Friday, April 6, 2012

A Life Given Out of Love

This homily originally appeared in Connect! Magazine

It is for this week that we have prepared over the past forty days of Lent. It is for this celebration of our Lord's passion and death that we have readied our hearts through prayer and sacrifice. We have disciplined our minds and bodies, turned away from sin and performed good works so that our spirits may be lifted up to contemplate in wonder the love of God for us that drove his Son to accept the humiliation of the cross.

Every year on this day we read together the harrowing account of the Lord's passion from the gospel of John and have to ask ourselves, "why?". How could anyone find such a good man as Jesus guilty of any crime? Why would anyone want to torture and kill him? He came to preach the love of God but encountered such hate. He came to heal but was stripped, beaten and scourged. Why?

It was for our sins that he died. He took upon himself the sentence that should have been handed down to us. When it was time for us to be judged, he stood in our place.

He gave his life out of love for us.

And so, it is not only the people of Jesus' day who are responsible for his suffering and death. It was not only the religious leaders who handed him over, the apostles who abandoned him or the imperial authorities who killed him. Each of us who has ever sinned is to blame just as surely as those who betrayed him, those who beat him, those who nailed him to the cross and those who looked on and said nothing. I am the reason Jesus died on the cross. You are the reason Jesus died on the cross.

Did it have to be this way? Couldn't the Father find some other way to forgive our sins and restore our relationship with him? Why the gruesome spectacle of the cross?

Because God is all-powerful he certainly could have dismissed our sins by snapping his fingers or by the power of his divine command. Then why submit his Son to so much pain and cruelty? The simple answer is that the Father wanted us to know how deep his love for the people he created is. He wished to hold nothing of himself back. He spent himself totally and utterly by enduring the most horrific suffering and death imaginable so that we might know the passion he has for each of us. None of us can look at the cross and honestly say to Jesus, "There's more you could have done." The cross convinces us that God's love for us has no limits. If he is willing to endure so much to save us, then we can trust that he will provide us with whatever we need to speed our steps along our way to him.

The cross also convinces us how offensive our sins are to God. If our reconciliation with the Father required his Son to take on flesh and die for us then how far must our sins drive us from God? If our sins caused Jesus to die, then can there be any such thing as a harmless or victimless sin? The cross not only teaches us about the love of God, but it also teaches us something about ourselves. It convinces us that we are sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. And it teaches us to fly to the cross for strength in temptation and for mercy when we have sinned. As today's reading from the letter to the Hebrews assures us, we can go confidently to the throne of grace and expect to be made whole again.

Finally, the cross begins to answer for us the most heart-wrenching question that every human being faces, "If God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?" When we look upon the cross, we do not see a God who keeps himself at a safe distance from the anguish of the people he created. We see instead a God who is with us in our trials, who feels every pain we feel and who carries us in our affliction. Because of Jesus' sacrifice, suffering takes on a whole new meaning. By accepting our pains and difficulties and offering them to God together with Jesus, we participate in the mystery of salvation. The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered and was thus perfected to become a means of salvation for the world. God wants to use our suffering to bring forgiveness of sins to the world. Without the cross, our suffering would be meaningless and would drive us to despair. Now in the light of Jesus' sacrifice, our pains and difficulties do not separate us from the Father but help us to grow closer to him.

Now that we have reflected on the words of the gospel recounting for us the suffering and death of our Savior, we will offer some intercessory prayers for the world and its peoples. Then a bare, wooden cross will be carried into the church with the words, "This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the World". And we will respond, "Come, let us worship." Then we will each be invited to approach the cross, genuflect before it and kiss it. Let us not lose sight of what we are doing by this simple act! We are venerating the device which was used to torture and kill Jesus! We are recognizing that it is now transformed from a means of death to a source of salvation. We are also laying claim to the promise that through love the cross that each of us must shoulder in our daily lives may become a source of life, grace and even joy for us and for those whose crosses we help bear. As we approach it, let us bring with us the burdens we carry and pledge to bear them patiently with the strength that God provides. Let us pledge to help carry the burdens of our neighbors. And let us promise to keep the cross ever before us as the sign of God's unfailing love.

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