Communion – an intimate knowing of the Lord and his abiding presence. This is the pattern we must all follow so that the crosses and losses we face are not meaningless but the path to new life. This is the path that saves us from nothingness.
A friend of mine, Luca, shared this experience. His father in Italy died suddenly during the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak. Luca rushed back to Italy, and they were still able to have a funeral, but it was a funeral and viewing without hugs and kisses and handshakes. He said that all the words that people said to him to offer him condolences, like, “Your dad is in heaven. He’s not suffering anymore” were not any consolation, even if what was said was true. He got the last plane back to the U.S. before the travel ban went into effect and immediately went into quarantine, not able to hug his wife or children he had not seen in a week. He could focus on the physical limitations around him which were manifest or be attentive to signs of the Lord’s presence and the mysterious voice of the Lord leading him. He said this situation of isolation quickly brought to the surface many of his faults, his pettiness, and other character flaws, but this situation of isolation also became an opportunity to beg for the Lord’s presence and ask for conversion. In this he recognized a deeper connection with his father – he wanted to be more like his father. Even though his father had left physically, the bond was closer. He began to see a change in himself. He said he is bothered by what he calls the “gratuitous optimism” of the hashtag culture that shouts, “everything will be OK.” His experience showed him that we can hope because the good that we are looking for is already here, if we are open to look for it and ask for its meaning. The good appears often as a fragile sign, as Isaiah describes the suffering servant in the first reading, “like a sapling… like a shoot from the parched earth… [without] appearance that would attract us…”. It was only through this way of the cross, following this reality, that he came to know with a new certainty the truth of what was said to him before. Only by staying with the cross did he find consolation. This gift is missed if one skips over the fact of the death and the impact that event has in one’s life and just tries to get life back to normal as quick as possible.
Our Gospel today gives us another moving example. St. John notes how, after Jesus died, when the soldier thrust his lance into Jesus’ side as the Lord hung from the cross, blood and water flowed out. John testifies to this “so that you may come to believe.” What is it that John realizes by looking upon him whom they have pierced? At the same hour when the lambs were being sacrificed in the temple for the passover and the blood of the lambs was flowing from the altar of the temple and draining into the Kidron stream at the side of the temple, Jesus on the cross is revealed as the New Temple, the dwelling place of the living God who is offered for the salvation of the world. His sacred heart is his altar. His love poured out for us – the blood of the Eucharist and the water of baptism – washes away our sins and gives us new life. It is John who stays at the cross, gazing on Jesus with Mary, who comes to this profound revelation about who Jesus is and God’s great love for us.
This time of separation from the Mass and the sacraments is like an extended Good Friday and Holy Saturday – a great “time out”. It is not a punishment from God or an expression of his judgement on us, but an opportunity for us to judge ourselves and what is important in our lives and to go to our “inner room” and pray. It is not comfortable. It can be, in fact, disturbing, but entering into it with silence, prayer, and seeking the face of Christ, it becomes a place of consolation, transformation, deeper awareness of God’s love, and a gateway to new life. May we take up the cross presented to us, entrust our lives to God, and pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “Jesus I trust in you.”