Lent’s call: Contemplating the face of Christ

As we linger before the cross, certain other dimensions of Jesus’ struggle come to the fore. Obviously there must have been a bit of confusion in his mind. He had internalized the sacred texts. And certainly, he was aware of the words of the prophet Jeremiah (29, 11-13): “I know the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare and not misfortune, plans that will grant you a future full of hope.” As he was hanging on the cross, Christ must have wondered how such a verse would apply to himself. Where was his future full of hope? The intensity of his pain would have blotted out all future considerations.

Again, there must have been feelings of disappointment and loneliness. He had called his disciples “friends.” He had praised them as those who stood by him in his struggles. But in these hours on Calvary, they had deserted him. Only Mary, John and a band of women were present to offer him comfort and support. Was this really to be the culmination of his ministry?

Moreover, the depths of his loneliness could be heard in his cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” How could this be, since he maintained that he and his Father were one?

Perhaps the intensity of his pain at that moment could have blotted out any feelings beyond himself. If human experience is any yardstick, this would not be unusual. Pain, physical and psychological, can have such an effect.

On a more poetic yet realistic level, I sometimes am led to believe that the Father, looking at the agony of his Son--an agony which would not be appreciated by so many--was forced to cry and for a brief moment turn his face away from the tragedy of Calvary. Perhaps in that instant, Jesus sensed his Father’s painful absence.

The prophet Isaiah had foretold the feelings of the servant: “I thought I had toiled in vain.” I am sure that during these lonely moments on the cross, Jesus felt frustration and disappointment. He must have wondered about all he cured. Where were they? He must have thought about the disciples who had walked with him since the baptism by John. Where were they? He must have thought about the thousands who were fed by his word and by his multiplication of the loaves and fishes. He had provided them with redemptive nourishment. Where were they?

Sometimes, disappointment in others who should care is one of the hardest things to bear.

Yet despite all of this, I see in Christ’s eyes and hear in his voice a hymn of hope: “Into your hands, I commend my sprit.” And I do not believe that we can leave Calvary without concentrating upon the hope which is to be found in these words of the Lord Jesus.

As an heir of Israelite spirituality, Jesus found his hope not so much in looking forward but in memory. The people of God in the Old Testament found their “good news” in looking back to the truth that God, despite appearances, was faithful. Thus they focused upon the Exodus and decoded the truth that God was truly present with them in their darkest hours and how he eventually led them to the Promised Land. In the days of the Babylonian captivity, they found strength in this truth that God never deserted his people and how his guiding hand would lead them beyond their present difficulties.

God’s faithfulness is one of the foundational areas of hope. And most of us should take time for a personal pilgrimage to the past where we can discern signs of God’s faithfulness--and his loving forgiveness.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has issued a new encyclical on hope. There is no way to summarize his many insights. But one of his observations struck me. He offers us the example of St. Josephine Bakhita of Darfur in the Sudan who was enslaved but later discovered a new master in Christ and so was given the gift of hope. “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me, I am awaited by this love. And so my life is good.”

“I am awaited by this love.” For ourselves, we can look forward to this truth.

Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.

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