Christ's Passion Shows Us the Way to Justice and Holiness

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Pope John Paul II met with 4,000 pilgrims during his general audience Jan. 14 as he resumed his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer. His teaching, his ninth in the series, was centered on a short canticle found in 1 Peter 2:21-24.

Christ's passion, the Holy Father explained, is a mystery that frees us from the miseries of our old nature and points us on the road to righteousness and holiness. The Pope urged those present to contemplate the portrait that Peter, the first among the disciples and a “witness to the sufferings of Christ,” depicts in his letter: “He appears as the model we are to contemplate and to imitate — the ‘program’ that we are to carry out as the original Greek says — and the example we are to follow without hesitation, conforming ourselves to what he chooses.”

After our break for the celebration of Christmas, we resume today our meditations on the evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. The canticle that we just heard, which is taken from the First Letter of Peter, dwells on Christ's redemptive passion, which was already foretold at the time of his baptism in the Jordan.

As we heard last Sunday on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Jesus revealed himself from the beginning of his public ministry as the “beloved Son” with whom the Father is well pleased (see Luke 3:22) and as the true “Servant of Yahweh” (see Isaiah 42:1), who frees man from sin through his passion and death on the cross.

In the Letter of Peter to which we have referred and in which this fisherman from Galilee describes himself as a “witness to the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 5:1), the passion is remembered frequently. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb without blemish, whose precious blood was poured out for our redemption (see 1:18-19). He is the living stone rejected by men but chosen by God as the “cornerstone” that holds together the “spiritual house,” which is the Church (see 2:6-8). He is the righteous man who has sacrificed himself for the sake of the unrighteous in order to lead them back to God (see 3:18-22).

Christ Our Model

Our attention now focuses on the portrait of Christ as depicted in the passage we have just heard (see 1 Peter 2:21-24). He appears as the model we are to contemplate and to imitate — the “program” that we are to carry out as the original Greek says (see 2:21) — and the example we are to follow without hesitation, conforming ourselves to what he chooses.

In fact, the Greek verb that is used implies a sense of following, being a disciple and walking in the very footsteps of Jesus. Moreover, the steps of our Divine Master follow a road that is steep and exhausting, as we read in the Gospel: “Whoever wishes to come after me must… take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

At this point Peter's hymn outlines an amazing synthesis of the passion of Christ, which is described using words and images from Isaiah that are applied to the figure of the suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53) that our ancient Christian tradition rereads with messianic overtones.

This story of the Passion in the form of a hymn is formulated using four negative statements (see 1 Peter 2:22-23a) and three positive statements (see 2:23b-24), which describe Jesus’ attitude during that dreadful yet grandiose event.

A Model of Trust in God

It begins with a twofold affirmation of his absolute innocence, which is expressed with words from Isaiah 53:9: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). This is followed by two more reflections on his exemplary conduct, which was inspired by meekness and gentleness: “When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (2:23). The Lord's silent patience is not only an act of courage and generosity. It is also a gesture of trust in the Father, as the first of the three positive statements suggests: “He handed himself over to the one who judges justly” (2:23). His trust was total and perfect trust in God's justice, which is guiding unfolding history toward the triumph of the innocent.

Thus we arrive at the culminating point in the account of the Passion that points out the saving value of Christ's supreme act of offering up himself: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness” (2:24). This second positive statement, which is formulated using phrases from Isaiah's prophecy (see Isaiah 53:12), makes it clear that Christ bore “our sins” “in his body” “on the cross” in order to wipe them away.

A Model of Holiness

In this way we, who have been freed from the old man with his evil and misery, can also “live for righteousness,” that is, in holiness. This thought corresponds — although in terms that are, to a great extent, very different — to Paul's doctrine on baptism, which regenerates us as new creatures by plunging us in the mystery of the passion, death and glory of Christ (see Romans 6:3-11).

The last phrase — “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24) — highlights the saving value of Christ's suffering, which is expressed with the same words Isaiah uses to denote the saving fruitfulness of the pain that the Servant of the Lord suffers (see Isaiah 53:5).

Contemplating the wounds of Christ by which we have been saved, St. Ambrose expressed the following:

“I have nothing in my works with which I can glorify myself, I have nothing to boast about and, consequently, I will glory in Christ. I will not be glorified because I am just, but I will be glorified because I am redeemed. I will not be glorified because I am free from sins, but I will be glorified because my sins have been forgiven. I will not be glorified because I have helped or been helped, but because Christ has been my advocate with the Father and because the blood of Christ was poured out for me. My guilt has become for me the price of my redemption, through which Christ came to me. For my sake, Christ tasted death. Guilt is more profitable than innocence. Innocence made me arrogant; guilt has made me humble” (Giacobbe e la Vita Beata, I, 6, 21: Saemo, III, Milan-Rome, 1982, p. 251-253).

(Register translation)