Saturday, April 7, 2012

Obedience and Christ

Readings for Good Friday:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

In the prophet Isaiah, we hear today about an unnamed servant who is raised up high and who, though marred and beyond human semblance, brings kings to silence. This servant was spurned by the people and yet it was their sins that he took upon himself. People saw him as smitten by God, but he was pierced for their sake, and their guilt was placed upon him who was innocent. In the midst of this torment he remained silent until he was placed in a grave that was not his own.

Taken by itself, this passage seems to be an account of the Passion of Christ, as if Isaiah had somehow seen the future and simply recorded the story of Christ’s own sufferings. And yet we know that it was written centuries prior to those horrendous events. This and many other passages scattered all throughout the Old Testament books seem to point directly to Christ; again, as if someone had actually known the future. The prophets speak in great detail and the ancient stories of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, and many others seem to have clear connections with the life of Our Lord. When I first began to really take my faith seriously and read the scriptures, when I would come across these and similar passages, I thought it was a great coincidence – I was fascinated how things tended to happen again in a pattern of sorts. Then one day I realized that none of that was coincidental, nor was it a pattern that human writers used to help us see things more clearly. Rather, the patterns that were shown in the Old Testament and lived again in the New Testament were quite intentional.

When the Word of God became incarnate and dwelt among us, He came not to do His own will by the Will of the One who sent Him (Jn 5:30) and so the life of Christ is wholly and entirely guided by the Will of the Father. In making the Father known to the world, Christ chose not to make up His own way of revelation but instead worked – and truly lived – within the only revelation of God that the Jewish people knew: the Sacred Scriptures. The narratives, prophecies, and prefigurations of the Old Testament, then, were not stories Christ could make use of. They were the things by which he configured His life. Christ knew the scriptures and knew them well. He knew who the Messiah was to be, what He was to do, what He was to suffer, and how He was to die. Christ, being obedient to the revelation of God in the Scriptures, then lived His life in conformity with those things. How many times, after all, did we hear just within this Passion narrative the words ‘so that the scriptures might be fulfilled’? He did this, so that the scriptures might be fulfilled. He said that, so that the scriptures might be fulfilled. He endured and permitted these things, so that the scriptures might be fulfilled. He didn’t endure the sufferings that describe the servant in Isaiah because He thought it was a good idea. He endured them because he was obedient to the Father in all things. As St. Paul said this past weekend, “He was obedient even unto death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

As we gather here to celebrate that incredible mystery and venerate the sign of that greatest act of obedience, the question that each of us must ask ourselves is this: do I truly try to conform my life to that of Christ, or do I sometimes seek rather my own preferences and ideas?

Ideally, we would all follow the Will God and conform ourselves to Christ and have no hesitancy in doing so. The problem, though, is that when we seek to do these things, when we seek the Will of the Lord, we will suffer. It’s not a possibility. It’s not a probability. It’s a guarantee. As the Book of Sirach so clearly puts it: When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials (2:1). And we have only to look at His closest companions, the Twelve Apostles, to verify this.

Andrew, Philip, and Simon were crucified. Peter was crucified upside down. Bartholomew was also crucified, but not before being beaten and possibly skinned alive. James the Greater, Judas Thaddeus, and Matthias were stoned to death. James the Lesser was beheaded. Matthew and Thomas were speared to death. John alone died of natural causes, and he spent his last days exiled on an island because of His faith. All of this is not even to speak of the countless other physical, spiritual and emotional pains they experienced in their lives in service to the Lord and His Church.

Pope Benedict XVI Venerating the Cross
We will suffer. When we make the personal choice to live the faith, we will certainly find our trials. St. Paul reminds us that in baptism we put to death the old self and put on Christ. And so, like Christ, we too must conform ourselves to the will of God. We must set aside our preferences, our desires, our ambitions, and our ideas, those things that we are so strongly attached to and so strongly resonate in our hearts. And in the place of those things, we are asked to place the Will of God.

The good news in the midst of that is that, like Christ, we too have no need of trying to discern what God’s Will for us is. As Christ has the Old Testament within which to configure His life, we too have a guide given to us. When Christ founded the Church, He gave her the gift of the Holy Spirit and promised that the Spirit would lead her into all Truth. And by the Spirit’s guidance, the Church gives to us today the Sacred Scriptures, the Catechism, teaching of the Popes through the ages, and countless documents on doctrine, liturgy, and the moral life. In these we find God’s Will for us and our lives. But, also like Christ, we will have to suffer greatly at times to conform ourselves to these guides. At times our opinions, desires and preferences will be contrary to that of the Church and we will be asked to set aside those opinions, desires and preferences and follow her in Truth. It happens to all of us, but that is the road that we must take because it is in obedience to Christ and His Church that we find salvation. So let us make great efforts to strive forward by setting ourselves aside and seeking the Lord’s Will in all that we do. To aid us in this difficult task, let us begin to make our own the words so beautifully spoken by St. Gabriel Possenti:

I will attempt day by day to break my will into pieces.
I want to do God’s Holy Will, not my own.