Papal Preacher's Homily for Good Friday

Christ «Brought About a New Kind of Victory»

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 11, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the homily delivered on Good Friday at the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion by the Papal Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

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«Victor quia Victima»
Victor Because Victim

Father Raniero Cantalamessa
Homily for Good Friday 2004

Let us reflect for a while on the song of the Servant of Yahweh of the first reading (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), in the light of the story of the Passion to which we have just been listening. The structure of the passage is very simple: It opens with a prologue, spoken by God in heaven; there follows a long piece in which an anonymous crowd reflects on what has happened and draws its own conclusions, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy; it closes with God taking up the word again and delivering his final verdict.

The event is such that it cannot be properly understood except in the light of its final outcome; this is why God anticipates from the beginning the end result: «See, my servant will prosper. He shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.» We hear of crowds who marvel, of kings struck speechless: The horizon widens to a universality that no narrative of history, not even the Gospels themselves, can convey, constrained as they are within space and time.

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A nameless crowd now starts talking. First, as if to excuse their own blindness, they give reasons why they could not recognize the servant. «Without beauty, without majesty, we saw him, with no looks to attract our eyes»: How then could we have known that we were looking on «the power of the Lord»?

A thing despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering,
a man to make people screen their faces,
he was despised and we took no account of him.

But see now, here comes the «revelation»! We are allowed to witness the blossoming of faith in its «nascent state.»

And yet ours were the sufferings he bore,
ours the sorrows he carried.
But we, we thought of him as someone punished,
struck by God and brought low.
Yet he was pierced through for our faults,
crushed for our sins.
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed.

To understand what was happening among the crowd at this moment, let’s remember what happened when the prophecy was fulfilled. For a while, after the death of Christ, the only thing people were sure of was that he had died, and died on the cross; that he was «accursed of God,» because it is written, «cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree» (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). Then the Holy Spirit came to «convince the world of sin» (John 16:8), and the paschal faith of the Church bloomed forth: «Christ died for our sins» (Romans 4:25); «He was bearing our sins in his own body on the cross» (1 Peter 2:24).

No one else can be cast in the role of the Servant; on the one side he stands alone, and on the other, «all of us.»

We had all gone astray like sheep,
each taking his own way,
and the Lord burdened him
with the sins of all of us.

The prophet himself, writing these words, places himself among «us.» How could anyone think that the Servant could be taken in a collective sense, the people, if it is precisely for the sins of «his» people that he was struck down and died (see Isaiah 53:8)? The Apostle Paul was to do away with all doubt on this point: «Jews and Greeks are all under sin’s dominion»; there are no distinctions, all have «sinned and forfeited God’s glory» (Romans 3:9,22-23).

The Bible gives the key by which we can tell true prophecy from false: its fulfillment. A prophecy that in fact comes about is true, and one that is not fulfilled is false (Deuteronomy 18:21f.; Jeremiah 28:9). But where, or when, or in whom did the things come about that are said of this Servant of God?

We cannot imagine that the prophet is speaking of himself, or of some personage of the past, without reducing the whole song of the Servant to a string of pitiful exaggerations. In what unknown figure of the time did this «something never heard» come about? Where are the crowds justified by him, and where the kings who stood speechless? Of whom, other than Christ, have millions upon millions over the course of 20 centuries exclaimed, without hesitation: «He is my salvation! By his wounds I am healed»?

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It is now God’s turn to speak again, and deliver the final verdict.

His soul’s anguish over
he shall see the light and be content.
By his sufferings shall my servant justify many,
taking their faults upon himself.

In the whole of the story, the most surprising thing is not that the Servant should be like a lamb, meek, not crying to God for justice and revenge like Job or Jeremiah or many of the psalmists. The great new thing is that not even God himself intends to vindicate his Servant and see justice done for him. Or let us rather say that the justice God sees done for his Servant consists not in punishing his persecutors but in saving them; not in giving sinners what they justly deserve, but in making them just! «My Servant will justify many.»

This is the thing unheard that leaves kings and peoples speechless. This was the thing that the Apostle Paul saw realized in Christ and triumphantly proclaimed in the Letter to the Romans: «All have sinned and forfeited God’s glory, but all are justified through the free gift of his grace by being redeemed in Christ Jesus» (see Romans 3:24-25).

There remains, it is true, a cloud of obscurity over the way this God goes about his work. «The Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering.» We shudder at the thought of a God who would «be pleased» to cause his own Son, or in fact any creature, to suffer. And so we ask ourselves, was he really «pleased»? And what was it, exactly, that pleased him?

It was not the means that gave him pleasure, but the end! Not the Servant’s suffering, but the salvation of the many. «Non mors placuit, sed voluntas sponte morientis,» explains St. Bernard1; it was not the death of his Son that pleased him, but his Son’s willingness to die for the salvation of the world.

Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute,
he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners.

This is what truly pleased God, what it was that gave him the greatest joy to do. The Apostle Paul reminded us of it in the text we heard in the Gospel acclamation, acting as a link between the prophecy of Isaiah and the reading of the Passion:

For our sake Christ became obedient unto death,
even to death on a cross.
That is why God has raised him high
and given him the name that is above all names (Philippians 2:8-9).

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The passion of Christ, described prophetically in the Deutero-Isaiah text and historically in the Gospels in our present liturgy, has a special message for the times in which we are living. The message is: No to violence! The Servant committed no violent act and nevertheless all the violence of the world turned upon him. He was struck, pierced, ill-treated, crushed, condemned, torn from the land of the living and finally thrown into a common pit («they gave him a grave with the wicked»).

Through all of this he did not open his mouth, he behaved like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, he threatened no revenge, offering himself in expiation and interceding for those who were killing him: «Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing» (Luke 23:34).

That is how he overcame violence; he overcame it, not by confronting it with a greater violence, but by undergoing it, revealing the naked reality of all its injustice and futility. He brought about a new kind of victor
y — one that St. Augustine summed up in three words: «Victor quia victima»: victor because victim.2

The problem of violence is one that assails and scandalizes us today as it comes in new and fearsome forms, senseless and cruel, and invades even those areas that ought to be a remedy for violence: sport, art, family life. We Christians recoil with horror from the idea that one might resort to violence and kill in the name of God.

Some may object: But isn’t the Bible itself full of stories of violence? Isn’t God called «the Lord of hosts»? Doesn’t it say that he gave the order to impose the ban, to exterminate entire cities? Isn’t he the one who, in the Mosaic law, prescribes the death penalty in many cases?

If someone had put the same objection to Jesus during his life on earth, he would surely have answered in the same way as he answered the question about divorce: «It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning» (Matthew 19:8).

On the question of violence too, «it was not like this from the beginning.» The first chapter of Genesis shows us a world where the very idea of violence was unthinkable, not only in regard to relationships of human beings one with another, but even in regard to animals. It was not permissible to kill, not even to avenge the death of Abel (see Genesis 4:15).

What God really thinks is shown in the commandment, «You shall not kill,» rather than in the exceptions that the law makes, allowing them as concessions to the people’s hardness of heart. Violence was a facet of the life of those times, and in reflecting that life the Bible, in its lawmaking and even in dealing with punishment by death, tries at least to set limits to violence, to prevent it degenerating to a matter of mere personal decision.3

Paul speaks of a time when «sins went unpunished» because God «held his hand» (Romans 3:25). God put up with violence, as he put up with polygamy, divorce and other things, but all the while he was teaching the people, leading them toward the time when his original plan would again be put in place, restored to honor as by a new creation.

This time came when Jesus, on the mountain, proclaimed: «You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. … If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other one as well. You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you» (Matthew 5:38-39;43-44).

God in Christ pronounces a definitive, commanding «No» to violence, and substitutes in its place not non-violence merely, but more: forgiveness, meekness, gentleness: «Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart» (Matthew 11:29). Yet the true sermon on the mountain was not the one Jesus preached one day on a hillside in Galilee; it is the one he preaches now not with words but with deeds, from the cross, on Calvary hill.

If there is still violence, it cannot any longer, even in the remotest sense, claim to be of God or try to cloak itself with his authority. To do that is to drive the idea of God back to its primitive stages, which modern religious and civil conscience rejects. Better atheism than that. Better not to believe that there is a god at all than to believe in a god who would order us to kill innocents.

Nor is it possible to justify violence in the name of progress. «Violence,» someone has said, «is the midwife of history» (Marx and Engels). To some extent that is true. It is true that new and more just social orders are sometimes the outcome of revolutions and wars, but the contrary is also true: What results from them is injustice and evils worse than before. Yet it is precisely in this that we see how disordered is the state of the world: that it is necessary to have recourse to violence to redress evil; that we cannot achieve what is good without doing what is bad. Violence is only midwife of further violence.

Reflecting on the events that in 1989 led without bloodshed to the fall of totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, John Paul II in the encyclical «Centesimus Annus» saw the change as the result of men and women who knew how and when to give testimony of the truth without recourse to violence. He ended by expressing a wish that, at the distance of 15 years, resounds today more urgently than ever: «May humankind learn to fight for justice without recourse to violence.»4 It is this wish that we want to transform now into prayer:

«Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t ask you to blot out the violent and those who boast of the terror they inflict, but to change their hearts and bring them to conversion. Help us too to say: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Break this chain of violence and revenge that keeps the whole world waiting with bated breath. You created the earth in harmony and peace; may it cease to be ‘the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious'» (Dante).

The world is so full of people who, like you in your Passion, are «without beauty, … despised and rejected, men and women of sorrow and very familiar with suffering»: Teach us not to «screen our faces» at their sight, not to run away from them, but to take up the burden of their pain and their loneliness.

Mary, «suffering with your Son dying on the cross, you cooperated in a unique way in the work of the Savior by your obedience, your faith, your hope and ardent love»5: inspire thoughts of peace and pardon in the men and women of our time. Amen.»

[Translation by Denis Barrett]

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1 Bernard of Clairveaux, «De errore Abelardi,» 8, 21: PL 182, 1070; see also Anselmo d’Aosta, «Meditatio redemptionis humanae,» ed. F.S. Schmitt, «Opera omnia,» III, Stoccarda 1968, p. 84 f.

2 St. Augustine, «Confessions,» X, 43.

3 See R. Girard, «Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, II, L’Ecriture judéo-chrétienne,» Paris 1981.

4 John Paul II, «Centesimus Annus,» III, 23.

5 «Lumen Gentium,» 61

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