Approaching the Death of God: A Good Friday Reflection

Nstro. Padre Jesus Nazareno. This is the image brought out in procession.

On the way to a scheduled tour I was about to give in Intramuros, I decided to change my route and instead of transferring to the LRT Line 1 from the LRT Line 2, I got off at Recto and began to walk towards Quiapo. Just before getting on a jeepney to Intramuros, I saw a sign behind Quiapo Church that said “Dito po sa Pahalik”. My interest was piqued. Instantly, I decided to enter the small passage and found myself behind the main altar of Quiapo Church. I then realized that it was the staircase leading to the revered image of Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, the same image millions throng to on its annual 9 January feast.

As I was making my way up the stairs, my eyes began to well up, tears filling them. I wasn’t a devotee of the Black Nazarene but for some reason, I was able to see myself in the posture of that image. The Black Nazarene is an image of Jesus Christ kneeling down on one knee and upon his shoulder rests the heavy cross. However, the inspiring feature of this image of Jesus is that his head is not held low; it is defiantly upright. He is, no doubt, the image of suffering. But he is also the image of steadfastness, of strength and resoluteness. Finally, when my turn arrived, I realized that the reason why I was by that time already crying was because of pain and sorrow, feelings and emotions typically felt in life. But there was also shame and guilt, surrender and loneliness. I remembered images from my childhood, of days characterized by simplicity, unity in my family, and innocence. Simultaneously, I remembered all of the hideous and evil acts I have committed, those times when I gave in to the temptations of this world and also those times when the world seemingly worked against us. As I approached the statue, bittersweet memories mixed with present anxieties and worries filled my mind. I kissed the exposed sole of the foot of the kneeling Lord fervently praying that He show me the way to happiness, one of, if not, the only thing, we humans search for in our entire lives.

The feeling of consolation was unforgettable. I remember getting goose bumps as I approached the Black Nazarene, realizing that this was the same allegedly miraculous image millions of Filipinos have come to seek for help and give thanks to through the centuries it has been on our shores. I was completely moved. The same image I will be touching is the same image millions of Filipinos have credited, through history, as the source of their strength, consolation and joy. I too want to touch the suffering image of Jesus.

As we approach the more solemn days of Holy Week, I remember that intimate encounter with our Lord. Our human incapacity to achieve the eternal greatness of God and also, our unquenchable thirst for union to perfection compel us to hold on to images and representations of our Faith, and one image I always find moving and consoling is that image of our Lord Who is suffering. The Santo Entierro or the Dead Christ often seen in churches’ entrances is the image of Jesus I find most inspiring. Silently and still, the dead Christ proclaims the unity of Christ with the rest of humanity. He was tired, He was tortured, and yes, He was dead. For a day, God was dead. Jesus Christ, the historic figure whom believers adore and proclaim as their Redeemer and as the Verbum caro factum, the Word made flesh, actually died. And that great mystery of life, death, which all humans face, was achieved by no less God.

The Santo Entierro and His Carroza, Mt. Carmel Shrine, New Manila. Donated by some of New Manila's old Spanish families

An encounter with death is a very moving experience. I have witnessed many deaths in my young life – from news of victims of terrorism, natural calamities and crimes to deaths among friends and family. But there have been three deaths in particular that had lasting effects on my life, namely the death of my grandfather (when I was eight), the death of my spiritual director and friend (when I was sixteen) and the death of my grandmother (when I was eighteen). Those three deaths marked the different periods of my life, namely my childhood, my adolescence and my teenage years. And during those three particular deaths, I can vividly recall how painful those deaths were, how I cried and ultimately, felt sad.

I remember I was in the high school chapel sacristy then that fateful 6 January 2006 morning, preparing the vessels and vestments to be used for that morning’s Mass when the priest celebrant entered and informed us that the priest who served as confessor daily in the chapel, my own spiritual director, had died. Hearing it was devastating. My knees shook and I began to weep silently. Throughout the Mass that morning, I cried, oblivious of all the many worshippers staring.

I didn’t cry when I finally saw his body that evening in the Oratory of St. Ignatius. Only sweet, beautiful memories filled my mind and heart when I saw him serenely resting inside the coffin. He was holding the Jesuit’s mission crucifix, an appropriate summation of his entire life. A couple of days later, I asked permission from my teachers if I could attend the funeral Mass and they agreed. Again, I didn’t cry. I actually felt bad I didn’t cry. Perhaps it was because of Fr. Joaquín Bernas SJ’s witty homily that I didn’t feel the urge to cry. But it may be also because I remembered during that Funeral Mass that the most moving Eucharist I have ever partaken of in my life was when my late confessor said the Eucharist in his Jesuit Infirmary cell with me, an intimate and meaningful celebration of the suffering of our Lord on a hospital bed. Fr. Bert Trinidad, SJ made me feel that the Eucharist is not only a public ceremony drowned in music and movement – it is really the heart of the Catholic Faith, it is Christ Himself made present. In that Mass he celebrated for the two of us, Christ made Himself present through that supernatural sharing of bread and wine, of pain and happiness, of body and spirit, of life and death. That Mass made me realize that more than the words and vestments, the rituals et al. the silence that punctuates each rite of the Mass speaks volumes of the power of the Eucharist and that the priest who celebrates the Eucharist assumes a grace-filled position of mediator between God and humanity. The priesthood and the Eucharist are not divorced; thus there is a real need to pray for our priests, seminarians and all the religious. I can’t believe it but Fr. Bert taught me these things so poetically when I was just a high school student, at the supposed peak of hormone rages and mood swings.

Upon the conclusion of the Funeral Mass, after remembering all my shared memories with Fr. Bert my confessor, the choir sang Bob Dufford’s “Sing to the Mountains”, which I initially found inappropriate and insensitive. But then, after hearing the lyrics, I wept. I was no longer able to control myself. It all made sense to me then and there that a meaningful life is lived and shared for others and that death is not only a natural termination for humans. Though it is believed to have been brought upon us by the First Parents’ Original Sin, I believe that after God’s own death, it has assumed another purpose and that is to reveal the truth of God’s grace and selfless Divine Love. Holiness and goodness, love and grace spring from sacrifice. The song was a good choice because it encapsulated what meaningful, Christ-centered lives were: hymns of praise to the Lord God and all of His creations. If we lived lives of meaningful service for others, our death is the day when all the earth will rejoice. It sounds morbid and terrible but meaning is achieved and/or appreciated only upon our death in the Lord. When we reunite again with the earth and dust from which we came from, and people realize that from that same dirt sprung a rose who lived a life that honored God and all of His creation, our deaths become moments not only of sorrow but also of joyous thanksgiving. We realize that in deaths, people lived saintly, heroic or martyred lives. It was the same with the death of the Lord. His heroic death on the cross marked the triumph and genuineness of God’s selflessness.

These days of fasting, prayer, sacrifice and penance are days when we ought to visualize our approach to the foot of the Cross or our journey to Golgotha. The images of the Christ scourged on the pillar, of the Crucified Lord, and the statue of the Santo Entierro or Interred Christ all lead us in contemplating His suffering and death and pondering on the great mystery of human sorrow. When we gaze at the body of the Lord portrayed as battered and bruised, scourged and stiff, when we see with our eyes of faith that God was dead, we realize that human life amidst the seas and storms we go through has been graced with the same experience God Himself went through. The Lord had indeed never abandoned us; He had always been one with us His beloved. When we are confronted with the sufferings of life such as taking care of a sick loved one, hearing of the anguish of children of couples fighting, the excruciating hunger of the poor and abandoned and the weeping of abused women, we remember the Dead Lord – the God-Man who also suffered, whose face was spat upon, pierced with a crown of thorns, whose body swelled and bled due to flogging, whose hands and feet were pierced with nails. We remember how He was violently stripped of His clothes upon which His torn flesh adhered to, how His open wounds, fresh from a good scourging, met with the rough splinters of His wooden cross.

Stained Glass Window of the Crowning of Thorns, San Sebastian Minor Basilica, Quiapo, Manila

Human beings of this century go through sorrow due to countless factors – jealousy caused by others’ material wealth, loneliness due to emptiness and shallowness, despair due to addictions and helplessness due to a world economic system that is not centered on humanity but on “the market”. This is the new century, the century of intense technological advancement and media triumphalism. The power of information is today exploited by a few who wish to flaunt the values of this world: sex, drugs, violence. How many times have we heard or seen politicians readily wielding a gun or followed by an entourage of bodyguards with high-powered guns? How many times have we read from glossy magazines the so-called trends that will be “dominating the season”? How many television shows have we seen where a select few get to walk the red carpet and be talked about by people for weeks? We have become shallow and enslaved. The poetic view of the world has ceased and what we aim for is mere acceptance – a form of slavery to the demands of others, others whom we are not sure of if they care about us. The world too as God’s creation is grinding its teeth. Man-made bruises on the earth such as air pollution, toxic spills and dumping of medical refuse in oceans, the destruction of forests and elimination of flora and fauna and the exploitation of natural resources are just some of the examples of how we continuously bring the Lord down to His knees.

Men (and yes, women) bring upon this world, and upon their lives, their own sorrow and downfall. We fail to forget that the Devil is here, present, through the banal and even, beautiful things that tempt and lure us. True, there are sorrows and pains caused by things we didn’t bring upon ourselves (e.g. hereditary diseases, freak accidents, natural disasters, etc.) But I believe that the world has already assumed this imbalance of fates, energies and experiences so that we can learn the values of solidarity, unity and compassion. Through the many different trials we go through, we realize the many good things we can offer to one another. However, the present world system that we have prohibits us from entirely living a life of compassion and simplicity, of a life united in Christ, the ultimate radical. How can we leave our jobs? How can we not wear what is trendy? How can we abandon our families? It seems impossible. We are fully convinced that the problems of others and that of the environment are not ours. But Jesus, through His selfless death, speaks of an entirely different life we too can achieve.

Santísimo Cristo de la Caridad. Hermandad de Santa Marta (Sevilla, Spain)

Jesus’ death was full of meaning, a self-expression of love and sacrifice.

But when we die, what will people think or say? That we lived entirely fruitless lives? That we lived our lives in vain? That we brought upon ourselves our deaths because of our vices and gluttony? Or will people weep and celebrate because you were such a good person whom so many people loved? Will they give thanks that God made you or will they be very grateful that they have been rid of such a menace? Our deaths will speak volumes of our lives. If graced by God’s love, our death can be the soil on which fruit can bear fruit, where seeds can further grow.

We must remember that our sorrows and sufferings, our sins and transgressions daily remind us as to why God died and that His death serves a dual purpose: that of reminding us and also, saving us. God died to save us from our sinfulness. We need to remember that. Our nature as dirt was anointed with God’s own unity with the ultimate sign of our dirt-ness: death. He took it upon Himself to go through what humans fear most, what people all go through, and that is the termination of life.

Christ on the Pillar. From the priceless “Pagrel Collection” of Don Luis Ma. Araneta in honor his mother, the aristocratic Dña. Carmen Zaragoza Roxas vda. de Araneta. This is on loan at the San Agustin Museum

This Good Friday, as we pray the Way of the Cross, as we remember the scourging and battery of Christ’s body on the pillar, as we imagine what really happened to Jesus as He made His way to Golgotha, as we visualize how He might’ve felt pain when He was nailed to the Cross, we realize that we too have gone or are going through our own Stations of the Cross. As we kiss the feet or the face of the Santo Entierro, we do not only do it for sentimental reasons. We do it for many, very valid reasons. Our 3rd world context compounds our dilemmas. We need God, we need to touch Him, we want to kiss Him. We only have the statue of the Dead Christ to console us, to inspire us to tread through life with trust in Him. Our Lord’s stiff body reflects how even God can be reduced to the most lifeless, pitiful form of life. “My God, my God, why hath Thou forsaken me?” Jesus asked. We too ask the same question.

And then we feel consoled. Why? Because the Lord was raised from the Dead. Because His obedience to the Father gained Him resurrection and glory, triumphantly united in the God Father who had seen enough of man’s weakness.

On the eve of Good Friday, Maundy Thursday, during the Mass of our Lord’s Passion, the final rite when the Holy Eucharist is moved from the tabernacle to the altar of the repose, is a strong reminder of what the Holy Week is all about. It is about Love. It is the kind of love that is not portrayed in “chick flicks” or in Disney cartoons when the princess always gets what she wants, and has her selfish happy ending. When the entire congregation is (supposed to be) kneeling when the Holy Eucharist is moved, it is accompanied by hair-raising sounds of wooden clappers, and also the ancient hymns of Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo. Pange Lingua’s opening line proclaims this as translated in English:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle
Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the Cross, the victor’s trophy,
Sound the high triumphal lay;
Tell how Christ, the World’s Redeemer,
As a victim won the day.

Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis
et super crucis trophaeo dic triumphum nobilem,
qualiter redemptor orbis immolatus vicerit.

Then there is the Tantum Ergo which goes:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Before Good Friday, the Maundy Thursday rite tells us that Love, as expressed best in the Holy Eucharist, the supreme sacrifice repeated daily in the breaking of the bread and wine, is the main motivation and reason for God’s death. How lovely and poetic indeed are the mysterious ways of the Lord! He had set a perfect example as to how lives should be lived, and how we should die. He is radical; he is Divinely different. And yet also mysteriously human and accessible.

With trembling, anguish and guilt, we also approach the death of our Lord with a spirit of hope and encouragement. We remember the words of Bob Dufford’s song that tell of the happiness we find and proclaim in the Lord, how the life of and in the Lord is satisfied by the knowledge that there is life after death. When we accept the truth that our lives are reflections of God’s deep love for us, we also receive from Him the grace of finding happiness in sacrifice, joy in suffering and confidence in unity in Him. If we believe that like Him, we shall resurrect from death, we find solace and strength amidst all our sufferings. Life comes with all its blows but we have the image of the Black Nazarene – a man brought down by the Cross to his knees but His face upright and focused. Suffering shall not prevail if we open our hearts to Him who suffered, died and was resurrected. Suffering can be overcome if it is united in Him Who triumphed over death, and sin can be defeated if we strive to live in His grace. We are inspired by the Lord and through His Body, Blood, Death and Resurrection, we are not only consoled but ultimately, saved.

About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
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One Response to Approaching the Death of God: A Good Friday Reflection

  1. Pingback: A Peculiar Priesthood | The Postmodern Quaker

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