The Bible is often called “The Greatest Story Ever Told” because it describes for us the love of God as it unfolds throughout history. There is no greater love and so there can be no greater story.
Today, as we proclaim the great story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we cannot help but feel stunned and maybe even overwhelmed when we understand that he underwent these torments for you and for me. Jesus was not just a victim of circumstances. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather He accepted the torturous death on the cross out of love for us, to take on Himself the punishment we all deserved for our sins.
Like any great story, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is filled with characters with whom we can both sympathize and identify.
We might be able to identify with Saint Peter who promised Jesus He would be by His side until the end but, when the time for action came, he could only deny knowing His master and run and hide. How many times have we promised to be faithful but lacked the courage to follow through?
Simon of Cyrene is another compelling figure. He is pulled out of the crowd by the centurions and forced to help Jesus carry His cross. How many times when faced with suffering have we felt that we were unfairly singled out?
When we pray the stations of the cross, we might identify with Veronica who wiped Jesus’ face or the women who wept for Him as He walked by. Because we love Jesus, we do not want to see Him suffer. However much we may want to comfort Him, we feel powerless to stop the insanity going on around us.
Then there are Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Saint John who are with Jesus at the foot of the cross. They love Jesus and will not leave His side. However, they too are powerless to save Him and can do nothing but weep and pray.
No matter whom we may identify with when we read the gospel, there is one character who symbolizes all of us. It is Barabbas.
The gospels tell us that Barabbas is an insurrectionist. He led a revolt against the Romans which resulted in at least one death. Today, we would probably call him a terrorist. He was scheduled to be put to death, to suffer all the tortures to which Jesus was also condemned. However, because of Jesus, he is set free. Our Lord is executed in his place.
Each one of us is Barabbas. Because of our sins - no matter how great or how small - we deserve to be separated from God forever. There is nothing we could ever do to make up for the offense that our sins have caused to our Heavenly Father who is infinitely good and loving. There was no hope for us. However, as He did for Barabbas, Jesus came to free us by taking upon Himself the condemnation that we deserved. Because He was sinless, because He, like the Father, was infinitely good and loving, He could pay the debt that we could never hope to pay. He could make up in His flesh for the sins which we could never hope to make up for. We have been set free from condemnation and given the hope of eternal life in heaven through the death of Jesus.
Like any great story, in the gospel we are left wondering what happened to the characters we have read about. Did his encounter with Jesus change Simon of Cyrene? Did he eventually become a follower of Jesus and the apostles? How about Veronica? Did she walk through Jerusalem showing everyone the veil with the image of Jesus’ face on it?
We are also left to wonder what happened to Barabbas. What did he do with his new found freedom? Did he go back to plotting against the Roman authorities? Or did he change his life? Did he renounce the violence of his past and use his new freedom to follow the path of love that Jesus taught?
We can never know the answer. However, we can and should ask ourselves the same questions. What are we doing with the freedom we have through Jesus’ death? Are we making use of the power unleashed by His passion to stop sinning? Are we imitating Christ’s love for us by loving our neighbor as well? Has our encounter with Jesus through this proclamation of His passion and death changed us?
These are questions to reflect upon as we join the story of our lives to the Greatest Story Ever Told. As we begin this Holy Week, we should ask Jesus to give us a deeper appreciation of what He suffered for us and to reveal to us how we can make better use of the freedom He has won for us. Finally we should ask for the courage to make the message known to others, even when it means rejection and ridicule. When we do so - when we are faithful to Him - we are giving Jesus the consolation of knowing that all He suffered for us was not in vain. We are letting Him know that it is making a real difference in our lives.