Good Friday: The Passion of the Lord

SCRIPTURES & ART: We all have our part in crucifying Christ by our sins.

Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946), “Jesus Dies on the Cross”
Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946), “Jesus Dies on the Cross” (photo: Public Domain)

On Good Friday, the Church forgoes Mass. The service of the Lord’s Passion is composed of three parts: (1) the Liturgy of the Word; (2) the Veneration of the Cross; and (3) distribution of Holy Communion from the Hosts that had been previously consecrated.

On Palm Sunday, the Church introduces to Holy Week by reading the Passion according to one of the Synoptic Gospels. This year, it was Matthew’s turn. On Good Friday, the Passion is always read from the Gospel of John.

John’s Passion Narrative (like his Gospel) is a theological masterpiece. Since John’s was the last Gospel to be written, John brought a lifetime of reflection on whom Jesus was, and that is apparent in the Gospel.

(In my judgment, David Stanley’s “The Passion According to John,” originally published in Worship [(33 (1959):210-30] and reprinted by Sister M. Rosalie Ryan’s Contemporary New Testament Studies [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1965, pp. 328-43] remains one of the best yet popularly accesible essays on the Passion in John that remains worth reading.)

Unlike the Synoptics’ Passion narratives read on Palm Sunday, the Church omits the account of the Last Supper from John’s Passion, for two reasons: (1) John’s account of the Last Supper is much longer than the Synoptics’, running five chapters (13-17), while (2) unlike the Synoptics, John does not include an explicit account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. (John treats the Eucharist in extenso in Chapter 6, while focusing at the Last Supper on Jesus’ Mandatum — washing the Apostles’ feet, which only he recounts — that was the Gospel for Holy Thursday’s Evening Mass.

As Father Stanley notes, John’s Passion begins in a garden and ends in a garden. The Johannine Passion starts with Jesus going “out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, to where there was a garden into which he and his disciples entered” (18:1).

As a consequence of sin, man was cast out of a garden: the first Adam was cast out of Eden (Genesis 3:23-24). On Holy Thursday night, the second Adam — the new Adam — goes into a garden, Gethsemane, to restore what Adam destroyed. The first Adam in disobedience reached for a tree; the new Adam, in obedience, will carry a tree up the hill of Calvary. And it all begins in a garden. If Eden was a paradise, Gethsemane was a hell, in which Jesus fully foresaw what awaited him – and how, notwithstanding, there would still be those indifferent to what he was doing.

The first Adam tried to hide from God. When Judas leads the arresting band to Gethsemane, the new Adam in fact reveals God. When asked “’Whom are you looking for?’” the guards say “’Jesus of Nazareth.’” That is Jesus’ Name. But he also answers by his other, rightful name: “I AM.” (John 18:5, 6, 8). Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has titled himself “I Am the Light of the World,” “I AM the Living Bread,” “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Now, he simply uses the same Name God used when Moses asked his Name: “I AM,” (Exodus 3:14) God’s most sacred Name.

Father Stanley also notes the paradox of the trial before Pilate. When Pilate tries to placate the crowd by offering them Jesus, they demand Barrabas instead. John laconically adds: “Barrabas was a λῃστής” (John 18:40).

The Gospel reading on Good Friday translates λῃστής as a “revolutionary.” That is misleading. Barabbas was no first-century Thomas Jefferson. Λῃστής means “insurrectionist,” a term also rendered banal in our political discourse: Barabbas did not dress up like a shaman or Viking. Λῃστής means somebody who used violence, even kill, for his ends. It could also be rendered as a “robber,” a “thief,” a “marauder” or “brigand.” In Mark (14:48), Jesus asks those sent to arrest him in Gethsemane why they had come armed as if they were to capture a “robber” (λῃστὴν). It’s the same word.

Further to a play on words, Father Stanley notes that Barabbas derives from “bar abbas,” literally, the “son of the father.” The Bible often speaks of X as the son of Y, e.g., “Simon bar Jonah,” “Simon, son of Jonah.” The paradox is obvious: the crowd can pick a “son” of a “father.” Jesus had already noted that those who do evil, those who kill, are sons of their father, the devil (John 8:44). So does the crowd want “the Son of the Father” in heaven, or are they sons in the son of the hellish father? We know which they wanted.

But the paradox is not over. When Pilate continues to bargain with the crowd, he sarcastically plays on Israel’s thinly veiled resistance to Roman rule by offering to give them “the King of the Jews.” Jesus is the King of the Jews, and of all men. But the crowds, which opted for a killer, reaffirm their choice by opting to kill: “Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” And lest this choice be simply dismissed as the temperament of the rabble, John makes it clear: when Pilate asks in feigned disbelief, “shall I crucify your King?” it is “the chief priests” who answer, “We have no king but Caesar.”

For them, there is no excuse. The mob may have been driven by passion, but the religious establishment coldly and calculatingly seized the moment to clinch their “victory.” From having pulled out the right prophetic citation in response to the Three Kings’ question (“Where is the newborn King of the Jews?”) but being “troubled” by their own answer; from responding to the healing of the blind man by stubbornly closing their eyes tighter; by treating the raising of Lazarus as the final straw to plan Jesus’ capture and killing; from trying to trick Jesus by asking “is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor,” knowing full well that the people only grudgingly did so to their occupiers and they would not accept that profane currency in the Temple treasury (while committing usury in their currency exchanges); from a nation that had resisted kingship because it had a special and unique relationship with Yahweh alone — at the moment of their visitation, the moment that counted, the chief priests “have no king but Caesar.”

John alone recounts Jesus entrusting his Mother to the care of John and John (and through him, the Church) to her.

Finally, when Jesus is dead and taken down from the cross, John recounts Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus come to bury him. The other Gospels tell us Joseph made his grave available to Jesus. John has a broader interest: “In the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb. … So they laid Jesus there … because the tomb was close by.”

As Father Stanley notes, Jesus’ Passion begins in a garden and ends in one. The old Adam, because of sin, was cast out of a garden; the new Adam, because of his conquest of sin, returns to one. Adam created the tomb in Eden, because death is an unavoidable consequence of sin (Genesis 3:1-4). The New Adam, in three days, would close that tomb down by making clear the grave was not a one-way street.

The New Adam brings man to a new garden that surpasses even the paradise of old.

To illustrate today’s Gospel, I chose the 12th station — “Jesus Dies on the Cross” — from the Stations of the Cross by Polish artist Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946). The Stations can be found in the Basilica of the Franciscan Fathers in Kraków, Poland.

Józef Mehoffer represented the “Young Poland” (młoda Polska) movement in art — a movement that sought to preserve Polish culture through the arts and literature after the country was politically partitioned off Europe’s maps from 1795-1918. Mehoffer also incorporated motifs from Gothic art, creating his own unique style. Unfortunately not as well-known today as his talents merit, among the greatest testaments to his skills are the massive stained glass windows of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Fribourg, Switzerland, designed and decorated by Mehoffer. They’re worth the trip.

I chose Mehoffer’s 12th Station for several reasons. It stresses the centrality of Christ’s Death: Jesus on the Cross is the dominant element of the painting. It stresses the natural and supernatural element of the Passion: a choir of angels, arrayed in red and bearing candles, are witnesses to the moment that changed all human history. Their red robes just beneath the patibulum (the horizontal crossbeam) stress the scope and significance of the Precious Blood Jesus sheds, almost received by their candles from “the Light of the World.” Man’s sole vertical contributions to the picture are the stipes (the vertical beam that anchors the cross in the world of man) and the Roman spear, ready to open Christ’s side. The dark background literally attests to the Biblical account (“darkness covered the whole land”) and the gravity of this moment.

Three human figures at the foot of the cross show sympathy with Christ. His Mother, Mary, is in black and red. John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” is in a dark, brownish color (also alluding to earth and mourning?). Mary Magdalene stands on the left. Interestingly, Mehoffer has attired her not in more traditional first-century robes, like Mary and John, but in folk costume most commentators call “Hutsul.” (See here, although this article insufficiently considers the geographic scope the Hutsuls once had.) The Huculi, like the Łemki, were Eastern Rite minorities in eastern Poland, somewhat discriminated against in interwar and immediately postwar Poland, where they were seen as more pro-Ukrainian and thus less loyal to the newly independent Polish state. A significant part of the lands occupied by Huculi in Poland was seized by and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939, although some villages remained in the far southeast of Poland. The fate of ethnic minorities in Russian-attacked Ukraine should be of concern today to the world.

That said, Mehoffer is not necessarily making a political statement for his day. Dressing the Magdalene in clothes of a later time also stresses that we all stand beneath that cross. We all have our part in crucifying Christ by our sins. We all are part of the braying crowd that prefers Barabbas over Jesus. We all are part of the chief priests who have no other kings except the ones of this world. We all reached out hand out for another tree, forcing Jesus’ hand on to this one.

We all are that Mary Magdalene, even if we stood there in a dress or pants.