380 "If we fail to recognize Jesus’s despair, we will never understand what it means to be human."
Day 380 Wednesday March 31st 2021
If we fail to recognize Jesus’s despair on the cross, we will never understand what it means to be fully human.
A reflection from our friend Jim Fredericks
Many years ago (decades actually), a young man started to come for mass at St. Leo’s. He was in his later twenties. Soft-spoken and gentle. Unfailingly polite and eager to be useful.
Clearly, he was looking for someplace to call home.
He was from somewhere in the Midwest, far from family, and had come up to Sonoma after living some years in San Francisco. He had something troubling him that he would eventually reveal to our pastor at the time (Msgr. Jack O’Hare) and then to me.
I am happy to report that the people of the parish opened their hearts to this likable fellow. He quickly become one of us.
About a year after he started to come around, he took me aside after mass and said he wanted to speak with me. “Of course.”
It was Spring, I think. The Valley was green, and the poppies were blooming, like they are right now. We sat on a bench behind the church and looked across the field toward John Serres’s property. I could tell he had something on his mind.
“Father, I want to tell you what I told Msgr. O’Hare.”
“Okay… what’s that?”
I don’t remember what I said, exactly, in reply. It would have been supportive. Probably, I said something like,
“I’m okay with that. Are you okay with that?”
What I said does not matter. What matters is what he said next.
“Father, I just found out that I have AIDS.”
This happened in the 1980s, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. There were no medications for the HIV virus in those days. He was telling me that he would die in a year or two, or maybe three.
I must have asked him, at some point, if his family knew about this. He told me,
Yah… I called my parents a few days ago and told them I was gay. Then, I told them that I had tested positive for HIV.
I asked him about their response. He told me that his mom cried a little. And then she said to her son, ”Well, I guess this means that you won’t be coming home this Christmas.”
Why am I lifting-up this member of our parish to you as we enter Holy Week? I thought of this gentle human being when I read the passage in today’s Gospel where Jesus called out to God from his cross.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
Jesus called out to God in Aramaic, his native language (it’s a close cousin to Hebrew). Matthew translates it for us:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I think we need to grapple in depth with this passage in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus – the Rabbi who healed lepers and cast out demons, who taught us the beatitudes and instructed us in parables, who expelled the moneychangers from the Temple – died in despair. The Messiah, the Son of David, died thinking that he had been abandoned not only by his disciples, but by his God as well.
There are those who say things like,
Well, Jesus was really divine, so he knew all along what was going to happen on Easter Sunday.
Or even things like,
Jesus was God so he only pretended to despair. But he didn’t despair. He didn’t even suffer on the cross. He only appeared to despair and only appeared to suffer.
People have been saying foolish things like this since Matthew wrote his Gospel two thousand years ago.
I think we need to take Matthew at his word: Jesus died a shameful death, rejected by the Elders of the people, tortured by Roman centurions, ridiculed by onlookers, and forsaken by his disciples. And then, in his dying words, he called out to his God asking if God had abandoned him as well.
I need to try to explain something difficult – something I will not be able to explain in the depth it requires. It’s just this:
If we fail to recognize Jesus’s despair on the cross, we will never understand what it means to be fully human. But, in addition, in failing to understand our own humanity, we will also fail to understand the Mystery of God into which our faith plunges us. Do not doubt this. This teaching goes to the very heart of Christian faith.
In the fall of the First Adam, despair became part of our human condition. God did not create us and place us in a garden only that we might come to despair. Despair became a part of the human condition East of Eden, through sin. In fact, I think we must say that despair lies at the heart of every sin that has ever been committed.
And, now, on his cross, the Second Adam has drawn our despair to himself.
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
These words of Jesus were our words long before they issued from the mouth of the Messiah. On his cross, Jesus has made our despair his own.
All this is just another way of saying what was later written in the First Letter of Peter:
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (I Pt 2:24)
And so, on this Palm Sunday, I am reflecting on Christ’s Passion and I am remembering that young man who had been abandoned and who had come to Saint Leo’s looking for a place to call home. I think, with much gratitude, of the people at St. Leo’s who welcomed him, and eventually cared for him when he became too weak to care for himself.
As we enter Holy Week, create a place in your heart for those who have been abandoned to their cross. I am thinking of all the people, especially the children, who have been forced to leave their families in Central America and head North. I am also thinking of a young woman I know in Japan. She has just been deserted by her husband. I am thinking about an old friend who has just lost his wife to cancer, and another friend, very dear to me, who lost a husband to Covid-19.
In the First Adam, despair became a part of our human condition. And now, as we prepare ourselves for the great liturgies of Holy Week, let us recall that, on his cross, the Second Adam has taken our despair and made it his own.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.