Triduum 2012 Good Friday
On Palm Sunday we read St Mark’s account of Our Lord’s passion. St John’s version which we have just heard contains many interesting details which deserve our attention. Nevertheless, this year I want to concentrate on that first reading from Isaiah, which is the fourth of what we call the Songs of the Suffering Servant.
I think I told you some weeks ago that many passages of Scripture have more than one level of meaning. The first will have been relevant to people at the time it was written. But Scripture is the inspired word of God, and if something has been written down and preserved in the Bible, it may well be that it also contains a message for later generations. So far as Jewish scholars are concerned, these Servant Songs, composed during the captivity of their people in Babylon, a very low point in the nation’s history, refer to Israel itself. Israel is the Suffering Servant, being punished for her sins but not rejected. The people in exile are to take comfort from the promise that God will restore the nation.
By contrast, for us Christians, there is no doubt that the Suffering Servant is Jesus. Mark you, these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Both can be part of the divine plan. So what exactly does this song say? In the first verse it is actually God who speaks: See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights. You can see at once how easily those words can be applied to Jesus, and we remember his own prediction: When I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw all men to myself. Most of the rest of this song describes the Servant, and God will speak again at the end.
The crowds were appalled at seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human. After Jesus had been scourged and mocked and spat upon, Pilate showed him to the crowd who were baying for his blood. Knowing that Jesus was guilty of no crime, Pilate would have liked to acquit him and was hoping that the crowd would be moved to pity for him. Perhaps a few were, but Jesus’ enemies kept inciting them to demand his crucifixion. On the journey to Calvary there were at least some women who pitied Jesus. So these words too can be applied to him. The poem continues: Kings shall stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before. I don’t think there were any kings lining the path to Calvary, but over the centuries persons of every rank have been moved by looking at representations of the crucifixion and recalling that Our Lord accepted all that suffering for our sake.
Without beauty, without majesty we saw him, no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces. As recently as the 19th century in Europe, public executions were spectacles, and I’ve no doubt that if they were reintroduced there would be plenty of ghoulish people wanting to watch them. But even the ghouls might be horrified at some of the things people do to each other. The poem continues: Yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried. But we, we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds, we are healed. There could hardly be a clearer statement of the redemptive power of Christ’s sufferings for us.
We had all gone astray like sheep, each taking his own way, and the Lord burdened him with the sins of all of us. The Old Testament provided for the High Priest to put the blame for all the sins of the people on an animal, just once a year, and that animal was then driven into the wilderness. The poem makes the blameless servant a scapegoat. It recognizes that the traditional rites of the Day of Atonement have not brought about any lasting change in the behaviour of the community. In the prophet’s understanding, God has taken an innocent human being and allowed the punishment deserved by the many to fall on him. That is pretty close to our understanding of the significance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers, he never opened his mouth. In St John’s gospel, Jesus answers the questions which Pilate puts to him, but in the synoptics he hardly says a word – he is truly like the lamb led to the slaughter.
The poem continues: The Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done. We must be very careful here: we are not in the presence of a perverse, cruel or vindictive God. Rabbi Rashi of Troyes put these thoughts into the mind of God: “I am going to see if his soul is completely dedicated to my holiness to atone for the infidelity of the people. If it is, I shall compensate him and he will see his descendants”. An American scholar, Paul Hanson, has this to say: “The Servant did not submit to affliction through pathetic resignation but as a bold choice to participate with God in an act aimed at breaking the stranglehold that sin had maintained for countless ages over the human family”. That is to say that the Servant – whom we identify with Jesus – chose to make his life an instrument of God’s healing of flawed humanity. The Servant, Jesus, conformed his will perfectly with his Father’s.
There are many injustices in the story of Jesus’ passion. The Jewish leaders who schemed to get rid of him were unjust. The members of the Sanhedrin who judged him in a rigged trial were unjust. Pontius Pilate who knowingly sent an innocent man to be crucified was unjust. The crowd who allowed themselves to be manipulated and screamed Crucify him! were unjust - like listeners to some radio shock-jock who think and say whatever they’re told. In the midst of all this injustice, the Son of Man who was at the same time Son of God did not raise his voice or his fist, did not summon legions of angels to fight for him. He identified with the most down-trodden of human beings and never lost his faith or trust in God. There are no objective measurements of pain or suffering. What we can say is that Jesus was subjected to the worst that the men of his time could devise. Consequently no other human being can say: “You wouldn’t understand” – because God does know and understand. God has been there.
At the end of the poem God speaks again: I will grant whole hordes for his tribute, he shall divide the spoil with the mighty, for surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners. On this most solemn day of the liturgical year we can only marvel at the extent of God’s love for us, his sinful creatures. (Quentin Howard)