Lord, on the cross,
You took pity on the crowd and taught them
through the Psalm. Help me preach the Gospel
with my life… and use words when necessary.
There was never a time when our Lord wasn’t the Son of God. There was never a time the Father wasn’t Father of the Son. There was never a time the Holy Spirit wasn’t moving among them. From the foundations of creation, our Lord has loved us. Hanging on the cross, the unfathomable depth of His love was shown. He died to pay a debt we could not pay to bring us home to a glory we could not earn.
What do we see when we look at the cross?
We see the Son of God trusting in His Father (Luke 23:46). We see the Son of Man caring for His mother (John 19:26-27). We see the offering of God for our salvation… the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). We see the priest making the offering of Himself (John 10:18). We see the King of Kings holding court as He pardons the good thief (Luke 23:43). We see a prophet who is still making known the counsels and will of God (Matt 27:46 and Mark 15:34).
In this message, I want to focus on Christ as prophet on the cross. How is He making known the counsels and will of God?
First lets consider what is happening to Him physically. He is suffering. When He rests His legs, His arms are pulled out of joint, the nails tear at his flesh, and He can’t breathe. He is suffocating. Getting air into His lungs requires Him to push Himself up on His nailed feet. Agony. Taking in enough air to speak is a herculean effort. We know of seven utterances from Him on the cross—the last will be His dying breath. Yet He still has something to say to the assembled crowd. He has a teaching to give them. He cries out…
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some hear Him crying out to Elijah (Matt 27:47). Some hear this as a cry of abandonment by God Himself (many Protestant writings). The Jews, who were steeped in devotion to the Psalms, hear an echo to Psalm 22:1. Let’s look at this Psalm and hear our Lord as if speaking from the cross. He begins with praise for the God He calls and then describes His situation…
But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:
“He relied on the Lord—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him” (Psalm 22:7-9).
Can we picture Jesus describing His own situation? Is this not what is happening around Him as He hangs on the cross (Matt 27:39-43)? The Psalm continues…
Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.
As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me;
a pack of evildoers closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet
I can count all my bones.
They stare at me and gloat;
they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots (Psalm 22:15-19).
The Psalmist describes the scene of our Lord’s crucifixion in detail here (Matt 27:34-43). What we are reading in the Psalm could have come from Christ on the cross… if He had the breath to speak it. As the Psalm progresses, though, it changes. After describing a scene of abandonment and torture, it becomes a shout of triumph…
“You who fear the Lord, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me,
but heard me when I cried out” (Psalm 22:24-25).
He is not actually abandoned. God heard Him when He cried out. What started as a tragedy becomes a song of praise…
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord;
All the families of nations
will bow low before him.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
the ruler over the nations (Psalm 22:28-29).
What, then, is the purpose of His cry? He is pointing those who would hear this message to see and understand what they are witnessing. His cry quotes the most unique line of the Bible so it can be understood by those who know the Psalms—His people. Just as an American would know the context for “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” and “Four score and seven years ago…” a jewish listener steeped in the Psalms at the cross can hear what comes next. What we read today in its brevity in the Gospels finds its fullness in the Psalm written millennia ago. With the little breath available to Him, the Priest on the cross is offering the homily of His Mass. The Prophet is explaining the counsel and will of God.
Unfortunately, there is disagreement among Christians about this interpretation. Those who reject the teachings of the church instead see the scene as described by Isaiah…
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted (Is 53:4),
Some proclaim that our Lord became sin and God can’t look on sin so He turned away from Him…
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 For 5:21).
Here I ask a very simple question, though… if God can’t look on sin, how could He look on us as sinful people and love us enough to offer Himself as ransom for us? He came when we were at our worst… He wasn’t surprised to see just how sinful we are. How could our Lord eat with sinners and tax collectors if sin is so disgusting that the God who is Love would abandon the Son He has loved for all eternity in the moment of His greatest obedience? Put another way, God looked on us in love as sinful people… He came in the flesh to save us in the midst of our sin… he took friends from among the sinful and was even criticized for hanging out with sinners… then, when Jesus was dying on the cross for sinners—as He came specifically to do—God found our sin too ugly to see and turned away?
It defies logic. It defies love.
It paints an unflattering picture of our Heavenly Father who might now be expected to reject us as we sin. But we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:38-39), not even our sin. If we can’t be separated from the love of God, neither will God turn away from His only begotten Son He has loved for all eternity because of our sin.
When we look at the crucifix, we aren’t looking at the image of sin. We are looking at the infinite love of God who took on human flesh in order to redeem fallen man. The crucifix is the image of love itself. There, we see the ugliest result of our sin that our God should have to die for our iniquities. We see the beauty of the God who loves us to His own death. What God sees is His obedient Son.
We should be very circumspect in saying “God can’t…”. He is God! What can finite creatures know of His limitations? One thing we can be sure of, though… God can’t deny His own nature. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)… the one we are to follow, listen to, and love for all eternity… the one who loved us into being. He can’t be the embodiment of truth if He denies that He is the embodiment of infinite love. He can’t be the embodiment of love if He denies His children in their moment of greatest devotion to Him.
We too can die for one another. We can make atoning sacrifices for others. We can, in love, die for those who torture us… that is the martyrs sacrifice—to die for the very ones who persecute us. We can die in small ways, daily, as we put others needs before our own. We can know with certainty that God is with us and doesn’t turn away from us in the midst of our trials.
If we would be a son or daughter of God, we will know that our Father in Heaven is smiling on us as we suffer for His Kingdom. In this suffering, we look like His Son. Through the slings and arrows of life, He never abandons us as we grow closer to Him in our suffering for the Kingdom. We stumble and fall… we sin. We wander away from the path He wants for us. We have only to turn toward Him to find that He never left our side. No matter how far we think we have gone from Him, He is only a step away—a step taken in reconciliation. Throughout our sin, He didn’t turn away but waited for us to turn back to Him.
I get criticism for the latter part of this rosary reflection… to preach the Gospel with my life and use words when necessary. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t a quote of St Francis. I include it because of what it says about our faith… our actions speak louder than our words. The words of the Gospel are found in the love we give to others… in our kindness and generosity. Love is an action word, not a passive feeling. We can’t say that we love and not give to others what they need from us. We can feed the poor and clothe the naked without ever uttering a word. We can also preach great oratories without helping a soul.
Abraham wasn’t called “father of all who believe” (Rom 4:16) because he pledged obedience to God. God told Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:1-19). He didn’t do God’s will by gathering the wood and leading Isaac to the hill. He demonstrated his absolute trust in God in trying to carry out the sacrifice. It wasn’t by his word nor even his intention that his faith was shown but rather by his action to carry out the command of God (Heb 11:17-19). Our faith is shown what we do for the Kingdom (James 2:18).
Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, is great among the saints and yet we don’t know of a single word he uttered. He is often called “the silent saint.” His testimony of faith is his protection and provision for the Holy Family.
Christ on the cross is still the Lamb of God—even if He couldn’t preach a word.
If we preach without the example of our lives, we are hypocrites. If we live the Gospel without uttering a word, we are still faithful to the Gospel and others will learn from our example.
The way we live and what we preach are not exclusive evangelizations. However, our words are more dependent on our actions than our actions depend upon our words. In the martyrs, we know more of their sacrifice than we know of their words… but when words were uttered, they were powerful. Their words were made powerful by their sacrifice.
The Gospel calls us to repentance and holiness. Whether we shout it in words or live it in solitude, we are called to communion in Christ. In this time of preparation to celebrate the incarnation of our Lord and God, let us seek to walk more closely to Him… denying ourselves… in loving service to Him and one another.