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Jesus Said: ‘It Is Accomplished’

by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap.

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  • Descriptive Title:
    Fr. Cantalamessa’s Good Friday Homily
    Description:
    The preacher of the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., delivered this sermon on Good Friday afternoon, April 21, 2000, during the Holy Father's celebration of the Lord's Passion in St Peter's Basilica. Fr. Cantalamessa spoke of the world's need for the Suffering Christ, and explained how we must bring faith to others through the Cross.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Pages: 8
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, May 3, 2000

Two weeks ago there was a news item that shook the world. A private research institute had completed the map of the human genome. It had identified every fragment of the DNA that holds the genetic baggage of a human being, the two billion "letters", catted genes, that make up the chemical alphabet in which the story of every being that comes into the world is written.

There was comment in the international press: "Science will know the blueprint of human life, the code of codes, the holy grail, the source code of Homo sap/ens. It will know what it is to be human". And again: "After millions of dollars and millions of hours, the curtain is rising on what our children will surely, looking back in awe, see as the dawn of the century of the genome".1

The news fell on ground already saturated with anticipation and excited interest in the new things that keep cropping up in the field of bioethics. It heightened the widespread notion that we are at a new turning point in human evolution and on the brink of reaching new and unimagined goals.

Into this context the celebration of the Passion of the Lord falls this year, the Easter of the Great Jubilee, the first Easter of the millennium. For 2,000 years the Lord's Passion has been confronting the events and the situations of the moment, and never yet has it pulled back. Neither will it this time.

A poet, a believer, once wrote: "Jesus did not give us dead words for us to salt away in little tins (or big ones), for us to preserve in rancid oil.... Living words can only be kept alive.... On us, weak creatures of flesh, it depends to keep these words uttered alive in time, to feed them and keep them alive in time. To make them heard through ages of ages. The words of the Son of God".2

The rites and the readings of Good Friday are repeated, unchanged, year after year, yet they never become mere "preserving jars", for they themselves are, precisely, the vital ambience in which the Word of God is kept alive.

***

What has the mystery we are now celebrating to say about the situation we have just recalled? Let us go back to the word we have just heard, to find out. "After Jesus had taken the vinegar, he said, It is accomplished', and bowing his head he gave up his spirit" (Jn 19:30).

"It is accomplished!". This word is enough to throw light on the whole of the mystery of Calvary. What was it that was accomplished? First of all, the earthly life of Jesus, the work that the Father had given him to do (see Jn 4:34; 5:36; 17:4). "He had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was" (Jn 13:1). The Greek has "he loved them to the te/os", that is, to the end, and that same word, in its verbal form, is echoed in the cry of Jesus: Tetelestai, it is accomplished. He has endured, to the very end, the supreme test of his love.

The Scriptures too were accomplished. The scriptures of the Suffering Servant, the paschal lamb, the innocent one pierced, Ezekiel's vision of the new temple and the river of living water (lowing from its side (see Ez 47:1ff.). But it was not only some particular points of the Scripture that were accomplished; the entire Old Testament, en bloc, had been accomplished. Not analytically, but in synthesis, substantively. Dying, the Lamb opened the book with seven seats (cf. Rv 5:1ff.) and revealed the full meaning of God's plan. "This is the page that, when you turn it, explains all, like that great illuminated page in the Missal at the beginning of the Canon. See it there, printed in flaming red, the great page that separates the two Testaments. All doors open at once, all points of opposition disappear, all contradictions are resolved".3

The page that separates the two Testaments is also the page that joins them together; each throws light on the other. Nothing is done away with; all is accomplished, fulfilled.

In bringing things to their fulfilment, Christ overcomes their limitations; he makes them take a qualitative leap. It is like what happens in the consecration of the Eucharist: from that moment on, the bread is no longer merely bread; it has become something else. So too the Old Covenant, from the moment of the death of Christ, has become the "new and eternal covenant"; the letter has become Spirit.4

"Into the Old comes the New,
into law comes grace,
into the figure, the reality,
into the lamb, the Son,
and into man, God".5

***

Yet neither is that all that is accomplished. The paschal mystery is revealed in the line of the history of Israel, but surpasses that history and expands it immeasurably. It fulfils not only the expectations of one people, but through those, the expectations of all peoples and of every human being. Here lies the unique greatness for which Calvary is the last of the great mountains of salvation history-- Sinai, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Tabor-- the one that makes them all true.

By wanting to be independent of God, humankind imprisoned itself in hatred and in death. Human beings found themselves in a situation in which the love of the Father could no longer abide in them. To reach them in that situation, the Son of God became man. He suffered atrociously and died a violent death, so that the sufferings and the death, which human beings had brought upon themselves might also, from that moment on, be pervaded, indwelt, by the Father's love. There were many who died, before Christ and after him, but no one had ever endowed his own death with the value that Christ gave his: that of absolute adherence to the Father’s love.

By this offering of filial love and serene consent, he changed utterly the meaning of death, turning it into the way to true life. Death is now a bridge, no longer an abyss. Falling into the darkness of sin and death, we would find waiting for us, even there, the one who had created us. It becomes possible to understand St Paul's hymn to the victorious love of God: "Neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, not any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38-39).

Christ has drawn in every detail another "map": the map of human destiny! What a truth Pilate uttered that day without knowing it, when he pointed to Jesus and said: Ecce homo! "Behold the man!". To draw the map of human destiny Christ had explored not only the two abysses of sin and of death, but also those of defeat, of frustration and of failure.

How must Calvary have appeared on that first Friday, that Preparation Day! A stage on which one hurried to tower the curtain at the close of a calamitous failure. At any moment the Shofar could sound, announcing the beginning of the Sabbath rest. In haste, as the Mother looked on, Joseph of Arimathea and his men loosened Jesus's hands from the crossbeam, anointed his body with oil, wrapped it in a sheet and, carrying it on a stretcher, disappeared into the gathering gloom, the women following, weeping. In a short white the hilltop place was left empty and silent, just as the altars of our churches will be left this evening.

That was how the liturgy of the very first Good Friday drew to a close. But ever since the greatest checkmate in all history was transformed into the most beautiful, the purest, and the best-remembered victory known to mankind: defeat itself sings to a different key. It can now be the privileged place where one discovers the real meaning of life, the real grandeur of the human person and, above all, the love of the Father for the little and the poor. Speaking to young people a month ago at the foot of the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Holy Father said: "Jesus exalts those whom the world generally regards as weak. He says to them, 'Blessed are you who seem to be losers, because you are the true winners'".6

What a ransom for the vast crowd of losers, the left-behind, the poor, those whom life and events sweep aside; for those to whom no news at all came of the human genome, or if it came, it found them grappling with problems of another kind altogether that left them no time to take any notice of it. What source of hope for all of us, given that sooner of later we will all find ourselves in the category of the losers!

***

There is no contradiction between the two maps, the one drawn by the scientists, and the one drawn by Christ. Each of the two refers to a different floor of the same building. One does not invalidate the other. Believers can only rejoice along with the whole of humankind at any discovery that holds promise of advancing the good and bettering the condition of life on earth. That is what God intended when he said: "Multiply, fill the earth and conquer it" (cf. Gn 1: 28). Conquer the world, creatively, moulding it and yourselves. I am Ens a se. Being who am of myself, and it is my will that you too should share this my dignity, making yourselves by yourselves, using the intelligence I have given you to mould and perfect your own nature, while respecting my will and revering my name. This is what it means to be "my image and likeness".

However, we cannot simply give ourselves over to the euphoria of the moment. Recent discoveries in the area of human life reveal their ambiguities and they are open to contradictory developments. They open up the possibility of discovering the causes of many diseases and of preventing them; but they also pose certain "disquieting moral questions" that not even the most fervent supporters of science can hide from themselves. It is not easy for us humans to give up trying to play God, to decide everything for ourselves: who will live and who die; who will be born and who not; what will be the colour of a baby's hair, to say nothing of all the rest. It has already happened that individuals have been dismissed from their place of work, or have had their life insurance terminated, because it has been shown that there are elements in their genetic make-up that indicate the possibility of their developing a serious disease. And that is only one forewarning of what might happen.

But let us not think now of the delusions of the past; let us not think now of the dangers of the present. Let us believe that, for once at least, human beings will be sufficiently wise to manage their own discoveries well. We know the causes of diseases that trouble us and we are able to prevent them. We know the biological laws and are able to exploit them to our own advantage.... And then? Will all of that be enough to assure us happiness? Why then are there so many suicides among the people who have it all, who are healthy, handsome and rich? What will be able to prevent the two spectres, "boredom" and "disgust", so familiar to cultured folk, from affecting more people more and more often in the world? The ancients held as the greatest folly propter vitam rationes perdere vivendi, to lose for the sake of life the very reason for living. "What purpose could be served by living well, if the one who lives so is not assured of living forever? Quid prodest bene vivere cui non datur semper vivere?".7

***

In his life, death and resurrection, Christ unveiled the ultimate meaning of human life. He needed no laboratory to do it, nor formulas on a blackboard; he did it by living the meaning of life and giving it reality. The ultimate goal is to receive in oneself the love of the Father as he received it, and to share this love around in the world, giving it to one's fellows.

Fathers, brothers, and sisters: I dare now to cry out to you, what I have first cried out to myself. Enough of half measures! Let us waste time no longer. Let us try our level best to realize the purpose for which Christ died. Let us live in such a way that we too, when our end is upon us, will be able to say: "It is accomplished". Let us accept suffering. It is the only way to enter into the cross of Christ and not remain apart, onlookers. All the other ways-- art, theology, reason, and sentiment-- are like looking out from the porthole of a bathyscaphe at life in the depths of the sea. That way we are not immersed in it, part of it....

From this flows another conclusion, and we need to proclaim it too, loudly and with all our might, in this year of the Great Jubilee. We cannot do without Christ! We cannot relativize the importance of the redemption he has wrought. There is no part of humanity to which it does not apply, past, present, or yet to come. Quite simply, we do not have the right to do that. We cannot cease proclaiming the Gospel to every creature. The motto of the Jubilee is something we need to take up earnestly: "Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever!".

What we need to abandon is not the message of the cross, but rather certain mistaken ways of proclaiming it that we used in the past. We need to present ourselves to the world as those crucified, not as crusaders. No one, even those of other faiths, will ever feel threatened by Jesus Christ when he is proclaimed as he was proclaimed last March, during the week of the 20th to the 26th, before the eyes of the whole world, in the very places where he lived and died.

At times it is not necessary to say anything, but simply to be there, to suffer and to love, showing ourselves full of respect for those who are not yet able to believe. The most essential part of evangelization is to allow the love that Christ came to implant in the world to be seen and felt. By deeds much more than by words.

This holds above all for the Jews. We have lost the right to preach the Gospel openly to them. We have now to let Christ alone make his way to the heart of his people. But to fail to desire and to pray that the Jewish people would come to recognize in Jesus of Nazareth "the glory of your people, Israel" (Lk 2:32) would be to fail truly to love both Jesus and the Jews.

***

Among the short stories of the Czech, Franz Kafka, is one entitled "An Imperial Message". It begins like this: "The emperor, they say, has sent you, yes, to you specially, miserable subject living far away, to you your very self the emperor, from his deathbed, has sent a message. He made the messenger kneel by his bedside, and he whispered the message into his ear; the message meant so much to him that he had the messenger repeat it, whispering it back to him, into his ear. He confirmed that the messenger had heard the message correctly, and sent him on his way".

The rest of the story is bitter and pessimistic, as are all the writings that come from that author's pen. The messenger struggles in vain to make way through the crowd and out of the castle. The closing lines of the story show the unnamed one to whom the message was sent, "sitting by the window in his faraway cottage, dreaming of the message as evening falls".8 The waiting for the message is all that remains at the end of the story.

I cannot read that story without seeing in it a potent symbol of the mystery we are celebrating. Christ is the king who is dying, the Gospel is the message, the Apostles are the messenger, the man at the window is the whole of humanity, dreaming that there may be such a message as Christ would send.

One of those dreamers, known to everyone in Italy, has recently cried out for all to hear: "I have always looked for God and not found him. I have always looked for him, because I believe that faith could be the source of enormous strength. But I do not feel myself responsible, or that I am to blame, for the fact that that strength has been lacking in me. And if I ever find God I will ask him: 'Why did you not give me faith?"'.

To that man, and to all who find themselves in the same position, I would like to say: It may be that God has not given you faith so that you may help him to purify the faith of those who are supposed to bring it to you, and to make them feel what a responsibility it is, and how urgent it is, to do that. You know, however, what people like Augustine and Pascal heard when they asked God that same question: "You would not have been looking for me, if you had not already found me".9 "If I had not already found you!".

By the mysterious ways known only to the Spirit, may the cry we have heard here this afternoon also reach and touch this humanity-in-waiting: It is accomplished. Tetelestai. Consummatum est....

Endnotes

1 Sharon Begley, "Decoding the Human Body", Newsweek, 10 April 2000.

2 Charles Peguy, Le porche du mystere (OEuvres poetiques completes, Paris 1975, pp. 588f.).

3 Paul Claudel, Le poete et la Bible, Paris, Gallimard 1998, p. 729.

4 See Henri de Lubac, Exegese medievale, 1, 1, Paris 1959, pp. 318-328.

5 Melito of Sardis, On Easter, 7 (SCh 23, p. 64)

6 L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 29 March 2000, p. 9.

7 St Augustine, On John, 45, 2.

8 F. Kafka, "Eine kaiserliche Botschaft".

9 B. Pascal, Pensees 553 Br.; cf. St Augustine, De corrept. et grat. 1, 2 (PL 44, 917); St Bernard, De dil. Deo, 22 ("Nemo quaerere te valet, nisi qui prius invenerit").

© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.

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