Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Hosea 6:1-6 / Exodus 12:1-11 / John 18:1-40; 19:1-42

In his Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas asks whether Jesus Christ suffered all sufferings in his Passion. The reason for the question is surely not hard to find. Those who suffer find a special kind of solace in knowing that the one who loves them really knows what they have endured. It is not that misery loves company, or that those who suffer envy or resent those blessed with good fortune, although this too can be true. No, even for the best and virtuous, there is something assuring about the confidence that the one who tells us that all will be well, that the suffering, pain, and loss are not the final word, that God is in the midst of it all as our Advocate and Friend — that such a comforter can be trusted because he too has suffered. So, knowing whether Jesus, the Word made flesh, knew suffering as I know suffering is a question whose answer makes all the difference in the world.

Now, good Dominican that he is, Thomas makes here an important distinction. Jesus Christ, he notes, did not, indeed could not have endured every suffering specifically. Some sufferings are incompatible, such as death by drowning and death by burning. So, if we demand a Savior who encountered every single thing that threatens to assault and assail, then we demand foolishly and in vain. But, says Thomas, Jesus did endure every kind of suffering.

Now, here is where the Angelic Doctor surprises us. We might imagine that Thomas would place the physical agony of Christ in the first place, but he does not. Nor does he place the suffering as a person first, although he has much to say here. No, the first account of suffering endured by the God-Man is social, the suffering from all kinds of men: from Jews and Gentiles, from men and women, from rulers, their servants and the mob, and (significantly) from friends and acquaintances — the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter. Of his personal suffering, Thomas gives a full list: the blasphemies assaulting his reputation, the mockeries and insults against his honor and glory, the taking of his sole possession in the taking of his clothing, in the sadness, weariness and fear of his soul, and in the scourging and wounds in his body. Yet, in addition to these, and at the head of the list, we find the suffering endured by Christ from having his friends abandon him. And, in enumerating the ways in which Christ suffered in his members and his senses — his head from the crown of thorns, his hands and feet from the nails, his face from blows and spittle, his whole body from lashes, his taste with vinegar and gall, his smell "by being fastened to a gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses," his hearing by the cries of blasphemers and scorners — Thomas crowns the whole list with that noblest and most rational, and thus human, of senses, namely sight. And how did Christ suffer in his sight, according to Thomas? By beholding the tears of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved.

For Thomas, the worst of the Passion was not the agony of the body, although that was horrifying and enough to make even the elect give pause. It was not the assaults on one's person either, whether internally in the soul or externally in name and possessions, even though these were also cruel. No, the worst of the Passion was, according to Thomas, the assault of that communion of persons which we call friendship, that brutal tearing of the noble joining of hearts we call love. The one theme, the one lash that marks across his whole account is the suffering of Jesus Christ in the violation of what it means to be joined to another in love — in the betrayal, treason and abandonment by his most intimate friends, and in knowing and witnessing the agony suffered by those one loves above all others, aware that this suffering of theirs has come about by what he has freely chosen.

Our Lord and Savior died from friendship abused for a friendship surpassing all of our wildest hopes. He hung on the cross by the iron nails of love betrayed with a love so hot it could leave the whole world in ash if he would unleash the slightest spark. Or, in the word of the great English poet Mitlon: O unexampl'd love, / Love nowhere to be found less than Divine! / Hail Son of God, Saviour of Men, thy Name / Shall be the copious matter of my Song / Henceforth, and never shall my Harp thy praise / Forget, nor from thy Father's praise disjoin.

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