When Jesus knew his hour had come that He should pass out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end.
What is the end? We look to the Cross and see it as the end of Christ’s earthly life, and indeed it is. Yet, over and over again, He “loved to the end”: the end of mercy, the end of betrayal, the end of illness, the end of sin.
There is a deeply human need for the reciprocity of goodness. We are consoled when we receive in the measure with which we give. And even the most gratuitous acts of kindness are more satisfying when we attempt, perhaps unsuccessfully, to return them. Human goodness calls forth goodness, and when goodness is unrequited, what we experience is the darkness of injustice.
Likewise, there is deep sorrow in the experience of betrayal. No friend could imagine how one whom love has made an equal could turn their back, forget, depart, move on. We look at such forfeiting of union as the greatest of sadnesses. As love forges the strongest bonds, so also betrayal cuts the deepest wounds.
So what do we make of the final hours of Christ’s life on earth? Those hours when human resentment, revilement, betrayal and desecration unleashed their fury against the One who had healed, and blessed, and preached, and raised the dead to life?
How do we look at Him now? What do we see? Has anything changed?
If we dare near Him as He enters Jerusalem, we would encounter the sublime serenity that claims those dust ridden streets and makes of them the pathway to glory. Each movement brings Him closer to the Sacrifice, each word now expresses the lavish generosity of immolation. The One who is innocent takes on the full weight of human weakness and redeems it.
He makes an outright gift of Himself, which we do not merit, nor can repay. He lavishes not because we deserve it, but because He is Goodness itself. God dies on Good Friday. Beholding the starkness of Golgotha, every generation that has followed realizes that no per se equivalent sacrifice exists. He loved with a charity that we did not deserve in justice. He loved. To the end.
Superabundant love, by its godly nature, has no match. Against this backdrop it is possible to reflect on the Passion of the Christ as the standard by which all human love falls short, and yet through which all human love is made perfect. We see the strength of Christ’s innocence in His acceptance of the full scope of human betrayal: betrayal by sin, by indifference, by fear, by outright plotting and cooperation with the unjust who would nail Him to the Cross.
There was a precedent for this in the history of Israel. Time and time again prophets were sent to call the Chosen People back. Time and time again they fall short of the Promise. They are given to experience slavery, and exile, and the crossing of the desert. Like the forlorn, they knew the pangs of betrayal and abandonment.
She weeps bitterly in the night
And her tears are on her cheeks;
She has none to comfort her.
Among all her lovers
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.
Yet none of this was senseless. A purification, centuries long, takes place, that they might discover the extend to which they were loved, the length they were being led to choose a better way, a better life.
Later on, they would prefer Barabbas.
He came among his own, and his own received him not.
On closer look, the ones Christ loved were no different. A lineage of blindness enveloped even their own hearts. They had seen His works, but not seen Him; heard His words, but not listened to His voice.
Yet, Christ enters into this human drama of betrayal not to seek revenge, but to undo it with a greater love. He resets it by engaging it. We learn a lesson in this: nothing escapes the work of Providence, not even the greatest failures. Each human experience where love is sold short, where we betray God and each other, where we encounter injustice, where we loose what is rightly ours, is an opportunity for Christ to enter, as He did enter Jerusalem, and to reset the course of our life, as He did the course of history.
Christ was not dragged to His sacrifice. He came to it, accepting the ignominy of human cruelty, and confronting evil with the meekness of His divinity which would not be diminished.
I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.
I did not know it was against me
they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
that his name be remembered no more.
For all the foretelling of the Sacrifice, in His human nature He experiences the cruelty and the agony of our fallen humanity. Those closest to Him were first to fail Him. There was indifference and fear, denial and betrayal at that supper table the night before He died.
Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
Who ate my bread,
Has lifted up his heel against me.
The very men He had led through the fields of Galilee, and taught on the Mount of the Beatitudes, and fed the loaves and fish, would now, in His last hour, abandon Him. Fear took over when the Hour came. They could not bear the cost of love. And like them, we are still dipping morsels in a cup we share, and then falling asleep as He endures His agony.
What do we make of this betrayal? Can we enter the Heart of Christ, and imagine ourselves about to take on the Sacrifice of the Cross?
In the honesty that grace makes possible, can we look at the Cross and say that we also have forgotten Him? Fallen asleep? Cut Him off? Handed Him over? Nailed Him there?
Will there ever be any “sorrow like his sorrow”? (cf. Lam 1.12)
It is the fate of very human soul to look deeply within itself and see there the stark reality that the cruelty we so deplore around us manifests itself within us. Unless the heart is consumed by love for God, we will betray the One who is Love. We are capable of rejecting what is best for us — of rejecting God Himself. The week we call “holy” is a week to look at our betrayal, and to see its perpetual affront to Goodness itself.
But the One who said “I am the vine, and you are the branches” (Jn 15.5) could not be cut off. The land of the living was in Him. As he hung there, a man, He shared the Father’s glory. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12.32)
No part of Him slowly realized that this was “the hour”. He knew it all along, and chose it with the full knowledge of His divinity, even as he suffered in His humanity. He waited for it, for the will of His Father, and in the godliness of the offering, handed everything to the One who had sent Him. The Incarnation continued to the summit of the Cross — there, where humanity saw the Savior who was born in a stable and laid on the wood of the manger, now shedding the blood of his divine manhood on wooden beams that embraced the whole of creation, and unlocked the portals of paradise.
In the thousands of years that have passed since that evening of His Last Supper, the full viciousness of the human condition has over and over again replayed the drama that took place in those days on the streets of Jerusalem. They laid down palms and welcomed the King of Glory, but He came among them like a lamb, and allowed the perpetual Sacrifice to take place once and for all time in His own flesh. At the Hour when the lambs were slain in the Temple for the Passover, the Christ shed His blood to undo the betrayal of the ages.
And we now stand in the shadow of that Sacrifice to be purified by the grace that still flows from it. Kneeling at modern Calvaries, bathed in the Font of Blood and Water, we can utter the words that the lance pierced forth from the heart of the one who stood beneath that Body, and pierced Him
This, truly, [is] the Son of God.
“Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end.”
And He still does.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com