On this most solemn day of the church
year we are proclaiming three messages in which the church through the ages has sought to understand why Jesus died so cruelly
that day in Jerusalem, and what it means for us.
Isaiah 52, 13 to 53, 12
- Here is the fourth and greatest suffering servant song. For us Christians
it is the high point of the Hebrew scriptures because it points ahead to the traumatic death of Jesus. And it has a central place in my own education as a lector. As
I declared it to my classmates at a Holy Week mass 38 years ago, I began to understand the power of an ancient text when its
interpreter renders it aloud with understanding and conviction. And I have never
forgotten that lesson.
- I saw it then as a running exchange between an eye-witness reporter and a true believer. The reporter recalls the external features, the servant’s reduction to a pitiful creature, a man from whom others hide their faces. Then come the words of disbelief:
like a lamb led to the slaughter he opened not his mouth.
- After a pause, when perhaps the reporter in us is emotionally unable to continue, when I am reduced to silence in the
face of absurdity, the true believer in us begins to speak, and dares to find a meaning in the long-range intention of God:
it was our infirmities that he bore, and by his stripes we were healed.
- I don’t take sides in the controversy across the ages about whether Second Isaiah was referring to his own people
reduced to colonial status in a pagan empire, or whether he indeed foresaw Jesus dying cruelly on Golgotha. I just tell the assembly what I see in the text. There is
a remarkable coincidence there, and I am not surprised that the apostles noticed it.
- I comport myself as people do in times of assassinations. I read as if
I am pronouncing a eulogy for someone we all knew and loved. I read knowing my
words are not equal to the task, knowing that I am not equal to the task. At
times like these I am fully aware that I am God’s mouthpiece, for I could never dare to hope that another could bear
my sins and my guilt.
- Climax: The true believer says that the horrible death of the servant was
not a random occurrence but a deliberate work of God: The Lord was pleased to crush
him in infirmity. If we look for explanations, this is the closest we get
to an explanation. It makes sense to us only because we believe in the God of
- Message for our assembly: The church has from the beginning understood this passage
in the light of Jesus, and when I read that the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us
all I mean all of us present.
- I will challenge myself: to make this evening as spiritually moving to our assembly
as were the days following the Twin Towers bombings, Hurricane Andrew or the assassination of a president.
Hebrews 4, 14-16 and 5, 7-9
- The author of Hebrews says aloud what we had already thought: it all comes down to faith. Let us hold fast to our profession of faith.
- Jesus was tested like us in everything, yet never sinned. We learn especially from Hebrews about the compassionate humanity of Christ.
- This does not sound like a eulogy. Jesus is alive! He is a great high priest who has passed through the heavens. And he is the source of eternal salvation.
- And I can show them the way by this reading. First Jesus is obedient to
God who hears his cries, and then we are obedient to Christ who leads us to salvation.
- Hebrews is a long homily on perseverance in faith. Tonight I am reading
a small portion of it, but it is the most tender portion of all. We may be tempted
to be shocked onlookers during the first reading, but Hebrews encourages us to take hold of our lives and our fortunes. I will speak an uplifting message to the people on the most somber day of the church
- Central point: This is what it means to be a high priest, to share our weaknesses and our anguish. In every phrase I will point to Jesus whose life was entirely with us and for us.
- The message for our assembly: We also need to grow in confidence, and the words Let
us approach with confidence before the throne of grace apply to us.
- I will challenge myself: to direct my attention to the living Jesus in my words.
18, 1 to 19, 42
- Jesus is more majestic than ever in the words of John. He stares down his captors: Whom do you seek? He answers Pilate as a superior: You would
have no power over me. He carries his own cross. And before he dies he speaks calmly: It is finished.
- The reading begins with a garden and ends with a garden. I will begin the narration in a measured pace and end in the same unhurried pace. And as I close, I will imitate the controlled sorrow of the closing hymn of Bach’s St. John Passion:
- In between the gardens I intensify the action slightly, as other persons are acting
upon Jesus and shuttle him from place to place.
- Pilate has many lines in this Passion.
He was said to be afraid at one point. I think of him as the one with
power of life and death over others, and who looks no more deeply than the bloodied clothing that prisoners might wear before
him. In all my words, right to the last What I have written I have written,
I interpret him as the Man, the final authority.
- Only in John’s account does the mother of Jesus appear in the Passion, and then near the cross with the beloved
disciple. I will speak Jesus’ words with dignity as he entrusts her to
- I place special attention on the spear-thrust into Jesus’ side, raising my voice in sudden astonishment as I
read about the blood and water flowing out.
Our assembly must remember this detail so important to John’s community.
- Central point: Jesus is in command at all times, not above the fray as it were but taking charge of his own death.
- Message for our assembly: We are not to consider the details of the Passion of Jesus as primarily historical facts
but as signposts to our salvation. I will practice a more mystical or epic voice
for my delivery tonight.
- I will challenge myself: not to lose sight of Jesus in even the slightest detail of my narrative.