Good Friday

The Breviary for Good Friday cites Hebrews 9: “Christ was offered up once to take away the sins of many; He will appear a second time not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him.” These words express a finality. Christ was offered up once. He was not offered up twice or thrice. Offered up to whom? To His Father. Why? That our sins be taken away. Are sins so serious that the Son of God must atone for them? Surely nothing we do is that important? We underestimate our dignity. “Against whom do we sin” includes the Father. He has established the dignity of each of us from the beginning.

Moreover, Christ’s being offered up had a purpose – “to take away the sins of many.” We hear that Christ takes away all sins. But the formulation in Hebrews has its point. Christ came to “judge” the living and the dead. Our sins are not taken away without our input. We too must acknowledge our own disorder. This acknowledgement cannot be forced. It must be free. One might say here that God is “helpless” against our will to resist Him. He will not violate His own laws placed in our being.

Christ will appear a second time. Why? To judge the living and the dead. We accept the truth of this latter statement not because we see it, but because it forms part of the whole order in which the existence of Christ is established as a fact. The second time He will not “take away our sins.” This judgment will already have been accomplished. We either choose to remain in them or seek their forgiveness from Him who alone can forgive.

We find an “eagerness” in the realization that sins are judged and forgiven. We are to receive “salvation.” What is this salvation? It is the result of the “alternate plan,” as it were, that resulted from man’s initial sin, his “original sin,” as it is called. God did not intend death and sin, though He did intend that the created person be invited to participate in His inner life. This participation was the reason for his initial creation. But the inner nature of the Godhead is such that no one can belong to it unless both invited and chosen. We often wonder about this because the chosenness involves our own response to the love in which we are initially created.

What happened on Good Friday is sometimes called a felix culpa, a happy fault, if there could be such a thing. We were given, as it were, a second chance. But this second chance involved the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos. God will not coerce us to accept what He wants of us. Our love cannot be forced and still be what it is. It must be free.

The scene on Good Friday is both an atonement that we could not make by ourselves and a sign to us of how important our lives are. The Good Friday Veneration of the Cross contains this refrain: “Behold, behold, the wood of the Cross on which hung our salvation.” We are to “behold.” Behold what? “The wood of the Cross.” Why is this important? Because our Savior hung there, in that terrible Roman form of execution. Yet many do not want to behold. They cannot accept this path as their “salvation.” But it is the only one that anyone is offered, the one most in accord with our nature and condition.

A Good Friday antiphon reads: “We worship you Lord; we venerate your Cross; we praise your resurrection. Through the Cross you brought joy to the world.” This Cross evidently does not only refer to resurrection. It brings “joy” to the world. What “joy” does it bring? Certainly, the fact that following the Cross is the Resurrection. It is a joy also to know that we are redeemed. Once we know this, we need not wander the world looking for an alternate salvation.

Nothing describes our world better than a place being torn asunder looking for a salvation other than this one, the one offered on the Cross. But it is offered, not commanded. We are treated so carefully. We cannot be saved if we will not cooperate in the grace given to us. All are saved in the Cross, but not all accept it.

No human drama is more important than this one. None tells us better what we are. None more respects our freedom to acknowledge it. The cost of rejection is to have only this world to ourselves. Hell is pictured as a punishment. But it is better understood as a dullness, a dullness that refuses to accept the joys that we are offered through the Cross.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019