To enter any room you must first go through a door. Before one can authentically celebrate Easter and the Resurrection one must first celebrate Good Friday and the Passion. The liturgical celebration which we call Holy Week reminds us that our hope in God and His promise of eternal life comes at the price of engaging in our own suffering and walking with Christ on the path of redemptive suffering. To “proclaim Christ crucified” as St. Paul the apostle does is not to boast about a gruesome form of execution but to assert that in this real moment of social injustice and suffering something transformative is taking place whereby God intervenes in this moment to redeem the suffering that Christ experiences and by proxy all the social suffering that takes place. In his second encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI offers this wonderful theology of redemptive suffering that continues to transform and give meaning to the unjust suffering that continues to be part of human experience.
To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. … The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God —Truth and Love in person—desired to suffer for us and with us. … Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’s Passion. Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love—and so the star of hope rises.
Through the Good Friday service and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) our parishes offer us an amazing opportunity to walk with Jesus and to accompany him on the way to the cross. This accompaniment works in three ways. At an historical level we are walking with Jesus in keeping and honoring the Passion that Christ suffered. At a personal level God also walks with us and accompanies and brings meaning and hope to the suffering that we experience. These services however are done in the context of a worshiping community; this context forces us to contemplate a social level of accompaniment. We honor all the suffering that people bring to the cross and as we witness the adoration to the cross that is done on the Good Friday service we witness and honor all the suffering and intention that people bring to the foot of the cross. We accompany Christ, God accompanies us, and we accompany each other.
Jesus’ life and passion transcended every social barrier and structure. The mystery of the incarnation reminds us that Jesus’ very existence incorporated the human with the divine thus transcending any barrier between God and humanity. But the manner that God chose to relate with the human community also demonstrates an intent to transcend social barriers by incorporating a lowly and marginalized existence. Scripture attest to the poverty of Christ but he is further marginalized by being a Galilean from Nazareth. Far from being in the epicenter of Jewish activity and identity Jesus was born on the margins where the Jewish and gentile community intermingled. To accompany Jesus on his way to the cross is to accompany a marginalized and poor Jew who empowered the poor and marginalized people of his society and for that reason was executed by the socially dominant Jewish and Roman authorities. To accompany Jesus in this social context is to accompany the poor and marginalized members of our own society that continue to face either persecution or neglect from the dominant social powers of our day. Theologian Roberto Goizueta describes this accompaniment from the perspective of U.S. Hispanic theology in this way:
Our mestizaje and exile are symbols of our identification with a Jesus who also transgressed boundaries. The public character of so much of our popular religion, especially pilgrimages and processions such as that of Good Friday, reflects our refusal to have our lives, identities, and above all, our God circumscribed and limited by the spatial boundaries which U.S. society has erected. This transgression of boundaries – even if only temporary – is already an act of subversion and, thus, of liberation.[i]
In his recent World Day of Peace of Peace message Pope Benedict XVI invited us to address the two related issues of religious fundamentalism and secularism. Pope Benedict defines secularism as “sophisticated forms of hostility to religion which, in Western countries, occasionally find expression in a denial of history and the rejection of religious symbols which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens.” Many of us in the United States can attest to what is accurately perceived as either the trivialization or elimination of religious symbols for the sake of an overly strict concern regarding pluralism or political correctness. Celebrations such as Christmas or Easter have been redefined in such a way as to almost completely rob them of any religious significance.
The conservative Christian community has raised this concern in recent years but I suggest that progressive Christian community and those of us who preach the social message of the Gospel ought to also defend these religious symbols that offer a vision of justice that transcends social barriers. The Hispanic American experience has a rich tradition of engaging the community at this socially transcendental level with their celebration of Posadas during Christmas where they accompany the Holy Family and one another with their experience of poverty and homelessness and with the Via Crucis where they accompany Jesus, the sorrowful Mother and one another amidst the suffering of injustice and torture. Pope Benedict invites us during this time to challenge the errors of secularism and his invitation is built around the pursuit of justice and human rights.
Today too, in an increasingly globalized society, Christians are called, not only through their responsible involvement in civic, economic and political life but also through the witness of their charity and faith, to offer a valuable contribution to the laborious and stimulating pursuit of justice, integral human development and the right ordering of human affairs. The exclusion of religion from public life deprives the latter of a dimension open to transcendence. Without this fundamental experience it becomes difficult to guide societies towards universal ethical principles and to establish at the national and international level a legal order which fully recognizes and respects fundamental rights and freedoms as these are set forth in the goals – sadly still disregarded or contradicted – of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Let us commit ourselves to the challenge of promoting these religious symbols and offering our society a transcendental public witness towards the universal ethic of justice and peace by accompanying Jesus and one another on Good Friday.
[i] Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminamos Con Jesus: Towards a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 1995) p. 2004