In the homily which the then Cardinal Ratzinger delivered during the Mass before the Conclave of 2005, during which he was elected as Pope, he begins by noting that the grace and mercy of God are not cheap. They have come to us at the cost of a dear price, the price of the crucifixion. Well, did not the prophet Isaiah proclaim this truth when he said, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” (Is 53:5). The place where this takes place is the Cross. The Cross, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen, often said, was Jesus’ true pulpit and the thorns his crown of kingship.
The summary of the speech of Christ from the pulpit Cross is love. It is the loud cry, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34). It is the silent agony and the trustful surrender, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Lk 23:46), a silence and a cry which at last takes up and perfects all the Old Testament symbols of atonement and sacrifice. Upon the Cross the truth of the words of Jesus to the eager crown in the synagogue of Nazareth comes to perfection. Jesus proclaimed from the Prophet Isaiah (61:1,2), saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has sent me to proclaim a year of favor [of vindication] by God.” (cf. Lk 4:19). And when he had finished speaking, he said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4: 21).
Indeed, upon the Cross, the “today,” the “hour” of fulfilment arrives in all its fullness. For the cost of our vindication is the “bloody sacrifice of the cross.” This we see in Jesus’ very own Priestly Prayer in John’s gospel. Looking up to heaven, he cried out to the Father, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (Jn 17:1). That we might not misunderstand what his glory consisted in, he adds immediately, “For you [Father] granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” (Jn 17:2). The fullness of God’s vindication which the Cross of Christ has won for us is this very “eternal life.”
It was for this reason that Jesus [the Son of Man] came into the world – “That all might have life and have it in abundance.” (Jn 10:10). Since this abundant life comes only through the Cross, therefore, Jesus came so that he might endure the Cross. For as St. Peter says, “In his own body he brought your sins to the cross” (1 Pt 2: 24). In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes, “Christ has delivered us from the power of the law’s curse by himself becoming a curse for us, as it is written, ‘Accursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree.’ This happened so that through Christ Jesus the blessing bestowed on Abraham might descend on the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, thereby making it possible for us to receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Gal 3: 13-14).
How beautifully these words of St. Paul interpret the very promise of Christ to give us “the water that will become in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14). A few chapters later, in John 7:39, the evangelist offers us a clarifying statement that by “water,” Jesus meant “the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” He then adds, “[For] up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” See how the out-pouring of the Spirit upon the believers is related to the very gift of “eternal life” (the water welling up to the eternal life), and how the “hour” of the giving of this gift is tied to the very “glorification” of Christ, and as we have seen already, the “hour of this glorification” is the hour of the Cross.
From beginning to end of his public ministry, Jesus was conscious of this hour. In fact, everything he did prepared him for this hour, of whose necessity he clearly states in today’s gospel text, to Nicodemus, his nocturnal disciple, saying, “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’ For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:13-17).
Again, Cross, eternal life, and the love of God are all tied in together, but in reverse order. It is God’s love that grounds his desire to share his very life with us, reason why he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the Cross in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the kenotic (self-emptying) love of God that we find at the heart of that famous Pauline Christological hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 [The the second reading of today’s feast].
This hymn of Paul introduces another striking Christological theme in verses 9-10: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Notice here the exaltation (resurrection) and enthronement of Christ as the “other side” of Christ’s glory. At last, the cross is not only Christ’s pulpit, but also his throne. Or as Balthasar (and Adriene von Speyr) will put it, the resurrection is the “obverse of the Cross.” That is, Cross and resurrection are like two sides of the same coin. In Joseph Ratzinger’s terms, the cross is the “negative side of the resurrection.” On the Cross, he says, “Christ carries the full weight of evil and all its destructive force in his body and in his soul. He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of his suffering love. The day of vindication and the year of favor converge in the Paschal Mystery, in the dead and Risen Christ.” [cf. Homily at Missa Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice, 2005]. In his death he is humiliated, in his rising he is exalted. Both realities coincide in the one person, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. He is the very Son of Man who suffers and who will come again in glory. [cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2].
If we return to the first half of today’s Gospel, wherein Christ tells Nicodemus that he will be “lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” and reading this in connection with the Old Testament reading [of today: Numbers 21:4b-9], which describes the scene alluded to by Christ in the gospel, we come to an even deeper appreciation of what Christ’s Cross has done for us.
Speaking in Jerusalem in 1994, Joseph Ratzinger described Christ’s crucifixion as an “act endured in innermost solidarity with the Law and with Israel,” that is, a perfect fulfilment of the signs and symbols of the Old Testament sacrifices and atonement, the greatest of which was the Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur]. Included here, therefore, is the sign of the serpent, which, though not a sacrifice, symbolized the great sacrifice to come. It was a symbol that solicited faith, for those bitten by the fiery serpent were supposed to look at the bronze serpent which Moses had elevated, if they would be healed. Christ has fulfilled in his person these symbols. He has been lifted up, so that whoever beholds the crucified One in faith, is saved from the sting of that ancient serpent, the devil.
Commenting on this, Tracey Rowland writes, “Christ who makes an offering of himself on the Cross, is therefore the true and eternal high priest anticipated symbolically by the Aaronic priesthood… The Atonement of Christ, as both the eternal high priest and sacrificial victim, not only fulfils the Old Testament in the sense of transfiguring its symbols into a new reality; it also gives rise to a new sovereignty, a new kingship.” (cf. “The Struggle Against the ‘Dictatorship of Relativism.’” www.benedictusxvi.com).
Yes, indeed, the first Good Friday was the day on which the symbols of salvation were realized in their fullness; the day on which “the year of favor or vindication by our God” was secured; the day on which grace and mercy abounded where sin had reigned (Rom 5:20). Today’s feast devoutly recalls and honors that Most Holy Cross of our Savior, upon which so dear a price was paid on our behalf, that we might receive so precious a gift.
Today, therefore, we gratefully hail our suffering king, by whose suffering we have been acquitted, and by whose wounds we have been healed. Likewise, today’s feast reminds us that we have been bought as so great a price – We belong to the Lord. (1 Cor 6:20). We must therefore refrain from the idolatrous tendency of excessive self-love and self-indulgence, which makes us forgetful of who it is to whom we owe our life, and to whom we must give an account when we reach through the pearly gates.
Hail to the Cross of our Salvation! Hail to the Crucified King!
Fr. Tegha A. Nji
University of Notre Dame, IN USA