22 April 2011 Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 31; Heb 4:14-5:9; John 18:1-19:42
When my father died, I was several miles away. I was in the hinterlands of Bukidnon, a barrio called Dumalaguing. At that time, no means of transporation could bring you there except by foot. It was a five- hour trek over high altitude trails and the vast Pulangi River that carved the valleys of the mountain region. The Bukidnon indigenous people lived in small communities. The connection we had to the outside world was through the local radio. The household of Manang Angging was tuned to this AM station when I heard about the news.
I arrived in Legazpi City dazed and disoriented. The death was sudden: dad’s first and fatal stroke. He had seen me off to the Jesuit novitiate ten months ago. I did not know it would be the last time I would embrace him alive.
Amidst all the queries about the details of the funeral since I have to stand in my dad’s place as the eldest, all I wanted to hear were his last days. What happened? What were his last words? Did he say something for me, for anyone in the family, for all of us? Not to piece a premonition theory, but to glean from his last days what may have summarized his life, and what could be my life’s by-line.
What is there about the dividing line between life and death that I could, in whatever way, grasp and lived by? Some have indeed made their last deed a crowning achievement of what they lived for or what they have become. Richie Fernando SJ, my batchmate, died from a bomb in Cambodia, protecting the life of his student. Some yearned for those they dearly loved and thus desired to have them around their deathbeds; they were the ones the dying lived for. Some, a final gesture of forgiveness. In whatever way, we find the end sacred.
This to me is a way to understand Good Friday. The last moments of the life of Jesus are significant that we do not want to let go of them: we remember, we immerse ourselves in it, we glean from these moments what we can live by or die for. Most of all, we commemorate them with a spirit of reverence and recollection.
As the blessed sacrament is placed on a repository at the end of the Holy Thursday mass, we rewind our memories to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus made the request to His disciples to stay with Him as He struggled in prayer. In our most tormented moments, or at the brink of death, we need the assuring company of our loved ones. And so, churches decorate the repository like a garden. Some repositories are decorated with a flourish of flowers and fountains (to the ire of liturgists who insist that it should be bare and simple). And we stay on our knees and pray. Some would take the Visita Iglesia, a journey visiting seven or more churches on Holy Thursday evening. We reenact the Garden scene: we, the present disciples, will stay and keep vigil, even for an hour.
On Good Friday, as the commemoration of the Passion unfolds towards the hour of death at 3 PM, various activities mark the movement towards Christ’s death. In many nooks and crannies of neighborhoods, we hear the Pasyon ng Mahal na Panginoong Hesucristo, a chanting of the life of Jesus. There is a belief that it should end before the beginning of the Seven Last Words. Some would do the Stations of the Cross with their family and friends, and abandon any excesses. On Good Friday, loud revelry is prohibited to create an atmosphere of solemnity.
But the crowning liturgy is the Good Friday Service. It is the only day in the whole liturgical year that mass is NOT celebrated. In this service, we find the churches packed to the brim, and long lines at the veneration of the cross stretches the liturgy sometimes for three hours. But the people don’t mind: what is three hours compared to the suffering of a God who loved us to His death?
The thing about death is this: there is not much to say. It strikes at the deepest core of our being. The very thing that fascinates and repels us is now staring back at us: death invites us to surrender. The cross is inevitable and necessary for our redemption. We kiss the cross of Christ with all reverence, following an acceptance and taking on of it, as true disciples of the One who died for our sins.
Sometimes we need to articulate what is obvious: the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus, is over and done. Jesus said it, “it is finished.” But Christ in us still continues to suffer. He is nailed and crucified in us today. What is in us that makes Christ suffer? What needs to die in us? To answer this, we must remember His last days, His last words. Again and again.
His passion was filled with betrayals. A companion betrayed Him. His friends deserted him. They all ran away. His close friend denied Him. The people He died for are the ones who castigated Him. In different forms, there lurks in our hearts a streak of Judas, Peter, or a deserter, a Pharisee, an Annas or a Caiaphas, a mob, or a soldier who would strip and shame Jesus at the pressure of another, such as peers. Or a combination of them.
On the other hand, the responses to the repeated beatings are also in His last moments: words of forgiveness, compassion, and love. He who said to turn the right cheek when one slaps you on the left side of your face has walked the talk. The One who said that He was willing to die for His friends has proved it with His life. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that love ought to be showed more in deeds than in words: Jesus is the very source of this insight, because He is love itself.
There is more to one’s last moments. They lead us to our very center where within it lies our deepest questions. Perhaps, they do not give us total clarity of what is in store for us when we die, but they indeed clear the way for us to live.