Years ago, when I was working in our archdiocesan sister parish, La Sagrada Familia, in the Dominican Republic, I visited a young man in one of the villages of the parish. He spoke with me about his family and life in the village, and soon began to talk about the level of poverty that he experienced in his daily life. He said to me, “You know, there are times when there is nothing to eat in our house.” So I asked him, “What does your family do when there is nothing to eat?” He replied, “We go to our neighbors and ask for food.” And so I asked, “What if they refuse to give you food?” And he replied, “Oh, they always give what they have. They know that the next time around it may be they who are in need of food.”
In their poverty, the people of the village shared a bond of understanding and a willingness to give.
We began Holy Week with a reading on Palm Sunday about how the Son of God chose to enter into the poverty of our human condition to lead us to salvation: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7a) Our Savior chose to become one like us, to experience everything that we experience – human longing, joy, sorrow, and disappointments – everything that belongs to our existence. Out of love for humanity, he put himself in solidarity with us, and, as St. Paul tells us, “… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
Jesus invites his disciples to take up the cross and follow. This invitation takes on a profound significance when the cross makes itself present in our lives. Where have you encountered the cross in your own life recently? Have you experienced its weight in the death of a loved one, in a broken relationship or in the loss of employment? Have you felt its hardness in betrayal, in unjust treatment or in the scorn of others? Have you experienced the long, crushing journey of physical or emotional illness, alienation or regret?
The cross is a reality in our lives, a load we must carry, a burden we must bear. But we do not carry it alone. The mysteries we celebrate during Holy Week help us to contemplate the cross of the One who makes our burden light. We look upon our crucified Lord and adore the One, who is exalted in his death.
The prophet Isaiah sheds light on the mystery of Jesus’ death when he writes about the Servant of the Lord. The Suffering Servant did not defend himself, did not retaliate against his persecutors. He willingly handed himself over, like a lamb led to slaughter. Even in death, the Servant was shamed, buried among the wicked. His life and death appear to be tragic, even absurd. But Isaiah tells us, he was “pierced for our offenses.” (Isaiah 53:5a) The innocent one became the victim, and took on the guilt and the sins of those who afflicted him. He surrendered himself to death, and won pardon for their offenses. In his humiliation, the Servant has been lifted up.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is not only the innocent victim who suffered and died, but also the great High Priest, offering the Passover sacrifice. He is one like us, who sympathizes with us, who knows our weakness, our pain and our suffering firsthand. But because he is without sin, he makes it possible for us who are sinners to stand in the presence of God. Christ, broken for us on the altar of the cross, is the great High Priest clothed not with splendorous robes but with his wounds. He passes through the veil. He bridges heaven and earth.
In the passion narrative in the Gospel according to John, Jesus willingly gives himself over to his persecutors. Jesus’ crucifixion is portrayed as his enthronement. He is lifted up on the cross – lifted up in triumph. He is not conquered, but conquers sin and death.
The celebrations of Holy Week help us to recognize that the cross is a reality in our lives. Yet, in the midst of suffering, we see victory. In the midst of trouble, we experience hope. Our contemplation of the cross is our contemplation of Christ, Victim, Priest and King. As a people of faith, the cross stands at the center of our lives.
We are called to embrace the cross, to embrace our reality and to allow the Crucified One to lead us to new life.
As we unite our struggles with the cross of Christ, we do so knowing that what the Father did for Jesus, he will do for us. With faith in the resurrection, we find meaning in the difficulties and suffering that we encounter in life. The promise of the resurrection gives us courage and hope as we face the challenges that come our way.