The mystery of salvation
(Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42)
In the gospels, the story of Jesus' mission falls into two main parts. The first half consists of his public ministry of preaching, healing and exorcising and the second half consists of his passion and death.
Superficially Jesus appears almost as two different characters. During his ministry he was outspoken, courageous, urgent. He proclaimed his message with the passion of the Old Testament prophets and often went out of his way to antagonise the religious leadership of the time, pouring scorn on their teachings and practices, constantly using them as examples of how not to relate to God. He was a man who was asking for trouble.
As we know, by the time the gospels were written the first followers of Jesus had reached the conclusion that he was God - God incarnate, God in human form. "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father" he says in John's gospel. What this means is, that when God chose to appear among us in human form he did so specifically in the persona of the prophet: challenging, sharp-tongued, calling to repentance and radical conversion of life.
But then there's the other half of the picture, the part we see today: the Jesus of the Passion narratives.
The contrast between the bold, fearless Jesus of the preaching ministry, and the broken, humiliated figure of the passion is very vivid. Now the image is the sacrificial lamb, led to slaughter, or - as in the first reading today - the suffering servant portrayed by Isaiah, "a thing despised and rejected by men" an outcast figure, punished for the faults of others.
But of course for the members of the first Christian communities and for the gospel writers, Jesus is God incarnate in the hour of his suffering and defeat just as much as in days of his successes and triumphs. In one sense, more so, and this is the heart of the mystery of our salvation.
Jesus told his followers in advance that his mission could not be accomplished solely through the prophetic preaching and the prophetic signs and miracles of his ministry: he told them that the Son of Man would have to suffer and die to complete his work on earth.
In the religious leaders who plotted Jesus' death, in the mob that demanded Jesus be crucified while calling for Barabbas to be freed, in the disciples who thought first of their own safety and abandoned their leader to his fate, we're not supposed to see a picture of the Jewish people of two thousand years ago. We're supposed to see a reflection of ourselves - a picture of fallen human nature, which we all share, in every period of time, in every people and nation.
Because it's part of the message of the gospel, isn't it, that human nature is so wounded, our vision so distorted and our freedom so limited by sin, that when God's Word comes into the world we fail to recognise it, we're blind to it. Or worse: we do recognise goodness, truth, love, holiness when these qualities appear among us, but we consciously turn against them because we choose other, inferior, values and purposes.
The Passion story describes our predicament: When God comes before us we don't welcome him and accept him. We kill him.
But of course the Christian message is called Good News because even that doesn't stop God from saving us - if I can use that word. "To save" means to rescue, to liberate, to free. We're not capable of freeing, liberating, rescuing ourselves. It required an initiative on God's part, and this is where the symbolism of today's second reading comes in: Jesus the high priest.
The priest, in many religious traditions, including in one sense our own, is the man whose task is to offer sacrifice on behalf of others, bringing about a state of communion between the human and the divine. By virtue of his priestly state he provides something the community cannot provide for itself.
This is the image which the Letter to the Hebrews applies to Jesus on the Cross: he offers a sacrifice and achieves reconciliation between the all-holy God and sinful humanity which we are not capable of offering and achieving by our own resources.
We should never forget the concrete historical circumstances of Jesus' death: a good, honest man, unjustly executed by the influential people who felt their position threatened by his message. Through the circumstances of his own death, Jesus connects God to all those mean and women in history who have been killed because their outspoken commitment to truth has caused inconvenience to the powerful.
But it's Saint John's gospel most of all, I think, that shows how behind the particular circumstances of Jesus' life and passion and death, a larger cosmic drama is unfolding: God's plan to rescue humanity from the predicament of sin is being worked out through the actions and in spite of the actions of the baying mob, the disciples, the leaders, Caiaphas, Pilate.
The actions and motives of a sinful humanity couldn't hold back God's plan: they even unwittingly contributed to its fulfilment. That's one part, at least, of the whole mystery of our salvation which Christ's Passion, according to Saint John, puts before us on Good Friday.