by Rev. Fr. Dr. K. M. George
"Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps".
(1 Peter 2:21)
"We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).
"In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice".
(Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and proponent of Logotherapy)
The Cross of Jesus has become the universal symbol par excellence of intense suffering, particularly innocent suffering. The equivalent of the expression ‘carry the cross' exists in most languages of the world, and people use it irrespective of their faith allegiance. In Malayalam, for example, the phrase kurisu vahikkuka is used by people of all religions or of no religion, and by Christians and Communists alike.
On Good Friday, known as the Great or Holy Friday in the Eastern Christian Tradition, we are not simply remembering the death of Jesus Christ our Lord on the cross. We also participate in his sufferings and death symbolically; we confess him to be our Saviour God who died for us, and we look forward in hope to the glory of resurrection when death and evil will be fully overcome. This "paschal event" is at the heart of salvation. That is why the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ are collectively called the "Saving Mystery" by the Orthodox Church.
Devotion to the fourteen Stations of the Cross is an essential part of the Good Friday service in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a medieval European spiritual practice which is rooted in the idea of a pilgrimage. In the Gospels the faithful followers of Jesus accompany him on the way as he carries the heavy cross to Calvary for his own crucifixion after being condemned to death at the court of Pontius Pilate. He is beaten up by the Roman soldiers, bruised and broken, humiliated by his own Jewish people and ordered to carry his own cross. The path from Pilate's court to Golgotha is called the way of the cross (Via Crucis) or following the name of a street in old Jerusalem, it is also called ‘way of sorrows' (Via Dolorosa), usually represented artistically in Roman Catholic churches as the 14 stations of the cross.
In the Orthodox Syriac liturgy followed in the Indian Malankara Orthodox church, there is a procession on Good Friday around the church building in memory of the way of the cross. This is not a literal imitation of the stations of the cross as in the Latin tradition, but a simple procession in which the priest carries a bare wooden cross on his shoulder and people accompany him with devotional singing of the gospel narrative of Christ's journey to Calvary. Both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice draw from the spiritual notion of pilgrimage with Christ on the way of the Cross.
Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ had been watched by millions of pious Christians with great devotional seriousness. It draws on the very traditional medieval Roman Catholic piety that was centred on the physical suffering and pain of Christ. In scene after scene, it portrayed relentless violence, cruelty and blood that some of us found hard to take in.
Traditionally the Roman Catholic Church promoted a passion piety and spirituality without any reference to resurrection. In church institutions like schools, hospitals, monasteries and seminaries you will see the figure of a crucified Jesus (crucifix) on the walls. (Now this is changing in many Catholic places with ecumenical contacts with Orthodox Christianity which generally make use of a bare (empty) cross or an icon-painted cross signifying resurrection ... )
The western church, in general, encouraged artists to portray the face and body of the crucified Jesus as grotesquely as possible. The gruesome sight of a tortured man, bruised and dripping blood, convulsing in intolerable pain on the way and on the cross was the major theme of Good Friday meditation in the Roman Catholic tradition since the medieval period, and it has influenced some eastern churches as well. A conservative Catholic Mel Gibson follows this tradition in his renowned film. In many places this form of passion spirituality became pathological and morbid.
In the iconographic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox, the crucified Jesus is very serene whose face is not distorted, but radiates a "peace that passeth understanding". It is the pain, real though, of the one who has willingly accepted suffering out of love, and has overcome it in resurrection. The face exudes hopeful and serene submission to the will of God.
If we focus on the physical pain and suffering of Jesus as the unique and most crucial element as in the traditional Latin piety, we would miss the point. Because there are hundreds of thousands of men and women who have suffered more intensely and for a longer period, as witnessed by the Holocaust survivors for example, years of imprisonment, torture, hard labour and finally death in a gas chamber.
The mystery of Christian suffering exemplified by Christ on the cross is understandable to some extent only if we have an insight into the intimate connection St Paul shows between suffering, endurance, character, hope and love. On Great Friday, we are introduced into the mystery of suffering. Why is suffering called a mystery? We may seek answers in the teachings of the Church based on the Bible as interpreted by the Fathers and the experience of the countless number of ordinary Christians in history.
First of all, the simple answer is that we do not know. When we face something that our rational mind is unable to grasp at all, we usually call it a mystery. Why do people suffer? Why bad things happen to good people? Why unsuspecting women and innocent babies contract HIV/AIDS? Why 6 million people, including pregnant women, children, elderly, sick all were put to cruel end in the concentration camps of Adolf Hitler in the middle of the 20th century in a civilization far advanced in culture, wealth and technology? Why women's delicate body parts, which produce new life and nourish new born babies and sustain all humanity in holiness, love and hope, are ravaged by the claws of cancer? Sitting in cancer wards, accompanying a loved one undergoing cycle after cycle of devastating chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for years, and witnessing the deep anxiety and pain of patients that pervade the air, one is thrown back again and again to the question of innocent suffering. Why an innocent young man of amazing goodness, compassion and spiritual powers is tortured and condemned to a cruel death on the cross? We do not understand. Everybody knew, even his enemies, that Jesus of Nazareth was a just man who was deeply compassionate to all those who suffered. He cared for the sick and healed them, he lifted up those who were rejected by society; he wept together with the miserable and the desolate; he sided with the poor and the wretched, he was affectionately merciful to children; he defended the cause of widows and aliens… he announced the gospel- the good news- to the poor…And yet he was tortured and crucified as a detested criminal. The painfully baffling question of suffering has never been satisfactorily answered on rational terms, from the time of Job in the Bible to the Holocaust in our times. The many thousands of people who perish in terrorist attacks, natural disasters, wars, nuclear accidents and in the sheer violent outbursts of gun wielding individuals are our own brothers and sisters.
Secondly, Jesus voluntarily, accepted suffering out of love for us. He obeyed the will of the Father knowing well within him that sacrificing his life was essential to manifest God's love for us. Like any other human being Jesus was naturally reluctant to take upon him torture, pain and death. He was human hundred percent. Jesus was under such a fierce inner struggle and extreme pain that "his sweat was like drops of blood falling to ground". Medical Science tells us that sweating blood or sweat mixed with traces of blood (medically hematohidrosis), a rare condition, may happen to people in unusually stressful states. Facing an imminent cruel death Jesus cried to God: "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me..."
But in his self-consciousness as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, sent to the world with the mission of announcing the gospel of life, healing the world of its disease of sin and redeeming it, Jesus willingly accepted death; "nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:44).
Thirdly, we call it the saving mystery because of the ineffable connection between love, suffering and hope that leads to salvation. It is God himself who suffers in Jesus for us. For the first time in human religious history we see a creator God, all-powerful and all-knowing, who suffers for his creation. Without this suffering God's love would remain hidden to us. The mystery is the close intertwining of love and suffering. Genuine love takes upon itself suffering for the loved one.. Innocent suffering always generates genuine love and hope.
Usually in our human experience, extreme suffering produces in many people feelings of despair, self-pity, bitterness, anger, vengeance and so on. People curse God or find fault with others, turn violent or fall into depression and deep sense of guilt or take their life... But the positive qualities mentioned by St Paul, like perseverance, endurance, forgiveness, hope and love are radically different.
The mystery of true suffering on the model of Christ is such that it can eliminate the first set of negative emotions inclined to death, and generate all that promotes forgiveness, reconciliation, life and salvation. That is very clear when Jesus prays in the thick of his agony for forgiveness to his enemies without a trace of bitterness. This is the mystery of suffering that transforms and sanctifies the whole world.
For us followers of Jesus the "Suffering Servant of God"- all our suffering should become sacramental. Sacramental suffering, rooted in love and hope, sanctifies the sufferer and transforms all those around him or her, including persons, forces and structures that inflict suffering. It is suffering for the sins of humanity and the glorious future of all God's creation.
The inner peace and serenity of Jesus on the Cross, his prayer for forgiveness, his compassionate words of care for his orphaned mother and disciple and the final committing of himself in the hands of the heavenly Father are the traits of a human suffering raised to its sublime spiritual heights. Suffering transforms and saves.
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, you have revealed to us through your precious suffering and death on the cross the depth of the heavenly Father's love for us. You have become one among us out of your infinite compassion and love. Blessed is your humility and blessed is your redeeming suffering for us. Lord Jesus Christ, sanctify and transfigure us in the power of your Holy Spirit so that we may overcome all suffering in love and hope, and share in the glory of your Resurrection. Praise and glory be to the Triune God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for ever. Amen
Passion Week Supplement in Malankara World
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Sermon Collection Based on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross
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