On some Good Fridays, especially those that occur on sunny spring days, it can be spiritual challenging to enter interiorly into darkness that descended upon ancient Jerusalem at the place called the Skull, to meditate vividly on the gruesome details of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, and to consider the reality of evil and the evil one who with earthly co-conspirators sought to put to death the Way, the Truth and the Life.
This Good Friday, after seven weeks of witnessing the passion of the people of Ukraine, scrutinizing the atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol, beholding the bloody images of bombed schools, shelters, train stations, and apartment complexes, and listening to the traumatic horror stories of those who have suffered the massacre of family members and friends, the destruction of homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods, it is far easier to visualize the maleficence of what happened on Calvary.
It is also easier to recognize Golgotha’s saving relevance.
At 3 p.m. on Good Friday, it appeared as if evil had won. Jesus was not just dead, but had been publicly and ignominiously executed, after having been brutally scourged, beaten, spat upon, mocked, and crucified. As if that weren’t enough, there was also an earthquake, an eclipse of the sun, and the shocking event of the veil of the temple — God’s sanctuary — being torn from top to bottom. Everything was convulsing. The real world, it was facile to conclude, shows that might crushes right, death defeats life, and darkness extinguishes light.
But … when we jarringly behold the Pierced One on the cross, bathed in coagulated blood, crowned with thorns, lacerated to the bone with scourge marks, pinned through thick wood, we ultimately don’t see a humiliated casualty. We see the happiest person who ever lived — Who came into the world so that His joy may be in us and our joy be made complete — at the supreme moment of His triumph. We hear Him proclaim, not in defeat but in jubilation, “It is finished!,” meaning “Mission accomplished!”
He Who had said that to bear fruit, the grain of wheat needed to fall to the ground and die, Who had declared that to save our life, we must lose it, was paradoxically conquering while being conquered. The Cross is His great sign of victory, not failure.
St. Augustine pointed to this paradoxical reality when he wrote in his Confessions that Jesus on the Cross was simultaneously “both victor and victim” and “victor precisely because he was a victim” (Victor quia victima); He was “both priest and sacrifice” and “priest precisely because He was a sacrifice” (Sacerdos quia sacrificium).
Basing himself on Sacred Scripture, Augustine argued that on Calvary, Jesus robbed death of its venomous sting and victory (1 Cor 15:54-55). By His death broke the power of the devil who holds the power of death (Heb 2:14). There Jesus fulfilled what He had announced on Holy Thursday, “Take courage: I have conquered the world!” (Jn 16:33).
On the Cross, therefore, Jesus turns the law of force right-side-up. Whereas in the world the vanquisher is victor and the vanquished is victim, Augustine teaches that Jesus, through becoming victim, in fact becomes victor. By dying He destroyed our death. Through suffering the worst sin in human history, He exposed injustice in its most pristine form and expiated the sins of the whole world.
But He did more than that: He changed the ultimate meaning of suffering and death, including atrocity crimes, by allowing us to unite our sufferings to His. The Church, as His Body and Bride, is united to Him on Calvary and through, with and in Him, can become victors through being made victims united to Him, a lesson illustrated routinely in the lives of martyrs.
Jesus’ transforming death into life, defeat into triumph, is what allows us to have confidence to live His words and example about how to conquer evil with good.
He calls us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to offer no resistance to those who are evil, to turn the other cheek, to give our cloak to those who ask for our tunic, to walk two miles for those who compel one.
In response to a technologically-advanced but ethically-primitive culture that retaliates with an eye for an eye and even tries to take out both eyes from others before losing one, Jesus proposes a different type of violence: a violence against one’s sinful capacity to treat others as inveterate enemies rather than potential friends, as competitors in the arena of survival of the fittest rather than as siblings and collaborators in building up the kingdom, as hard-hearted adversaries to be feared rather than those to be loved with heartfelt concern.
Prior to the crucifixion, Jesus’ words on peacemaking may have seemed Utopian. With the crucifixion and all of Jesus’ actions leading up to it, they are the prescription for the medicine our sick world needs.
This truth does not mean that those with tanks and bombs intent on evil should be allowed to pummel the innocent. Good shepherds must always protect the sheep and lambs from the wolves — and be willing to lay down their lives to do so.
But the motivation and spirit of the defense is different. It’s to stop evil rather than commit it. To recognize that we are not battling dehumanized enemies but fellow human beings with mothers and fathers, sometimes sons and daughters. To remember that there’s a far bigger, and eternal, context to our actions, and that winners and losers are not ultimately determined by demagogical declarations, diplomatic accords or history books, but by God.
As we look at the Victor-Victim on Calvary, the Priest-Sacrifice wants that glance to transform our heart. Jesus on the Cross demonstrates for us — as Pope Francis mentioned during his Palm Sunday homily — how to love our enemies to the extreme. He shows us how to “break the vicious circle of evil and sorrow, to react to the nails in our lives with love, to the buffets of hatred with the embrace of forgiveness.”
But the Holy Father poignantly asked, “As disciples of Jesus, do we follow the Master or do we follow our own desire to strike back? … Do we follow the Master or not?”
Risen from the dead, that triumphant Master waves to us with gloriously scarred hands beckoning us to pick up our Cross and follow Him along the path of cruciform love, so that we may experience the full fruits of His victory and help Him overcome monstrous present evils with far greater and lasting good.