The CrossPOPE BENEDICT XVI
Peter Seewald: "We are used to thinking of suffering as something we try to avoid at all costs. And there is nothing that many societies get more angry about than the Christian idea that one should bear with pain, should endure suffering, should even sometimes give oneself up to it, in order thereby to overcome it. 'Suffering', John Paul II believes, 'is a part of the mystery of being human.' Why is this?"
When we know that the way of love — this exodus, this going out of oneself — is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.
Love itself is a passion, something we endure. In love I experience first a happiness, a general feeling of happiness. Yet, on the other hand, I am taken out of my comfortable tranquility and have to let myself be reshaped. If we say that suffering is the inner side of love, we then also understand by it is so important to learn how to suffer — and why, conversely, the avoidance of suffering renders someone unfit to cope with life. He would be left with an existential emptiness, which could then only be combined with bitterness, with rejection, and no longer with any inner acceptance or progress toward maturity.
That we cannot say. Yet we can say that man would have access to God. He would then only be able to relate to God in occasional fragmentary attempts. And, in the end, we would not know who or what God actually is.
Something of the light of God shines through in the great religions of the world, of course, and yet they remain a matter of fragments and questions. But if the question about God finds no answer, if the road to him is blocked, if there is no forgiveness, which can only come with the authority of God himself, then human life is nothing but a meaningless experiment. Thus, God himself has parted the clouds at a certain point. He has turned on the light and has shown us the way that is the truth, that makes it possible for us to live, and that is life itself.
Someone like Jesus inevitably attracts an enormous amount of attention and would be bound to offend any society. At the time of his appearance, the prophet from Nazareth was not only cheered, but also mocked and persecuted. The representatives of the established order saw in Jesus' teaching and his person a serious threat to their power, and Pharisees and high priests began to seek to take his life. At the same time, the Passion was obviously part and parcel of his message, since Christ himself began to prepare his disciples for his suffering and death. In two days, he declared at the beginning of the feast of Passover, "the Son of Man will be betrayed and crucified."
Jesus is adjusting the ideas of the disciples to the fact that the Messiah is not appearing as the Savior or the glorious powerful hero to restore the renown of Israel as a powerful state, as of old. He doesn't even call himself Messiah, but Son of Man. His way, quite to the contrary, lies in powerlessness and in suffering death, betrayed to the heathen, as he says, and brought by the heathen to the Cross. The disciples would have to learn that the kingdom of God comes into the world in that way, and in no other.
"During the meal," to read in the Gospel, "Jesus took the bread and spoke the blessing; then he broke the bread, shared it with the disciples, and said: Take and eat; this is my body. Then he took the cup, spoke the thanksgiving, and passed it to the disciples with the words: Drink of this, all of you; this is my blood, the blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the /forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me." These are presumably the sentences that have been most often pronounced in the entire history of the world up till now. They give the impression of a sacred formula.
They are a sacred formula. In any case, these are words that entirely fail to fit into any category of what would be usual, what could be expected or premeditated. They are enormously rich in meaning and enormously profound. If you want to get to know Christ, you can get to know him best by meditating on these words, and by getting to know the context of these words, which have become a sacrament, by joining in the celebration. The institution of the Eucharist represents the sum total of what Christ is.
Here Jesus takes up the essential threads of the Old Testament. Thereby he relies on the institution of the Old Covenant, on Sinai, on one hand, thus making clear that what was begun on Sinai is now enacted anew: The Covenant that God made with men is now truly perfected. The Last Supper is the rite of institution of the New Covenant. In giving himself over to men, he creates a community of blood between God and man.
On the other hand, some words of the prophet Jeremiah are taken up here, proclaiming the New Covenant. Both strands of the Old Testament (Law and prophets) are amalgamated to create this unity and, at the same time, shaped into a sacramental action. The Cross is already anticipated in this. For when Christ gives his Body and his Blood, gives himself, then this assumes that he is really giving up his life.
In that sense, these words are the inner act of the Cross, which occurs when God transforms this external violence against him into an act of self-donation to mankind.
And something else is anticipated here, the Resurrection. You cannot give anyone dead flesh, dead body to eat. Only because he is going to rise again are his Body and his Blood new. It is no longer cannibalism but union with the living, risen Christ that is happening here.
In these few words, as we see, lies a synthesis of the history of religion — of the history of Israel's faith, as well as of Jesus' own being and work, which finally becomes a sacrament and an abiding presence.
The disciples go with Jesus to the Mount of Olives. There Peter asserts passionately that he will never betray the Master. Jesus wants to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is deeply moved and at the same time under great strain. Sorrow and anguish come upon him. "My soul is afflicted unto death", he says to two disciples; "stay here and watch with me." They go off a couple of yards, and he throws himself to the ground. He prays, and perhaps he also weeps. "Father", the two hear him say, " if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. But let not what I want, but what you want, be done."
That is one of the most moving, and the most disturbing, passages in the New Testament. We can only try to meditate ever anew on this mystery of the anguish of Christ, as the great believers have done.
To a certain extent I see here the struggle between the human and the divine soul of Jesus Christ. Jesus can see the whole abyss of human filth and human awfulness, which he has to carry and through which he must make his way. In what he sees, which goes far beyond anything of which we can be aware — and even we can feel horribly sick if we take a look at the awfulness of human history, into the abyss of denial of God, which can destroy people — in this he sees how dreadful is the burden that is being laid upon him. This is not just anguish in the face of his execution; it is being confronted with the entire, fearful, abyss of human destiny, which he has to take upon himself.
The Greek theologian Maximus the Confessor depicts this process in a particularly impressive way. He shows us how the "alchemy of being" is accomplished in the prayer on the Mount of Olives. Here, Jesus' will becomes one with the will of the Son and, thereby, with the will of the Father. All the rebelliousness of human nature, which shuts itself against death and against the horrors he can see, comes to the surface in this prayer. Jesus has to overcome man's inward resistance against God. He must overcome the inner temptation to do it some other way. And now this temptation reaches its zenith. Only the breakdown of this resistance makes a Yes possible. It ends with the fusion of his own individual, human will into the will of God and, thus, with the single petition: "But let not my will, but your will, be done."
Yes, he is disappointed. And believers in all ages have seen how this saying of Jesus reaches beyond the context of the moment into the entire history of the Church. Again and again, the disciples are sleeping. Again and again, there is a grave threat to God's work, and his people are sleeping. He has brought them quite close to himself; they are supposed to lessen the burden of being alone; but they are obviously not affected by the awfulness of the moment.
This saying harks back to what God says after the flood: "I can see that they are but flesh; they are weak; they need forbearance and pity." In the end, his disappointment is swallowed up in pity.
Peter wants to demonstrate that his courageous words about never betraying the Master are true. That he is ready to risk death at this very moment. Certainly, he will soon have to learn that striking out boldly very quickly becomes a very small thing if striking out boldly doesn't work.
Above all, Jesus is once again speaking out to the whole of history here: God's work, he warns us, cannot be defended with the sword, as has unfortunately been attempted again and again. Anyone who wants to defend God by force is already by that very fact opposing him.
As high priest, Caiaphas is responsible for the faith of Israel. Naturally it doesn't occur to him that he might really be condemning the living Son of God to death. He sees in Jesus someone who has done injury to the very heart of the Jewish creed, the belief in one God, by the presumptuous claim to be himself God's Son. And, certainly, he does this in a state of blindness, unable to perceive the mystery; his faith is encapsulated in a formula. We ought not to be too ready to condemn him, since in some way he believes, of course, that he is acting responsibly on behalf of religion.
Here we see all the drama of human weakness: Peter runs away at first, but comes back to see what is happening. In his eyes, his denial of Jesus is only a little lie he tells so as not to be discovered and thus to ensure he is able to stay near him. Yet under the gaze of Jesus he realizes how cowardly he has been and how he has now deserted him.
What I find fascinating is the difference between the two people who have fallen into sin. One finds his way to repentance, and in this way he is once more accepted. He is ready to receive forgiveness. He does not despair. He suffers and thus becomes a penitent who reforms. The other is so horrified by his betrayal that he no longer believes in forgiveness.
That, I would say, is the real difference. Two kinds of regret, of self-accusation. One does not become nihilistic but allows itself to be picked up again. And one in which the belief in forgiveness has been extinguished, which destroys itself and thereby fails to take the path of renewal, which would have been open.
I believe that is an important lesson for all men who have fallen, for everyone who feels guilt in any way or who is overcome by guilt. It shows us that a mistakenly exaggerated self-condemnation, which grows in the end to a total denial of oneself, is not the appropriate way to deal with guilt.
Jesus has first of all been through a Jewish trial, which ends with a verdict of guilty. Remarkably, the Jewish authorities do not carry out the sentence; instead of that, they transfer the matter to the secular Roman court. At this second trial there is a different charge. Here Jesus is no longer accused of offending against the Jewish creed, which would have been a matter of indifference to Pilate, but is accused of being a political usurper who is undermining Roman rule. The religious trial is turned into a political one.
The indictment is certainly thin, and the Roman judge, who is in fact himself a cynic, has at first not the slightest desire to act as a lackey for the Jewish authorities. In this, the figure of Pilate seems very modern. When Jesus talks about the truth, he answers like a typical sceptic: Well, what is that in fact, truth? Only a deluded madman would assert that he is acting as witness to the truth and would go to his death for it.
This passage is a real object lesson about crowds. There are, probably, people in the crowd who were quite harmless before, people like those who liked Jesus and cheered him. We can see how a crowd destroys the conscience. How it alienates people from themselves and can turn them into instruments of evil.
All these passages open up unfathomable depths. With their many levels, they lead us through the whole scale of behavior, from the banality of evil to the humility of divine power and love. We see first of all the inhuman attitude of such a death squad, for whom cruelty has become their daily bread. But there is probably more than that, so that, through the mockery, we glimpse something more profound. For the very person they have crowned so as to mock him is the true king of the world. That man, who wears the crown of thorns and, with it, takes upon himself the crown of the suffering of mankind, is the truly crowned head of all. And what Pilate says, again, has a very complex meaning over and beyond what he intends to say. Somehow, it is saying: "Yes, that is man", a pitiful worm. At the same time, it shows us the real man, who in his suffering bears the image of God.
Christian piety has made this Way of the Cross, which one can walk along in Jerusalem, the basic image for the path of human suffering. Certain features of it have arisen through meditation, such as his falling three times or the figure of Veronica. These are things of which people's hearts have become aware through inwardly walking this path with him. After the Rosary, the Way of the Cross is the second great form of prayer discovered by Western popular piety in the Middle Ages. It is not only a great testimony to an inner depth and maturity, but it is in fact a school for interiority and consolation. It is also a school for the examination of conscience, for conversion, for inner transformation and compassion — not as sentimentality, as a mere feeling, but as a disturbing experience that knocks on the door of my heart, that obliges me to know myself and to become a better person.
The figure of Simon, of course, still makes a great impression. At any rate, Christendom has seen in this an enduring mission. Christ is, so to speak, carrying his Cross throughout the whole of history. He is looking for the hand of Veronica and the hand of Simon, hands that are ready to carry great crosses.
Jesus stands for all victims of brute force. In the twentieth century itself we have seen again how inventive human cruelty can be; how cruelty, in the act of destroying the image of man in others, dishonors and destroys that image in itself. The fact that the Son of God took all this upon himself in exemplary manner, as the "Lamb of God", is bound to make us shudder at the cruelty of men, on one hand, and make us think carefully about ourselves, how far we are willing to stand by as cowardly or silent onlookers, or how far we share responsibility ourselves. On the other side, it is bound to transform us and to make us rejoice in God. He has put himself on the side of the innocent and the suffering and would like to see us standing there too.
The evangelists offer us two traditions regarding the drink that is offered to Jesus. Matthew tells us about wine that is mixed with gall, which is offered to Jesus at the beginning of his time on the Cross, perhaps as a kind of anesthetic drink. Jesus refuses it — he wants to endure the suffering with undimmed senses. Mark, Luke, and in great detail John tell us about some vinegar that is given to Jesus at the end of his Passion. These evangelists obviously have in mind the saying from a psalm: "They gave me poison to eat, and vinegar for my thirst" (Ps 69:21). We hear the echo of other prophetic passages: I planted a vineyard, and it gave me only sour wine — a complaint that, again and again, applies to Christendom as well.
Then we hear about the mockery that rises like waves around Jesus. We may think about the Book of Wisdom in the Old Testament, where it is said: "The wicked will make mock of the righteous man." They will give him up to death and will say, Now you can show us whether you are God or not. It is their way of making an experiment. And it is their hour of triumph, in which the Pharisees, who perhaps up to now have, in part, still had a bad conscience about this, can see themselves as justified and can clothe their rejection of him in mockery. They make common cause thereby with the banality of evil, as represented by the soldiers.
Altogether, seven sayings of Jesus upon the Cross are handed down to us in the Gospels. The one you have just quoted has in fact a contextual key. This is the first verse of Psalm 21, the great psalm of Israel's suffering, in which Israel, which in the course of history has again and again been trampled down in powerlessness, cried out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" By beginning his prayer with Psalm 21, Jesus identifies himself with the suffering people of Israel and takes over and internalizes the fate of this people.
But we ought not to forget that this is also a prayer. It is a recognition of God in a cry for help. Jesus dies praying, as someone who upholds the first commandment, to worship God, and God only. The psalm develops into a great declaration of trust, and in a prophecy of the Eucharist it ends with these words: "The poor will eat, and will be satisfied." The food that satisfies the poor, the new manna, comes from the Cross.
The true, great, and unadulterated portrayals of the Cross arise from an inward identification with the crucified Christ, from a meditation, from a prayerful uniting of oneself with him. They do portray the thirst, the misery, the frightful torture and pain, but in this picture they give the last word to peace: "Into thy hands I commit my spirit. It is finished."
Jesus bowed his head and departed. He gave up his spirit and gave back the spirit to the Father, so that the peace of the Crucified One shines forth even in these last words. Pictures of Christ on the Cross can never be merely pictures of cruelty and horror or they would not portray the whole mystery of Christ. If they only show the mockery of man, then they become themselves a subject for mockery.
Within twenty-four hours, in Jerusalem, the Resurrection was recognized as a fact. Everyone in the city was extremely disturbed that morning. There was first of all the earthquake that had shaken the Temple two days before, then a three-hour sandstorm, then more tremors. When the women were the first to bring the story of the empty tomb, it was treated at first as mere gossip. But by evening there was no more room for doubt, at least among the disciples. Jesus had met with two of them on the road to Emmaus and had made himself known to them. The history of Christianity, as the history of a faith, had begun.
We can leave open the question of how quickly this event became generally accepted in the city of Jerusalem. From the closing passage of the Gospel of Matthew, we know that, even after the great final appearance of Jesus on a mountain in Galilee — the Crucified One had risen and said: "All power has been given to me" — many people still had doubts. At every stage, the message of the Resurrection was accompanied by doubts and was opposed, even though this is the victorious message that overcomes doubt.
Christ departed from this world and from its life in a new manner of corporality, which is no longer subject to physical laws. It belongs to the world of God, from whence Christ shows himself to men and opens their hearts that they may recognize him and touch him. Again and again, we are invited to touch him with Thomas, the "unbelieving apostle", and to recognize his living presence, which he discloses ever anew in history.
And in fact with the Resurrection something new has broken through into this world, and it is starting from the Resurrection that the Church can be built up, the community of those who believe in Christ, the new people of God.
This is in fact a history that has no parallel. That very Cross upon which not only Jesus' message, but he himself, his flesh and blood, were supposed to come to an end became a symbol of salvation, a symbol not of death but, indeed, of life. "The wood of true life", sang Andrew of Jerusalem. A paradox: through the Cross to salvation.
Early pictures of Christ on the Cross show him as the risen Christ, as King. He is shown with his eyes open, so as to make clear that the Godhead did not die, that it is still living and still gives life. From being the stigma of Roman execution, the Cross thus became the sign of triumph of the Son of Man, which not only will appear to us at the end of all time, but which already thus appears to us when he, as Victor, comes to us and seeks us out. With him we start out to meet the living God; in the suffering One, the consolation of God's love, stronger than death, becomes visible.
Thus the Cross has truly become a sign of redemption, the sign of Jesus Christ, the logogram for him, by means of which we symbolically unite ourselves with him.
That is the mystery of God, who did not come into the world as someone who was going to set up a just social order by force of power. He came down to our level in order to suffer for us and with us.
We will never be able to understand this mystery finally and completely. And nevertheless, this is the most positive thing that is told us about God: God does not simply rule by power. God uses his power differently from the way human rulers use power. His power is that of sharing in love and in suffering, and the true face of God is shown, indeed, in suffering. In suffering, God bears and shares the burden of the injustice of the world, so that in our very darkest hours, we may be sure that God is then closest to us.
God becomes small, so that we can grasp his nature. So that we men can have set before us that principle, which is the opposite of the principle of pride and the principle of the idolization of self. He comes as someone who touches our hearts.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. "The Cross." chapter 14 in God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 322-339.
Reprinted by gracious permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserve. God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time is available here.
Copyright © 2002 Ignatius
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