Meditations of Holy Week

Good Friday

"They will look on him whom they have pierced.” John the Evangelist closes his presentation of the Lord’s passion with these words. With these words he opens his presentation of the vision of Christ in the last book of the New Testament that we call the “secret revelation.” The whole story has unfolded between the two mentions of these prophetic words from the Old Covenant, between the crucifixion and second coming of the Lord. These words address at once the humiliation of him who died like a criminal at the gallows and the power of him who will come to judge the world, and us.

“They will look on him whom they have pierced.” The whole of John’s gospel is fundamentally nothing but the fulfillment of these words, nothing but the effort to direct our eyes and hearts to gaze on him. And the whole liturgy of the Church is nothing more than gazing at the Pierced One, whose hidden countenance the priest reveals to the eyes of the Church and the world, in the Liturgy of Good Friday, the high point of the Church’s year.

“Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the savior of the world!” “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

Lord, let us look on You in this hour, in the hour of Your hiddenness and humiliation by the world that tries to overlook the Cross as a bothersome accident, that withdraws itself from Your gaze, regarding it as a useless waste of time, and that does not know that in its very evasion it goes to meet Your hour in which no one will be able to retreat from Your gaze.

John reports on the event of the piercing of the Crucified with a characteristically elaborate solemnity that immediately shows the weight he attaches to this event. In the account which concludes with an almost oath-like attestation, John incorporates two texts of the Old Testament, whose inclusion brings the meaning of this event to light. He says, “None of his bones will be broken,” presenting a passage from the Passover rite of the Jews, one of the prescriptions concerning the paschal lamb. Thus he indicates that Jesus, whose side was pierced at the same hour as the ritual slaughter of the paschal lambs in the Temple, is the true paschal lamb without blemish in whom the meaning of all cultus and ritual is finally fulfilled; indeed, it becomes clear for the first time what cultus truly means. All pre-Christian cultus rests finally on the notion of representation. Man knows that he would ultimately have to give himself if he would honor God in a way suited to the deity. But at the same time he discovers the impossibility of giving himself and thus the substitution develops: hecatombs of burnt victims blaze upon the altars of antiquity. A powerful cultus is established—but an oppressive futility pervades all this, for there is nothing with which man can replace himself. Whatever he offers remains too little. Again and again, the prophets held up to the self-confident ritualists that God, who owns the whole world, has no need of their goats and bulls. The elaborate façade of the ritual only conceals a flight from reality, a flight from the call of God who wants us ourselves and who is truly worshiped in the gesture of unconditional love alone.

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The second text of the Old Testament, built into the scene where Jesus’ side is pierced by the soldier’s lance, makes still clearer what is meant, even as the allusion is difficult to understand in detail. John says that a soldier opened the side of Jesus with a lance. He uses here the same word that in the Old Testament is used in the depiction of the creation of Eve from the side of the sleeping Adam. Whatever this reference may mean in its particulars, this much is clear, namely, that he wants to say that the mystery of man’s and woman’s creation from and for each other is repeated in the communion of Christ and believing mankind. The Church originates from the opened side of the dying Christ. To express it in a different and less imaginative way: precisely the death of the Lord, the radicality of love, which extends to self-surrender, has established his fruitfulness. Since he did not close himself into the egotism of one who wants to live only for himself and puts self-preservation above everything else, but rather let himself be opened up in order to go out of himself and be there for others, for this reason he extends beyond himself into all times. The opened side is thus the symbol of a new image of man, of a new Adam. It characterizes Christ as the one who is there for others. And perhaps it is only from this vantage point that one can grasp the deepest expressions of the faith about Jesus Christ, just as at the same time from here the Crucified One’s immediate demand on our lives becomes clear. The faith says concerning Jesus Christ that he is only one person in two natures. The original Greek text of the dogma says better and more correctly that he is only one “hypostasis,” only one subsistence. In the course of history this has been misunderstood again and again, as if there were something lacking in Jesus’ humanity, as if he, in order to be able to be God, in some respect had to be less man. The opposite is the case: Jesus is the true, the normative man, whom the humanity in which we all take part must approach in order to come into its own. He is the true and normative man precisely inasmuch as he is not “hypostasis,” not standing-in-himself. For higher than being able to stand in himself is his not being able, and not wanting, to remain in himself, his going forth from himself to others, as sent from the Father- God. Jesus is, as it were, nothing other than the movement away from himself to the Father and to men. And for this reason he is Son of God and Son of Man in one, because in him the vicious circle of self-preoccupation is radically breached. Since he is entirely for others, he is entirely himself—and the goal of true humanity. Becoming a Christian means becoming man, entering into true humanity, which is being for others and being from God. The opened side of the Crucified, the mortal wound of the new Adam, is the point of departure of true human existence: they will look on him whom they have pierced.

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Holy Saturday

Talk of God’s death haunts our time more and more. First, for Jean Paul, it was only like a nightmare. The dead Jesus proclaims to the dead from the rooftop of the world that he found no heaven in his trip to the beyond, no God who rewards or punishes, only infinite nothingness, the silence of the gaping void. It is still only a terrible dream that one can shove aside with a moan upon waking, even if the fear previously suffered, ever lurking in the depths of the soul, is not entirely dispelled. One hundred years later, with Nietzsche, it was deadly seriousness coming to expression in a shrill cry of dread: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” In the meantime, another fifty years later, people speak with almost academic composure about it and begin to inaugurate a “theology after the death of God,” looking about to see how to proceed and to encourage man to prepare himself to jump in to take God’s place. The terrible mystery of Holy Saturday, its chasm of silence, has thereby attained an oppressive reality in our present time. For this is Holy Saturday, the day of the hiddenness of God. It is the day of that frightful paradox that we express in the Creed with the words “descended into hell,” descended into the mystery of death. On Good Friday we could at least look at the Pierced One. But Holy Saturday is empty, the heavy stone of the new tomb covers the deceased, everything is over, faith seems definitively unmasked as fanaticism. No God has saved this Jesus who called himself his son. One can rest assured. Those sober ones, who may at times have secretly vacillated in their conviction that there is nothing else, they were right all along.

Holy Saturday, day of the burial of God—is that not in an uncanny way our day? Does our century not begin to become one large Holy Saturday, a day of God’s absence, a day when an icy emptiness grows even in the hearts of the disciples so that they prepare for the way home with shame and fear and on their Emmaus journey, gloomy and disturbed, sink into hopelessness, failing to notice that the one thought to be dead is in their midst? God is dead, and we killed him. Did we actually notice that this statement was taken almost word for word from the language of Christian tradition, that we have often enough stammered something similar in our Stations of the Cross prayers without being aware of the terrifying earnest and uncanny reality of what we are saying? We have killed him by enclosing him in the shell of antiquated modes of thinking, by banishing him to a piety void of reality, which becomes more and more a devotional slogan or archaeological curiosity. We have killed him through the ambiguity of our lives that obscured him.

For what could make God more questionable in this world than the questionability of the faith and love of his faithful?

The darkness of God of this day, of this century, which is becoming more and more a Holy Saturday, addresses our consciences—it has something to do with us too. But despite everything it also has something consoling about it. For God’s dying in Jesus Christ is at the same time an expression of his radical solidarity with us. The darkest mystery of faith is simultaneously the brightest sign of a hope that is without limits. And one thing further: only through the failure of Good Friday, only through the deathly stillness of Holy Saturday could the disciples be led to grasp who Jesus really was and what his proclamation truly meant. God had to die for them, so that he could truly live in them. Their image that they had formed of God, into which they tried to force him, had to be destroyed so that they could see the heavens above the rubble of the destroyed house, so that they could see him who always remains the infinitely greater. We need the darkness of God, the silence of God, in order to experience the abyss of his greatness and that of our nothingness, which would open up if he were not.

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The liturgy of the Easter triduum has been conceived particularly carefully in the breviary of the priest. The Church in her prayer seeks to draw us into the reality of the Lord’s passion and lead us beyond mere talking into the spiritual center of what has occurred. If one tries to sum up the liturgical prayer of Holy Saturday, one will be touched above all by the deep peace it breathes. Christ has entered into concealment, but also amid impenetrable dark into safety; indeed, he has become the last security of us all. The bold saying of the psalmist only now becomes true: And if I make my bed in sheol, You are there. Thus this liturgy proceeds like the sunrise; the first lights of Easter morning shine into it. If Good Friday places before our eyes the buffeted figure of the pierced one, Holy Saturday’s liturgy is rather reminiscent of the early Church’s view of the cross, surrounded by beams of light, as much symbol of resurrection as of death.

Thus Holy Saturday can refer us to a side of Christian piety that perhaps in the course of time has been largely lost from consciousness. Today, when we look prayerfully at the cross, we see almost exclusively a reference to the historical passion of the Lord at Golgotha. But the origin of devotion to the cross is a different one. Christians prayed turned towards the East as a sign of their hope that Christ, the true sun, would rise over history, as a sign therefore of their faith in the Lord’s second coming. The cross is first of all closely united with this easterly direction of prayer; it is presented as if it were the standard carried before the king’s arrival. Christ, the head of the royal procession, has already arrived in the midst of those praying in the image of the Cross. Thus for early Christendom the cross is above all a sign of hope, not so much a turning toward the past as a turning toward the coming Lord. Certainly the ongoing development of the faith did not obviate the profound need to return ever more deeply to the events that had happened in the past. The staggering lavishness of God’s love had to be defended against all flight into the spiritual, against the explaining away of God’s incarnation—God, who for the sake of the pitiful creature man himself became man, and what a man! The holy folly of God’s love had to be defended. God did not simply voice a command, but chose instead the way of powerlessness in order to put to shame our dream of power and to overcome it from within.

But have we not then virtually forgotten the connection in Christianity between cross and hope, the unity of the cross’s direction and our posture of prayer, the unity of past and future? The spirit of hope which the prayers of Holy Saturday breathe should permeate our entire Christian existence anew. Christianity is not merely a religion of the past, but equally of the future. Its faith is simultaneously hope, because Christ is not only the one who died and rose but also the one who is to come.

Lord, let this mystery of hope shed light into our souls. Let us recognize the light that radiates from thy cross. Let us as Christians go forward to the day of thy dawn.

Amen.

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, in the darkness of death you have created light; in the abyss of the deepest loneliness the protective power of your love abides now and always; in the midst of your hiddenness we can sing the Hallelujah of the saved. Grant us the humble simplicity of faith, which will not swerve when you call us into hours of darkness and abandonment, when everything seems to be called into question: Grant us, in this time when your work seems to be immersed in mortal struggle, enough light not to lose you, enough light that we can become light to others in still greater need of it. Let the mystery of your Easter joy shine like the light of dawn on our days; grant us that we may truly be men of Easter in the midst of the Holy Saturday of history. Grant that through the bright and dark days of these times we may be of good cheer on the path towards your coming glory.

Amen.