You might be tempted to think that tonight’s homily is merely a repetition of Palm Sunday since, “we heard the Passion homily just a few days ago.” Well, true, we did hear a homily on the Passion according to Luke, but the Passion shared every Good Friday (for about the past 1600 years) is the Passion according to St. John…and it’s a very distinct passion narrative (one filled with fruitful reflections on theology), very different than any of the other gospel writers’. In order to keep you invested in Good Friday liturgies far into the future—so that you’ll keep coming back year after year—I’ll only focus our attention on a few of the unique images given to us this night.
Of course, I am so very aware that the attraction of this night is not the homily at all, but rather the movements of the Triduum in their entirety: from the Lord’s washing of feet and the Passover meal, to his trial and the judgment of his death; from his crucifixion and our veneration of the wood of the cross, to the sacred fire burning brightly in the night to dispel the darkness around us; from fresh water of new birth to the celebration of a new covenant. These are the reasons for our entry into the Sacred Triduum, and tonight we are brought first, to a betrayal.
St. John gives us a more complete view of this encounter in the Garden of Gethsemane than the other Gospel writers. He skips over the agony and moves straight to the arrest. Let’s examine three details of this encounter more closely:
First, Judas and the soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus carrying “lanterns and torches”. John intends a strong irony here: Jesus is the light of the world and so the irony should not be missed in the fact that those opposing him come to him by the guidance of artificial, unnatural and flimsy light. This suggests, among other things, that they prefer darkness to light…that they know what they are doing and they know it can only be done at night—under the cover of darkness—for shameful deeds would be exposed in the full light of day!
Second, John uses a particular Greek word (speira) to describe the cohort that came to arrest Jesus and it can mean three possibilities: either a normal Roman dispatch of 600 men, or it can refer to a troop of non-Roman troops which would number 1,200 men…or it can sometimes refer to a smaller, tighter body consisting of 200 soldiers. Any way we take it, the picture this word paints is of the lone Jesus flanked by his frightened eleven apostles courageously facing a small army. We can imagine that the tough soldiers and Temple guards are now more confident by their great numbers, though perhaps irritated that they had been sent out on a cold, dark night for just this One. With confidence they state their intention and the name of the one to be arrested. But when Jesus responds, “I am he”, their confidence, their strength, their singular purpose all disappears as they are immediately taken aback and fall prostrate to the ground. Jesus’ conviction stands before them as Truth…awesome to behold.
Third, as Simon Peter witnesses the soldiers’ withdrawal, he unwittingly finds the strength to battle them, wounding Malchus. Clearly trying to maintain the upper hand and take advantage of the soldiers’ apparent retreat, immediately, Jesus excoriates the one who was simply trying to help, to defend. But Peter, in his haste, has lost sight of Jesus’ mission in its entirety: to do the Father’s will, and that alone.
For Rick, our Elect, and for Shakir and Brian, our Candidates, each of these three details are significant for you in a very new way. As you come to celebrate our Catholic life, you realize how essential it is for believers to continually grow in faith; to see themselves as apart from the True light yet summoned to that same light—Jesus Christ. Apart from True light when we carry torches and lanterns amid the darkness of our own sin, within our stubborn confusion…even our willful deception; apart from True light yet summoned to the Light of Christ through the gifts of the sacraments, the offering God makes to share His grace with us, and the life of the Church as the Body of Christ in our midst.
For you, as well, you now know that the Truth of your convictions—of your faith—can be your greatest strength when faced with fear or trembling. Declaring simply, yet boldly, “Christ is my life” will be your sure defense, and the way to share Life forever. And to be about doing the Father’s will is a clear sign that you are on a path trod already by the Master, the One who has been raised from the dead…and is forever victorious.
May each of us witness—alongside of you three—the deep and awesome and powerful rewards of our lives lived in and with Christ Jesus our Lord.