Good Friday: The Shattered World is Redeemed

Good Friday: The Shattered World is Redeemed


Good Friday: The World is Shattered

“We live a world shattered to its very foundations.” With such a somber thought John Paul II opens his reflections on reconciliation and penance. His gaze takes in violence and oppression, terrorism and discrimination, mutual hatreds and ideological rivalries, divisions between national, religious, economic, and political groups. From the long trajectory of his life and work we know that he did not speak as an arm-chair philosopher, but as a man who traveled the world and opened his arms to a remarkable diversity of nations, religions, and groups. From the depth of the anguish of modern world he famously said “Be not afraid” and he discerned the stirring of a “longing for reconciliation.” Such longing is a sign of the time. He called the Church, the whole community of believers, to witness to reconciliation and to help bring it about throughout the world. In this way the Church will fulfill its mandate articulated in Lumen Gentium to be a sign and instrument, a sacrament, of communion with God and unity of people. Through its prayer, preaching, and witness the whole Church takes on the mission of reconciliation through penance.

So what is penance? Good Friday is a good time to reflect upon this question. Pope John Paul II gives a good statement of its essence and complexity in section four of Reconciliation and Penance (1984) –

  • The term and the very concept of penance are very complex. If we penance with the metanoia which the synoptics refer to, it means the inmost change of heart under the influence of the word of God and in the perspective of the kingdom. But penance also means changing one’s life in harmony with the change of heart, and in this sense doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance: It is one’s whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better. But doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance. In this sense penance means, in the Christian theological and spiritual vocabulary, asceticism, that is to say, the concrete daily effort of a person, supported by God’s lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it; an effort to put off the old man and put on the new; an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of here below to the things of above, where Christ is. Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian’s whole life.

Why is penance part of reconciliation? Pope John Paul II’s working principle is this – “reconciliation cannot be less profound than the division itself.” (§3) He strives to make known the “true and profoundly religious meaning of reconciliation.” Thus, true reconciliation must get to the root of the division, sin. The cause of alienation and division is sin. From a radical break with sin, one can be reconciled “with God, with oneself, and with others.” The root of such division is a “wound in man’s innermost self,” a wound called sin. The German term for sin, “sünde” already carries the connotation of the division or sundering that comes with the abuse of freedom. The consequences of sin are precisely the divisions within oneself, between self and God, self and others.

Our culture is in denial about the presence of sin. Although a function of human freedom, sin touches on a something “beyond the merely human, in the border area where man’s conscience, will and sensitivity are in contact with the dark forces.” It is precisely the depth of evil and death that modern culture in its progressive and ideological aspects refuses to countenance. Karl Barth once wrote of Ludwig Feuerbach that he was a “non-knower of death” and a “misknower of evil.”[1] John Paul II rightly begins with the first aspect of sin – disobedience to God. The tragedy of sin begins as did the builders of the tower of Babel, with a claim to self-sufficiency and an exclusion of God and turning from God in either outright opposition or by forgetfulness and indifference. The voluntary severance from God constitutes the first mark of sin. It is a typical patter to forget the vertical dimension and focus on the horizontal only. Josef Pieper argues that the vertical dimension is by no means a simple function of revelation, but reason itself can acknowledge the depth, as he finds in Plato. It is the recognition of the deadly sin of pride. Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus ‘love of oneself even to contempt of God,” as St. Augustine defined it in De civ. Dei 14.28.

By refusing to submit to God, man’s “internal balance is destroyed and within himself contradictions and conflicts emerge.” We can speak of sin as causing a division within the self. A man is alienated from his true self, or his whole self. And a man caught by sin must “inevitably cause damage to the fabric of his relationship to others and to the created world.” Brother turns against brother, Cain and Abel is the type of all sin against man. We must lastly consider one more aspect of sin. Sin leads to death, as the tradition reminds us in the distinction between venial and mortal sin. The gravity of sin, the turning from God, and the division from others, bears the sign of death. By preferring to turn in on himself and abandon the love of love one is detached from the principle of life. Death is an inevitable result. Man gives into a “a dark and powerful force of destruction.”

If we see our own peril, we can arrive at the point of conversion. We are in need of conversion, metanoia, a change of heart. To understand this great opportunity for grace, Pope John Paul II counterbalances the theme of the mystery of sin with the mystery of piety, the mysterium pietatis. In the very center of the work he discusses “the love that is greater than sin.” John Paul gets this term from a passage in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, 3.15 ff. As if to emphasize the profound mission of the Church, the bulwark of truth, Paul exclaims “Great is the mystery of our religion.” Mystery signifies a reality which a person encounters and finds an inexhaustible source for understanding; but to understand it we must enter into it; we must participate in the mystery, we must live it. The term mystery can also be translated as “sacrament.” It can only be signified by signs that convey it to us. So what is the mystery of piety? St Paul says that Christ himself is the mystery of our religion – and he repeats a hymn to Christ:

  • He was made manifest in the reality of human flesh and was constituted by the Holy Spirit as the Just One who offers himself for the unjust.
  • He appeared to the angels, having been made greater than them, and he was preached to the nations as the bearer of salvation.
  • He was believed in, in the world, as the one sent by the Father, and by the same Father assumed into heaven as Lord.

The mystery of our religion is the Paschal mystery and it turns on the event of Good Friday. This mystery invites our response and participation. We cannot be neutral observers, nor be passive recipients of this grace. John Paul says the Christian accepts the mystery, contemplates it and draws from it the spiritual strength necessary for living according to the Gospel. The mystery of the cross “penetrates to the roots our iniquity” and “evokes in the soul a movement of conversion.” And with conversion comes penance and reconciliation. Through the cross We can be reconciled with God, within our self, with others – “The mystery of piety is the path opened by divine mercy to a reconciled life.”

Good Friday is the day of our reconciliation.
As our shepherd Cardinal Dinardo indicates on his coat of arms: “AVE CRUX SPES UNICA.” This phrase, which is taken from the beginning of the 3rd verse of the Latin hymn VEXILLA REGIS, by Venantius Fortunatus (d. 609), is translated to express the deep and profound Christian belief that it is the Cross of Christ that is the standard that we must follow, in all that we do, as we live, sing and say “HAIL, O CROSS, OUR ONLY HOPE.”

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