Fr. John F. Burns, Ph.D., O.S.A.
[From the book, Sermons for Lent, 4th Ed. by Rev. John F. Burns, Ph.D., O.S.A.
Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1944.
Permissu Superiorum: Rev. Mortimer A. Sullivan, O.S.A.
Nihil Obstat: Leo P. MacGinley, S.T.D., Censor librorum.
Imprimatur: D. Card. Dougherty, Archiepiscopus Philadelphiensis.]
“Lord, it is good for us to be here!” (Matt. xvii. 4.)
Dear friends, we call your attention particularly to the words of our text: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” These words suggest, not sorrow, but joy. And sorrow is the usual theme for Good Friday. The circumstances also in which the words were first uttered bespoke glory and power for our Savior, and not the shame and defeat and suffering and death that we recall on each Good Friday. Nevertheless, as we begin our consideration of the passion and death of our Lord, the saddest scene that ever took place, we repeat the words: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” These words were first spoken by the Apostle Peter on Mount Thabor when Jesus was gloriously transfigured, His divine face shining like the sun, His garments dazzling white as snow, and a Voice, the heavenly Voice of His Father calling Him “beloved.” On Mount Calvary also, dear friends, we behold our Lord transfigured. But this transfiguration is one of ignominy, and wounds, and blood, and suffering, and agonizing death. His Face in this transfiguration of Calvary is wan, disfigured with bruises, and covered with blood. His torn garments are crimson-stained. And a voice, the mocking, jeering voice of triumphant enemies is heard, a voice still echoing and re-echoing in His breaking heart the answer of the people to the question of Pilate: “What will you that I do to Him that is called Christ?” — a voice from His own creatures whom He loved and whom He had come to save, a voice that cried out madly to Pilate: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And yet, we who in reverent memory witness on each Good Friday these and many other sad things still say: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”
And why, dear friends, is it good for us to be here in memory on Mount Calvary? Here is agonizing suffering! Here is a cross with its divine Victim nailed hands and feet! Here are cruel executioners with spears and hammers and nails! Here are mocking scribes and Pharisees hurling insult while our Savior slowly dies! Here is a Mother brokenhearted, standing by His cross! Here is a rude multitude of pitiless people! Here are shame, injustice, ingratitude! Here are blood, groans, cursing, misery, and heartlessness! Here is death! Why, then, is it good for us to be here? Dear friends, it is because here, too, is Love! Here on Calvary is the Love of our infinite God! All of God’s dealings with humankind are motivated in His love. But here on Calvary is the convincing, overpowering, overwhelming climax of all the wonderful manifestations of that love.
We may see in Calvary the message of Redemption. We may see there the justice of God in respect to atonement for sin. We may see there the holiness of God vindicated in the sacrifice of His divine Son. But tonight we are going to try to see in Calvary the greatest, grandest, most consoling thing of all, the love of God for His creatures, who, having loved His own, loved them to the end. That is why, even as we witness the sad passion and death of our loving Savior, we say, with joy in our hearts: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”
And how much does our loving God love us? Is there any created being who can give an adequate answer to that question? Is there any man, any saint, any angel who can do so? Dear friends, only God Himself can tell us how much He loves us. When God created man it was because of His love, and in order that man might share in the happiness of heaven. And when that happiness was lost because of the first sin of the first man, God might have left us adrift — adrift, as it were, on a sea of misery — hopeless, suffering, deprived forever of our glorious destiny of eternal happiness. How much does God love us? He did not leave us adrift. He planned to redeem us. He planned in His love to make heaven and happiness again possible for us.
And how did God work out that Redemption? Did He send a prophet, a saint, or one of His ministering angels? God might have done this. But no! Because God so loved us, He came on earth Himself, in the person of His divine Son. How much does God love us? God came Himself to offer the sacrifice for our Redemption. Just as a loving mother whose little child is sick chooses to nurse the child herself until it is well, so God, whose earthly children were sick unto spiritual death, chose to nurse them back to spiritual life Himself, because He so loved them.
And how did God come upon earth? Was it as some glorious spirit, radiating sublime magnificence, or as an almighty ruler with sway over nations, or as a personage of power and majesty and incomparable honor? Ah, my friends, how much does God love us? Behold Him coming upon earth not only as man, not only as a poor man, but even as a little, helpless baby! God came to us in the manner that might appeal to us most, as a little, loving child. He smiles at us from His Virgin Mother’s knee. His little arms are outstretched to us as if bidding us to come and to love Him. His little heart, the heart of the God-man, is throbbing with infinite love for us. For God came on earth, a loving God, to win both our salvation and our love.
Dear friends, when, among all the countless proofs of God’s love for us, we stop on Good Friday to consider the last, astounding, most climactic proof of all, do we not of right cry out the rapturous words of the Apostle: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” But many people have formed a mistaken conclusion concerning the climax of God’s proof of His love as this is seen in the passion and death of our Savior. When they behold Jesus suffering so much in performing the sacrifice for our Redemption, they suppose that because of the greatness of the work, or of the evil of sin, all this suffering was necessary. They forget that not even one of the terrible sufferings that Jesus endured was necessary in order to accomplish our Redemption. One single sigh, one tear, one moment of humiliation on the part of Jesus would have been sufficient to redeem the world. For every act of Jesus was the act of God. And every act of God has infinite merit. Therefore, not one of the many and terrible sufferings endured by Jesus in His passion and death was necessary. But Jesus, who loved us, chose to suffer not as little as He could, but as much and even more than would be humanly possible. Jesus chose to make His sufferings proportionate not to the necessities of the work of Redemption, but proportionate to His love. His love was infinite. Therefore He made His sufferings limitless. He made no measure for His sufferings. He placed no restrictions on how much He would be willing to endure. And He did this in order to leave in our minds no possibility of doubt as to the extent of His love and of His desire to win our love in return. It was as if He had said within Himself: “I will go to the very limit in the suffering connected with the sacrifice of redeeming mankind. Then they cannot doubt My love for them. Then they will surely love Me in return.”
Dear friends, no sermon for Good Friday would be complete without a reference to the actual suffering that our Savior endured for love of us. Indeed, His whole life from birth to death was a life of suffering. The Garden of Olives, the betrayal by Judas, the tribunals of Annas, Caiphas, and Herod, the night in the guardroom, the court of Pilate, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the way of the cross, Calvary, and the Crucifixion were only the last bitter ending of the role of suffering that Jesus had played ever since His baby eyes first opened and beheld His Virgin Mother. He was born in a stable. He knew hunger and thirst and cold and hardship and homelessness and labor and toil and want. He was misunderstood, ridiculed, reviled, persecuted. Often He was forced to save Himself by miracles from the pursuit of His enemies. His friends whom He had helped most and loved most turned against Him or fled from Him. One of these, with a kiss, betrayed Him in Gethsemani. Because our Saviour was God as well as man He suffered more, and not less, as many imagine. Kneeling distraught in Gethsemani, Jesus as God knew all things. He knew the future. He knew how useless His sufferings and His love would be for so many of His creatures. He knew how many myriads of times they would forget His sufferings and spurn His love by deliberate sin. And therefore His heart, because of its measureless, limitless, infinite love, began to break by reason of the rejection of His love. In Gethsemani Jesus suffered an agony not of death, but of what is worse than the agony of death — the agony of the deathblow to love. Only those who have loved deeply, with all the power of their whole being, and have had their love spurned or hurt, can partially understand what Jesus the divine Lover of mankind suffered in the Garden of Olives. Only they can partially understand the agony that shook His sacred body with convulsive sobs, that tore through His heart and soul, that sent the drops, not of perspiration, but of His heart’s blood through all the pores of His body. “And His sweat,” says St. Luke in describing the agony in the Garden, “became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground” (Luke xxii. 44). There in Gethsemani, dear friends, on the night before Jesus died, was a crucifixion not of the body, but of the soul of our Savior, who loved with an infinite love, and who longed, but in vain, for the love of His creatures.
So agonizingly bitter was the suffering caused by the rejection of His love, which our Lord foresaw in the Garden, that as man He seemed to quail before it. St. Mark tells us that He “fell flat upon the ground” and prayed God that “if it might be, the hour might pass from Him” (Mark xiv. 35). “Father!” He cried out, “All things are possible to Thee! Remove this chalice from Me! But,” Jesus then added, “not what I will, but what Thou wilt!” (Mark xiv. 36.) How much does God love us, dear friends? Only He Himself can answer that. And in the person of Jesus His Son He has answered it with His life and His death, with the crucifixion of His soul in Gethsemani and the crucifixion of His body on Calvary. Is it not, then, good for us to be here on Good Friday to behold once more these proofs of the infinite love of our God?
In the darkness of Gethsemani the hour for the suffering and the death of our Savior had struck. Judas, His friend whom He loved and one of the chosen twelve, came with a great multitude carrying swords and staves, sent by the chief priests and the scribes and the ancients. And Judas betrayed His Master to them with a kiss, betrayed Him with the most intimate token of dearest friendship! St. Mark tells us that Judas said: “Hail Rabbi! And he kissed Him!” (Mark xiv. 45.) At that traitorous kiss how the Sacred Heart of Jesus must have bled! How bitter was this beginning of His passion! How that kiss of betrayal that began it all must have scourged the soul of Jesus even more cruelly than later on the lashes of Pilate’s soldiers scourged His body! And how our own selfish sins, which were present to the divine mind of Jesus in His passion, like the kiss of Judas, also scourged Him! For each of these sins, like the Judas kiss, implies refusal of service, rejection of His love, and preference against Him of some paltry gain or passing pleasure. Oh, we should not too harshly condemn the sin of Judas! He betrayed God’s love but once. But we, time after time perhaps, have gone madly after our thirty pieces of silver!
And dear friends, in this consideration of the passion and death of our Savior, we must not lose sight of the fact that He who suffered in the person of Jesus was the Almighty God of heaven and earth. He could, therefore, have struck His tormentors all dead! He could have saved Himself the shame and the torture and the agony! But He did not do so! Even in Gethsemani, when the soldiers stepped forward to arrest Jesus, the power of the God-head was manifested. At the very sound of His voice, relates St. John, “they went backward, and fell to the ground” (John xviii. 6). Not until our Saviour permitted, could they arise and take Him and lead Him, their God, bound with ropes, to the mock trials before Annas and Caiphas the high priest.
In the court of Caiphas were assembled the scribes and ancients, seeking evidence against Jesus that they might put Him to death. And finding none, some bore false witness against Him; and their testimony did not agree. To all their charges Jesus would answer nothing. But when Caiphas said to Him: “Art Thou the Christ, the Son of the blessed God?” Jesus answered: “I am.” “You have heard the blasphemy,” cried Caiphas, who in mock piety tore his garments. “What think you? Who all condemned Jesus to be guilty of death” (Mark xiv. 55-64).
After that Jesus was detained for the remainder of the night in the guardroom while they awaited the morning in order to seek from Pilate the official condemnation to death. For Jesus this was a night of torture. Imagine Him during the hours before dawn, bound with ropes, and at the mercy of His jibing enemies. This man had said that He was God! They laughed at that! And they found in it sport to while away the time. Covering His face, they struck Him brutally while He was thus blindfolded, and said: “Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who is he that struck Thee?” (Matt, xxvii. 68.) And they spat in His face — spat in the face of Him who was their very God! Can you imagine shame and humiliation that is worse than this? But Jesus patiently endured it all. How much does God love us, dear friends? Behold Him, in the person of Jesus, on that night in the guardroom, bound, blindfolded, buffeted, His own creatures spitting in His face, while He for love of us endured it all. Surely then, it is good for us to be here on Good Friday, beholding once more in reverent memory this almost incredible proof of the infinite love of our God!
When morning finally came and Jesus had been brought to trial before Pilate, the Roman governor could find no cause for condemning our Savior. Pilate sent Him to Herod, who likewise could find no charge against Jesus that was worthy of death. Pilate, therefore, desired to release Jesus. According to the Gospel narrative, it was the custom to release to the people one prisoner on that particular day of each year. Pilate had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. He said therefore to the people: “Whom will you that I release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus that is called Christ? . . . But they said: Barabbas. . . . What then,” rejoined Pilate, “shall I do with Jesus? . . . They say all: Let Him be crucified!” The governor asked them: “Why? What evil hath He done? But they cried out the more, saying: Let Him be crucified!” (Matt, xxvii. 17-23.)
Pilate, however, instead of condemning Jesus to death, ordered Him to be scourged. He may have thought perhaps that the cruelty and the torture of this fearful Roman punishment would move the leaders of the people to pity, and cause them to relent in their clamoring for the death of our Saviour. We are told that the Roman scourging was so unbelievably cruel that at the fifth blow the skin was cut. At the thirteenth the flesh was laid open. At the thirtieth the whole back was flayed. The scourging of our Saviour began. Strong, cruel, Roman soldiers took turns with the lashes one after the other until Jesus stood literally in a pool of His own blood. In later days, when the martyrs were scourged, affixed to the leather scourges were lead and spikes and sharp bones. These curled around the naked body of the victim and lacerated and tore not only the back but also the face and chest and whole body. Often the scourging of criminals who were condemned to die was so severe that it was called the intermediate death. In many instances it must have been worse than death itself. How much does God love us? Behold Him, in the person of Jesus, stripped of His clothing. His hands tied, His back bent as He stands bound to a column or stake, and enduring patiently this terrible scourging for love of us. And remember that not one of these sufferings was necessary in order to effect our Redemption!
The scourging finished, the soldiers gathered together the whole band before our Lord. Over His wounded, scourged body, and in mockery of His claim to Kingship, they placed a purple or scarlet robe. For a crown of royalty they platted sharp thorns and pressed them deep into His head. In His hand, for a mock scepter, they forced Him to hold a reed. Then they made sport of Him. Bowing the knee before this forlorn Figure, they cried: “Hail! King of the Jews!” (John xix. 3.) And again they spat upon Him. Snatching the reed from His hand they smote His head, driving still deeper the agonizing thorns.
Pilate came then and took Jesus, and in this condition presented Him to the sight of the people. Still bleeding from the wounds of the scourging, dressed in the mock-royal robe, the thorn-crown still upon His bleeding head, the reed for scepter in His hand, our Savior stood before them. And Pilate, presenting Him thus, said: “Behold the Man!” (John xix. 5.) But when the chief priests and people had seen Him they cried out: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Ibid. 6.) Pilate, however, was still anxious to release our Saviour. Once more he spoke to the people: “Behold your King!” (Ibid. 14.) “But they cried out: Away with Him! Away with Him! Crucify Him!” (Ibid. 15.) And the wavering Pilate then delivered Jesus to be crucified.
Dear friends, hovering somewhere near during this ordeal so terrible for her divine Son was Mary His Mother. She could hear the loud cries of hate and of condemnation. And she knew that soon, walking in a sad procession of death, her Son would pass by. Along the way that led through the city to Calvary Mary waited. It was now about eleven o’clock on the first Good Friday morning. Soon there came to the waiting Mother the sounds of a moving, muttering multitude. And then appeared the procession of death! Rabble, Pharisees, scribes, priests, ancients, soldiers, the crowd of the cruel, the curious, the pitying — all came passing by. And Mary waited. Then came the two thieves, each carrying his cross. And finally, her Son! Oh, but what a transfiguration has taken place! Was this her Son, her Boy, so strong, so straight, so beautiful! His body was not strong nor straight now, but bent over, and bleeding anew from the exertion of carrying the heavy cross. His face, once beautiful, was now pale and drawn and lined and disfigured from spittle and blows. The piercing thorn-crown was still upon His head, sending crimson moisture through His matted hair. His feet were torn and cut, and His step unsteady and faltering. . .
From beneath the cross [Our Lord Jesus Christ] is looking at her. His pain-filled eyes speak to her of His love, and of His compassion, too, for her present suffering. And Simeon’s prophecy is being fulfilled. Deeper and deeper into Mary’s breaking heart the sword of sorrow is piercing. The procession moves pitilessly on, and with it, Mary’s Son and our Savior, bending lower and more wearily under the cross, staggering at times, falling, lashed to His feet again — on and on and on, driven by blows and curses, jeered at by priests and people and soldiery, on and on through the streets of the Holy City to Calvary and to death.
Slowly Mary His Mother follows after. At Calvary a sudden, ominous silence falls upon the shouting, jibing crowd. About the crosses, an air of bustle, a sharp command, and then a sickening thud, and another and another! The nails! They are being driven mercilessly into the hands and feet of our Lord, fastening Him to the cross! How much does God love us? Listen on Calvary in that fearful silence while the nails are being driven through the flesh and sinew and bone of our Savior’s hands and feet. Hear the knock, knock, knock of the hammer! Does it not tell you how much God loves you? Even unto this, even unto agony, even unto the crucifixion and to death God in the person of Jesus proved His infinite love for us! And the sound of those nails being driven into the wood of the cross is knocking not only at the court of heaven pleading for mercy on all mankind; it is knocking also at the heart of each human being; it is knocking at your heart and mine, pleading the love of our Savior, pleading for a return of that love. The arms of Jesus are now wide-stretched, nailed and transfixed wide upon the cross, as though symbolically extended in gesture of the same pleading of Jesus for the love of His creatures. Soon the cross is upraised! And soon our Savior hangs dying for love of us between two thieves!
And when the nails were being driven He had prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke xxiii. 34.) Who except God Himself, dear friends, could have spoken thus under those circumstances? How much does God love us? Come closer to the cross! Stand with Mary His Mother! Look up at Jesus who is dying for love of us! And remember that not one of these sufferings was necessary for our Redemption. Remember that Jesus voluntarily chose to suffer them in order to prove beyond the possibility of a doubt the extent of His love, and in order to win our love for Him in return.
But the reviling crowd about the cross of Jesus — laughs! The Gospel says that “they that passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying: Vah! . . . if Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross! ” (Matt, xxvii. 40.) “He saved others! Himself He cannot save!” (Ibid. 42.) And while they derided Him, Jesus hung in indescribable suffering, in pain from the nails in His hands and feet, in pain from the wounds of the scourging, in pain from the crown of thorns, in pain from fever and thirst and weakness and weariness, in pain from the aching in His Sacred Heart — an aching that told Him that for so many of His beloved creatures all His suffering and all His untold love would be in vain. Once more, as in Gethsemani, the people and the sins of the world are present to our Savior’s divine mind. From the cross He sees them all. He sees you and me and our sins that we commit now, but that were present to Him then, adding to His torment by their rejection of His love. But, dear friends, if our sins were all present to Jesus in His passion and death, so also were our good works present to Him. So also were our acts of love for Him, our acts of faith, our hours of prayer, our sorrow for our sins — so also were these all present to Him to comfort Him during these terrible hours. For Jesus was God. And for God there is no time. Everything is present to God, and not past or future. Is it not then good for us to be here in memory with Jesus on Mount Calvary? Is it not consoling to know that the good deeds we perform now were present to Jesus in the time of His suffering to comfort Him? And all the good deeds that we shall do, all the sacrifices, hardships, sufferings that we shall in the future endure for love of Jesus were present to Him on the cross. That is why, for love of our Savior who so loved us, we should be willing to perform good deeds, willing to keep His law, willing to avoid sin, willing at any cost to be loyal to Him, who was so loyal to us.
Slowly, the weary, agonizing three hours on Calvary drag by. From the cross our Savior forgave the Good Thief and promised him Paradise. And thus it is ever and always. God’s mercy, God’s providence, God’s love is always overshadowing us. Times there are when we call it into question. Ah, but this is because we forget at those times how much God loves us — even us! . . .
When sorrow tempts us to doubt God, we should think of this. Appearances may be all against us. It may seem as though we must sink into the very depths of hopelessness and even into despair. But suppose that the Good Thief had given in to appearances! Why should he not have taken it for granted that this forlorn, abandoned, defeated, dying Man could never help him? And suppose that he had taken it for granted. Suppose that the thief had not prayed! Dear friends, after we have seen our God in the person of Jesus hanging on a cross for love of us, we cannot doubt Him!
Before our Savior died, He gave His Mother and St. John to each other’s care. Then, in the extremity of His suffering and agony as the victim for sin, Jesus cried out, as it were, for help from His eternal Father: “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me!” (Matt, xxvii. 46.) Forsaken by man, typifying sin, for which He was now the victim, and which meant rejection of God, becoming as St. Paul says (Gal. iii. 13; II Cor. v. 21) a “curse” for us, becoming “sin” for us, dying in shame and torture between two thieves! Do you ask, dear friends, how much God loves us? Come! Oh, come on Good Friday to Calvary and witness the answer to this question! No wonder the astounded sun paled! No wonder that even at midday in Palestine, darkness, like nature’s pall of mourning, settled upon the world! No wonder the startled dead came stalking forth from their tombs! No wonder the affrighted earth quaked, and the veil of the Temple was rent! No wonder the hearts of men on Calvary quailed, while they struck their breasts and cried out in the deepening shadows: “Indeed this was the Son of God!” (Mark. xv. 39.)
And when Jesus from the cross had said: “I thirst!” (John xix. 28), how little they had understood! They gave Him vinegar to drink, but He would not drink. They did not know that His thirst was for the love of His creatures, whom He Himself loved infinitely, and having loved, loved even unto the end. And at the end, His Sacred Heart broken because so many were to spurn His love, Jesus, crying with a loud voice, bowed down His head and gave up the ghost. At the end, Jesus died not from the torture and the agony, but from a broken heart. The blood and water that issued from His side when the spear was thrust attest most eloquently and most sadly to this fact. Jesus our Savior died at last from a broken heart! How much does God love us, dear friends? Look at your crucifix and learn the answer! And is it good for us to be here? Is it good for us to behold in memory this last, astounding, climactic proof of God’s love on Calvary? He Himself has said: “Greater love than this no man hath, than that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John xv. 13).
Dear friends, let us return to the words of our text: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” It is good for us to be here because in reverent memory we have witnessed on Mount Calvary in the passion and death of our Savior the last, final, convincing, most consoling proof of God’s love. It is not sufficient, however, merely to endeavor to understand how much Jesus suffered for love of us. Judas understood this, Pilate understood it, the executioners understood it far better than we. But they completely lost the wonderful significance of it all. We must not lose its significance. We must know always that the great lesson of Calvary is the lesson of God’s love. Standing in memory beside the cross of Jesus with Mary His Mother, and then looking upon our crucifix, how can we ever doubt that God loves us? If God does not love us, what was He doing upon earth in the person of Jesus? If God does not love us, what was our Savior doing on the cross, dying an agonizing death? If God does not love us, how can we answer these questions? And if God does not love us, what use is there in living longer, what hope is there in life, what hope will there be in death, what hope for all eternity?
But God does love us, dear friends, and with an infinite love. God does love us! And that is why we are going to appreciate and to accept and to return His love by preferring loyalty to Him to paltry gain and passing pleasure. No longer will the thirty pieces of silver make us traitors to our loving God! God does love us! And that is why we are going to be willing to carry our own cross through this life, knowing that even though the cross be heavy, even though it cause us to falter and to stagger and at times to fall beneath its weight, even though it lead to a Calvary and to a very crucifixion by way of suffering and sacrifice and hardship, it leads also to Jesus our Savior, it leads also to heaven and to the eternal happiness that God in His infinite love has prepared for us, it leads also to the time when we ourselves, gloriously transfigured after death, shall cry out at the vision of God and the possession of heaven forever even as the enraptured Apostle cried out on Mount Thabor: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”