The stage is set. The curtain rises. The Divine drama unfolds. During the Triduum of Easter, we’re seeing the events that changed our relationship to God and all creation forever. But before we can appreciate this drama we must be familiar with the cast.
Peter, so sure of himself, so arrogant in his own strength, “Even though all may waver, MY faith will never be shaken. Even if I have to die with you, I will not disown you!” Yet when the heat is on, he won’t even be able to defend his Lord and his best friend before a servant girl. “I swear to you I do not even know the man!” Am I Peter? Am I a fair weather Catholic? Am I one who willingly practices the faith when all is well, but when the Church comes under attack in the media or among family or friends, do I hold my tongue, hide in the shadows, or worse, say “I tell you I do not even know the man!”
Judas, who only follows Jesus to see what he can get, who allows himself to be a disciple because he believes there will be some profit in it. When it’s apparent that isn’t going to happen, he sells out Jesus for what he can get. There are many Hollywood versions of the life of Christ, and they always seem to want to exonerate Judas. They present Judas usually as an unwitting pawn of the Pharisees. The scriptures make it very clear why Judas did what he did. He was a thief, and an opportunist. How many of us are mercenary pray-ers? How many of us pray only to get something from God, and when we don’t get what we want, we quickly turn away to another religion, or no religion?
The Pharisees, who are so convinced they’re right, who are so assured in their self Righteousness. They’re not even willing to admit the possibility that Jesus might be telling the truth, that he indeed might just be the Messiah. Jesus wasn’t what they wanted in a Messiah. He didn’t meet their expectations of a savior, and because of that Jesus must die. Better that than having to admit they made a mistake. How many people don’t come to church because, ‘I don’t agree with what the church teaches on birth control, euthanasia, the right to die,’ or other moral teachings. So they stay away, secure in their own self righteousness, not striving for God’s expectation of them, but expecting God to meet their standards?
The Pharisees by Tissot
Pontius Pilate, one of my personal favorites. Pilate was actually ahead of his time. Pilate would have found a happy home in modern day America. Why? First, he was the first moral relativist in history. When Pilate told Jesus to identify himself, Jesus said, “I am the voice of truth and those who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. Pilate responds, ‘Truth? What is that?” And with that he handed Jesus over to be crucified. How many politicians say things like, “Well I don’t let my faith interfere with my decisions.” Excuse me? Isn’t faith, by its definition, a system of beliefs by which we make our decisions? How many advocate a radical separation of Church and State, something not even the founding fathers of this country would abide? Pilate was also the first pro-choice politician. Pilate knows Jesus is innocent. He knows the Pharisees are setting him up. But the scriptures say that Pilate was “anxious to placate the crowd.” How many politicians have said, ‘Personally I’m against abortion, but politically I’m in favor of it’? Like Pilate, they’re admitting they know what’s right, but submit to the politically popular. How many of us are anxious to placate the crowd to the point of handing our values, beliefs, and faith to crucifixion?
The crowd, who on Palm Sunday, join in the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem, and five days later are screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify Him!” The crowd, who have no mind of their own, but are easily manipulated by the powers that be. How many Catholics allow themselves to be manipulated by the media, popular opinion, and news polls, into believing teachings contrary to the Church? Start ordaining women! Celibacy should be optional! The Church needs to get with the times! Really? And all this time I thought Scripture constantly emphasizes the need for the times to get with God. During the big sex scandals a decade ago, the media had a field day, despite the fact that we were talking about a very small number of priests, and the number of priests guilty of sexual deviance is statistically lower than all other walks of life. And yet the crowd screamed against the Church, “Crucify them! Crucify them!” Then the DaVinci Code came out, and people left the Church over the DaVinci Code. I had people say to me, “I read the DaVinci Code and I’ll never believe anything the Catholic Church says again.” So you believe in God? Yes. You believe that God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful? Yes. And so you believe that an all knowing, all loving, and all powerful God would allow his people to continue in gross error for two thousand years, before setting the record straight through a fiction writer? And these once Catholics screamed against the Church, “Crucify them! Crucify them!”
Simon of Cyrene, who doesn’t want to get involved, but is forced to help Jesus carry his cross. How many of us come to Mass faithfully every week, but do it begrudgingly? How many of us complain over our little sufferings and crosses? How many of us are content to stand aside and watch Jesus carry his cross, in the eyes of the poor, the sick, the needy, the elderly, and say ‘It’s not my job, my taxes pay for people to handle that.
Likewise, the weeping women, who feel so bad for Jesus. I think of them as social workers and political activists, who try to do their work without Jesus, without that spiritual element, without the eye of faith. They cry over the ills of the world saying “It’s society’s fault! It’s government’s fault! It’s parents’ fault! It’s the schools’ fault!” And the problems overwhelm them, so they’re paralyzed to do anything but weep.
Veronica. We don’t know who she is. We don’t know where she came from, or what happened to her afterwards. We only know of her through one, small gesture. We know of her because of an act of mercy. She wipes Jesus’ face with her veil. This gesture is so under rated. This gesture is so overlooked. When Veronica removed her veil, it was an act of humiliation. It was a disgrace for a Hebrew woman to be seen bare headed by anyone but her husband! It was a disgrace for a Hebrew woman to be seen in public without a veil! That’s how prostitutes advertised they were in business. Veronica didn’t just do an act of mercy. She degraded herself for mercy. But God, who will never be outdone in charity, greatly rewards her for that act, by leaving the image of his face on the cloth. Are we like Veronica? How far are we willing to go for mercy? How far are we willing to go for charity? Are we willing to be embarrassed for the Lord? Are we willing to be called ‘Jesus freak,’ ‘fanatic,’ ‘religious nut?’ Are we willing to be merciful to the point of degrading ourselves, so God can leave his image on our hearts?
John, the beloved disciple, who laid his head on Jesus’ breast on Holy Thursday night, and later abandons Jesus, by fleeing the garden, but returns to be at the foot of the cross with Mary. Am I like John? Have I known the Lord in my life? Have I been close to the Lord in my life, and then ran away from him? Ran away, because I was scared of the cross, or I was scared of commitment. Or ran away because I was scared of what God might ask me to do. But then we come back to resume the struggle again. John knew where to find Jesus. Everyone knew where Golgotha was. And we know where to find Jesus too. He’s always right here waiting for our return.
The two thieves crucified with Jesus. We call one of them good. Why is he good? Both men are guilty of the same crime. Both suffer the same sentence. The good thief is good because of three things; he admits his sin. He’s repentant for his sin. And he turns to Jesus for mercy. That’s why he’s good. Are we good thieves? Because we’re all thieves. We’re all sinners. Do we admit our sins, repent of our sins, and turn to Jesus for mercy through the confessional? Or are we like the other thief? Do we make excuses for ourselves? Do we justify our sins in our mind? “And all those Church people are just a bunch of hypocrites! At least I admit what I am!” Yeah, great, we church people admit what we are too. But we seek the Lord’s forgiveness, so who’s the real hypocrite? Bishop Sheen used to say of this man, “He was indeed a GOOD thief, for there on the cross, in front of the world to see, he stole the kingdom of God!”
Finally, Mary the Mother of Jesus, who never says a word throughout the entire passion, now feeling the sword of sorrow pierce her heart, yet never complains, never curses her Son’s killers, never begs them to stop. She knows God’s will is working, even though she doesn’t understand. Mary stood throughout the passion, not seeing a Messiah, not seeing a savior, not seeing a king-- she was seeing her little boy! She was seeing the baby she nursed and cradled! She was seeing the child she played with and watched grow up! Her son, being tortured to death with a severity unmatched in human history. What mother could watch that happen to her only child and accept it? How many of us accept the pain of the cross, not when we carry the load, but when we see someone we love carry the load--our Mothers suffering from Alzheimer’s, our Fathers dying of cancer, our children hurt in a tragic accident--and trust that God has a plan, even though we don’t understand? A plan that 2000 years ago changed our relationship with God forever.
The stage is set. The curtain rises. The Divine drama unfolds. So tell me, what role do you play?
And blessed be God forever.
Father Michael Anthony Sisco
Visitor, Confraternity of Penitents