Friday, April 06, 2007

The ‘Beauty’ of the Crucifixion

(Good Friday 2007: This homily was given on April 6, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. John.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2007]

In the recently released movie, Bridge to Terabithia, one of the main characters—a 12-year-old girl named Leslie—goes to church for the very first time in her life. She goes with her friend, Jess, and his family.

Afterward, on the way home, Leslie tells Jess and his younger sister May Belle how much she enjoyed the service.

Jess and May Belle are shocked; they can’t believe it!

Leslie says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting, isn’t it?—all those people wanting to kill him when he really hadn’t done anything to hurt them.”

May Belle responds, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary. Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Then Jess chimes in, “May Belle’s right. It’s because we’re all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.”

The conversation continues until finally Leslie says to Jess and May Belle, “It’s crazy isn’t it? You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.”

“And I think it’s beautiful.”

Jess and May Belle, who came from a believing family, took Jesus’ sacrifice for granted. They had heard about it and read about it and sung about it so often in church, that the meaning of the event almost totally escaped them. It reminds me of the reaction some people had to Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, a few years ago: they were so distracted by the brutality of what they saw on the silver screen, that they missed the point—they missed the deep significance—of the event being portrayed in the movie!

Jess and May Belle took the sacrifice of Jesus for granted, and they found it ugly. Whereas Leslie, who came from a family without faith, found it attractive and even beautiful!

How do you see it? Think about that for a moment. What do you see when you look at a bloody image of Christ crucified? Ugliness—or beauty?

The reaction of Jess and May Belle is certainly understandable, because on the physical level the crucifixion was a horrible, ugly event. And it was meant to be; the Romans designed it that way. In words that we recognize as a prophecy of our Lord’s sufferings, Isaiah says in tonight’s first reading, “Many were amazed at him, so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals.”

It’s only when we move “below the surface” of the event that we’re able to see what Leslie saw. It’s only when (and if) we get beyond the physical brutality of it all, that we’re able to see the beauty of what occurred on Mt. Calvary on that very first Good Friday.

This, of course, is not the kind of beauty that the world extols today—which is physical, and shallow, and temporary at best. Rather it’s the kind of beauty that goes to the very heart of things; it’s the kind of beauty that touches the deepest parts of the human spirit.

  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the same kind of beauty that we see in a photograph of a dirty, sweating New York City firefighter, who’s carrying an old woman to safety after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There’s no physical beauty in the outward appearance of the firefighter—on the surface he’s a filthy mess; but there’s an incredible beauty present in the selfless act of heroism he’s performing.
  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the kind of beauty that the prisoners in the concentration camp at Auschwitz saw in Maximilian Kolbe in July of 1941, on the day he stepped forward to offer his life in sacrifice for another prisoner.
  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the kind of beauty we saw so many times in the face and in the actions of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother, of course, never would have won the Miss Universe or Miss World pageants; she never would have become “America’s Next Top Model”! But there definitely was a kind of radiant beauty about her—and that was evident even to people who didn’t believe in God.
  • The beauty of the crucifixion is the kind of beauty that we see every day and usually take for granted: the beauty of a young mother or father comforting their colicky baby at 3 in the morning; the beauty of a teacher staying after school to help a needy student without getting any extra compensation for it; the beauty of a family gathered together around the bed of a sick and dying relative, praying for the person and comforting the person as death approaches. (That’s a beauty that I have seen many times as a priest. I saw it just the other day in one of our local nursing homes.)

That’s the beauty of sacrificial love. We see it all the time. But it’s a beauty that finds its greatest and most complete expression in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—the event we meditate on tonight.

Think, for a moment, of our Lord’s wounds on the cross. They are beautiful (in the sense I’m using the term in this homily). The crown of thorns on Jesus’ head is beautiful, for example, because of why Jesus wore it: he wore it for love; he wore it so that we could be forgiven for the sins we commit in our thoughts (which, incidentally, also includes the sins we commit with our tongue, because every sin of the tongue begins in the mind). The holes in his hands are beautiful because they bring us forgiveness for the sins we commit with our hands; the holes in his feet are beautiful because they bring us forgiveness for the times we’ve walked willingly into temptation and failed to avoid the near occasion of sin; and the hole in his heart is beautiful because through it we can be forgiven for the many times we’ve put other things before God—for the times, in other words, when we’ve allowed something else or someone else to occupy the first place in our heart.

As I indicated a few moments ago, it’s incredibly beautiful when people like you and me make tough, personal sacrifices for others; but it’s infinitely beautiful when an eternal God sacrifices himself for his imperfect and sinful creatures—as Jesus Christ did for us.

In the movie, Bridge to Terebithia, Leslie—the girl from the unbelieving family—began to sense this truth. She was definitely on the verge of having a conversion. She began to sense the deeper meaning of Jesus’ passion and death, and she found it beautiful.

May God help us to do the same, and may he also give us the grace to see more beauty in the ordinary events of our lives—especially in the acts of charity and in the acts of sacrifice that he asks us to perform for others each day.

Jess (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) in a scene from
Bridge to Terabithia