“But the glory of the cross led those who were blind through ignorance into light, loosed all who were held fast by sin, and ransomed the whole world of mankind.” - St. Cyril of Jerusalem
Mark 15:21-39: They enlisted a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means the place of the skull. They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused it. Then they crucified him, and shared out his clothing, casting lots to decide what each should get. It was the third hour when they crucified him. The inscription giving the charge against him read: ‘The King of the Jews.’ And they crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.
The passers-by jeered at him; they shook their heads and said, ‘Aha! So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Then save yourself: come down from the cross!’ The chief priests and the scribes mocked him among themselves in the same way. ‘He saved others,’ they said ‘he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, for us to see it and believe.’ Even those who were crucified with him taunted him. When the sixth hour came there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’ When some of those who stood by heard this, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling on Elijah.’ Someone ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave it him to drink saying; ‘Wait and see if Elijah will come to take him down.’ But Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The centurion, who was standing in front of him, had seen how he had died, and he said, ‘In truth this man was a son of God.’
Christ the Lord Jesus has just proclaimed his Lordship to the leaders of Jerusalem at the trial in the chief priest’s palace. He has just been crowned King (albeit the crown was of thorns) within the city walls. But now he is led outside the city. There he is enthroned on the cross; there they post the announcement: The King of the Jews.
Even in these tragic hours when Jesus is rejected by those he came to save, when sin and evil are given free rein, even then God’s Providence is at work laying the foundation for the eternal, universal Kingdom. Jesus is King and Messiah both of the Jews and of the Gentiles. He is King of all people, all times, all places. All things were made through him, and though sin tried to wrench his kingdom from his grasp, all things remain firmly under his sway. Thus, crowned inside Jerusalem, because he is King of the Jews, and enthroned outside the city walls, because he is King of the Gentiles, in the moment of conquest, when his obedience unto death dissolves Adam’s disobedience unto death, God reveals the mystery hidden since the dawn of history: that all things are to be united in Christ, the Lord. The centurion, the Roman officer, is the first human being in the entire Gospel of Mark to affirm faith in Christ as the Son of God – “In truth this man was a son of God” – the New Covenant has been inaugurated.
Christ the Teacher Christ’s every word and deed is instructive; he lived them all for our sake, and each one is steeped in his eternal wisdom. And yet, this saving eloquence takes on an even greater intensity during the Passion. This is the pivotal moment of all human history. In Adam’s sin, mankind fell; in Israel, God prepared mankind’s recovery; in Christ’s loving obedience, we were redeemed; in the Church, that redemption is brought to the remotest corners of the world. This is the summary of human history. And at this point, at Golgotha, when the wrong is righted and saving grace is merited, every detail is a torrent of instruction:
• They had a passerby help Jesus carry his cross. Jesus makes himself weak so that we can have a share in the glorious work of saving souls and building up his eternal Kingdom.
• They offered him myrrh as a painkiller. Jesus refused. He doesn’t want any person who suffers physical pain to feel that he isn’t with them even in the worst moments.
• They divided up his clothes. Jesus is completely detached from every worldly desire. How much time and money we spend on clothes, on appearances! Jesus puts them in their proper place.
• They crucified two robbers next to him. To the last, Jesus takes his place among sinners, his beloved sinners, whom he came to save.
• The passersby jeered at him, and the leaders of the people continued to mock him. Nothing, not even the most constant and resilient antagonism, can deter him from fulfilling the Father’s will.
• Darkness covered the land. Christ is the Lord of all creation, the light of every life, and when we reject him, our souls descend into the cold shadows of self-absorption; we are lost to the darkness.
• Jesus cries out to his Father, expressing the agony of his heart. In quoting the first line of Psalm 22, Jesus invokes the entire Psalm, a song of near despair that transforms into steadfast hope. What a lesson of prayer is here! Christ found his deepest motivations and convictions expressed in God’s Word, transformed into prayer. How God longs for us to be honest in our prayers! Why do we pose and posture with God, when he already knows what’s in our hearts?
• The famous veil of the Temple, the symbolic wall of separation that sin erected between the human family and God, is torn completely in two. Jesus had finally done what no one since Adam could have done: lived a sinless life, reestablishing communion between man and God and giving the lost and wounded human race a new and substantial hope.
• The centurion, gazing on the dying Christ, receives the gift of faith. Do we want to bring others to friendship in Christ? Arguments will avail little; we must bring them to Christ himself in the Eucharist, in the Gospel, in our own witness of self-forgetful love, and Jesus will do the rest.
And there is more, much more. How glad our Lord is when we take a few minutes to consider his love, painted into every scene of the Gospels, and most especially the scene at Calvary! How much good it does to our own soul! Like Mary, we have only to “treasure all these things and ponder them” in our hearts (Luke 2:19), and we too will discover the surpassing love of God in which “all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden” (Colossians 2:3).
Christ the Friend Jesus’ gauntlet of suffering continues as he takes up his cross, climbs the hill of Golgotha, and is crucified. Again, he takes upon himself more genres of pain so as to be able to accompany all sufferers throughout history, no matter the manner or intensity of their sorrow. Jesus’ hands and feet are nailed through with metal spikes. The spikes in his hands, low down on the palms or in the wrists, pierce the nerve bundle that gives the fingers all their sensitivity. And each time he takes a breath, he pushes his whole body up to fill his lungs with air, forcing those raw, exposed nerves to grate against the spikes. But now, hanging on the cross, barely recognizable and barely alive, yet another type of suffering is added to the excruciating physical pain and crescendo of mockery and taunts: the feeling of utter helplessness. Now he is pinned to the cross. Now he can only watch and wait; he can do nothing for himself or for those around him. He must simply endure to the end.
Often this is the most trying of all suffering, because it shackles love. Love always wants to do something, to reach out, to give. But often the other heart – the beloved’s – is closed, and so love is left helpless. Or the situation is so completely out of our hands that, like Christ, all we can do is watch, wait, pray, and suffer. How well Jesus knows this brand of pain too! When he visited Nazareth, he couldn’t perform miracles because his fellow townspeople had no faith. He experienced it as he wrestled for the souls of the Pharisees and Saducees. The wound of rejected love was still fresh where Judas had kissed him. How much that loving heart must have agonized over such tragic resistance! And here on the cross that agony is made visible. His hands and feet are immobilized, his mouth is parched – he hangs there, dying, utterly helpless.
He wanted to experience this; he wanted to prove that his friendship is so complete that he accompanies us even in our deepest frustration. Truly we have no friend like this friend, if only we would open our eyes to see. Let us be still awhile, and gaze up at love incarnate, nailed to a cross for love of you and me.
Christ in My Life I believe in you, Lord. Truly, you are the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Redeemer of the whole human family, and the one who rescued me from my sins. Your love was constant. Your faithfulness never wavered. Sin and evil unleashed their worst assault and still you loved, forgave, and endured. Jesus, my Lord! Teach me to love as you love, teach me to do your will…
You have made the cross the central sign of the Church. We have crosses every-where. You want us to think about the cross. You want us to bless ourselves with the sign of the cross. You want us to learn the wisdom of the cross, the science of the cross. Lord, unveil for me the mystery of the cross. How I long to know you better, to love you more, to follow you…
Once again you assure me that I never have to be alone. No matter what, no matter how dark the valley I’m traveling through, you are there beside me. Thank you, Lord. But what about the people who don’t know you or don’t trust you? Don’t let them languish in their loneliness. Make me a channel of your peace, an ambassador of your friendship…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.