Below excerpt is a homily given byFr. Raniero Cantalamessa on the Good Friday of 1981, under the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. He is an Italian Catholic cardinal and priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin and a theologian. He has served as the Preacher to the Papal Household since 1980, under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
The accounts of the Passion, especially in the synoptic Gospels, so sparse in style and thoroughly lacking in any theological or edifying detail, take us back to the early days of the Church. From a modern form-criticism perspective, these were the first sections of the Gospels to be formed or drawn from an oral tradition that had already circulated among Christians. In this earliest phase of transmission, facts are the predominant factor. Everything can be summarized in two events: death and Resurrection. This stage, however, quickly moved on. Believers soon queried about the "why" of the Passion. Why did Jesus suffer? And the answer was, "For our sins!" Thus the beginnings of the Easter faith expressed by St. Paul in his well-known formula: "[Christ was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification" (see Rom 4:25). We now had both the facts—death and Resurrection—and their significance for us: for our sins, for our justification. The answer seemed complete: history and faith come together to form a single Easter mystery. However, the root of the question had not been touched. "For our sins" and "for our justification" explained the purpose, not the cause of Jesus' death and Resurrection. The query arose again in yet another form: " Why did he die for our sins?" Like a flash of sunlight illuminating the faith of the Church, the answer came: "Because he loved us!" "Christ loved us and handed himself over for us" (Eph 5:2). He "has loved me and given himself up for me" (Gal 2:20). "Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her" (Eph 5:25).
This indisputable, primordial truth pervades everything and applies both to the Church in its entirety and to each individual human being. St. John the Evangelist, the last to write his Gospel, dates this revelation back to Christ when he was on earth: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends" (Jn 15:13-14). This answer to the "why" of Christ's Passion is really final and allows for no further questions. He loved us because he loved us, and that's all there is to it!
In fact, there is no "why" to God's love; it is a free gift. It is the only love in the world that is truly and totally free, that asks nothing for itself (he already has everything!) but only gives; or better yet, he gives himself. "In this is love: not that we have loved God but that he loved us.... We love because he first loved us" (I Jn 4:10, 19). Jesus suffered and died freely, out of love—not by chance, not out of necessity, not because of some hidden catalyst or misunderstanding that took him unawares or against his will. To assert such would be to nullify the Gospel, to remove its soul, because the Gospel is nothing other than the good news of God's love in Christ Jesus. Not only the Gospel but the entire Bible is nothing other than the news of God's mysterious, incomprehensible love for people.
If the whole of Scripture were to start talking at once, if by some miracle the written words were transformed into speech, that voice would be more powerful than the waves of the sea, and it would cry out:
"God loves you!"
God's love for people is rooted in eternity ("He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world," says the Apostle in Ephesians I :4), but it was manifested in time, in a series of actual gestures that makes up the history of salvation. In ancient times, God had already spoken to our ancestors frequently and in many and varied ways about this love of his (see Heb I :I). It was spoken when God created us, because what is creation if not an act of love, indeed the primordial act of God's love for humanity? Later, it was spoken through the prophets, because in reality the biblical prophets are nothing other than messengers of God's love, "friends of
the Bridegroom" (see Jn 3:29). Even their rebukes and threats are intended as a defense of that love of God for his people. In the prophets, God compares his love to that of a mother (see Is 49:15), to that of a father (see Hos 11:4), and to that of a bridegroom (see Is 62:5). In a phrase unheard of in any philosophy or religion, placed on the lips of a god, God himself sums up his entire relationship and comportment toward Israel by saying: "With age-old love I have loved you!" (Jer 3 1:3). The god of the philosophers is a god to be loved but not a God who loves and who loves first.
Still, it was not enough for God to speak about his love "through the prophets"; "in these last days, he spoke to us through a son" (Heb 1:2). Compared to what came before, an enormous qualitative difference has taken place. Unlike the prophets before him, Jesus is not confined to speaking about God's love—he is the love of God, because "God is love" and Jesus is God!
In Jesus, God no longer speaks to us from a distance, through intermediaries, but from close up and in person. He speaks to us from within our human condition, after having savored to the fullest the suffering it entails. God's love has taken flesh and has come to live among us ! Jesus loves us with a heart that is both human and divine—with a perfectly human love, the measure of which is divine. He loves us with a love that is strong and tender, gentle and constant. How much he loves the disciples! How much he loves the children! How much he loves the poor and the sick! How much he loves sinners! It is his love of people that makes them grow, that restores their dignity and hope. All who draw near to Jesus with a simple heart emerge transformed by his love.
His love develops into friendship: "I no longer call you slaves.... have called you friends" (Jn 15:15). And it does not stop there! He even goes to the extent of identifying so intimately with humanity that all other human analogies, even that of a mother, a father, or a spouse, pale in comparison: "We remain in him and he in us!" (1 Jn 4:13). Finally, we have the utmost proof of his love: "He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1)- is, to love's ultimate extreme.
Two things reveal the true lover and make love triumph: the first consists in doing good to the beloved, and the second (by far superior) in suffering for him or her. This is why, in order to demonstrate his great love for us, God finds a way to bring about his own "annihilation" by enduring terrible sufferings. In this way, through all that he endures, God convinces people of his extraordinary love for them and once again draws to himself the very people who had fled from the good Lord, thinking that they were the objects of his hatred (see Nicholas Cabasilas, Life in Christ, VI, 2).
Jesus repeats to us what he once said to St. Angela of Foligno while she was meditating on the Passion: "My love for you was not a joke!" (Instruction, XXIII).
If we want to know the depth of God's love for us, there is a simple and certain way of knowing: by looking at how much he suffered—not just in his body but most of all in his soul. The true Passion of Jesus is the one that cannot be seen, the one at Gethsemane that made him cry out: "My soul is sorrowful even to death" (Mk 14:34). Jesus died in his heart before he died physically. Who can fathom the depths of desolation, sadness, and anguish in Christ's soul as he—the innocent Son of the Father—felt himself "made sin" (see 2 Cor 5:21). The Good Friday liturgy has rightly placed on Christ's lips the words of the Lamentation: "Come, all who pass by the way, pay attention and see: Is there any pain like my pain?" (Lam I : 12). It was with this moment in mind that the phrase Sic Deus dilexit mundum- "God so loved the world" (Jn 3:16) was written. At the beginning of his Gospel, John exclaims: "We saw his glory" (Jn 14). If we were to ask the evangelist, "Where did you see his glory?" he would reply, "I saw his glory at the foot of the cross."
God's glory lies in the fact that he hid his glory for our sake, for love of us. This is the greatest glory God has outside of himself, outside of the Trinity, greater even than having created us or the entire universe. Seated now at the Father's right hand in glory, Christ's body no longer retains the signs and characteristics of his mortal condition, but the book of Revelation tells us that there is one thing he does jealously retain and show to the whole court of heaven: his wounds, the signs of his Passion (see RV 5:6). He is proud of these because they are the telltale signs of the depth of his love for his creatures. Raised high upon the cross, Jesus has reason to repeat to us today the words we hear in the liturgy: "My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!" (Mi 6:3).
Someone might say: "Yes, it's true that Jesus, when he was on earth, once loved us, but what about now? Now that he is no longer among us, is all that is left of that love just a faint memory?" Like the disciples of Emmaus who said, "Three days have gone by already" (see Lk 24:2 1), we might be tempted to think: "Two thousand years have gone by already!" Just as those disciples were wrong because Jesus was risen and walking by their side, so are we wrong when we begin to think like them. In fact, his love is still among us "because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).
This, then, is the second great truth we celebrate today, no less beautiful and important than the first: God loved the world so much that he gave us his Holy Spirit! The water flowing from Christ's side, mingled with his blood, was the symbol of the Holy Spirit. "This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit" (1 Jn 4:13). Let us cling to this phrase of John's because it sums up everything. Jesus has left us the gift of his whole self, his entire love, because "he was brought to life in the Spirit" (I Pt 3:18).
What I have just described is the objective revelation of God's love in history. Let us now turn to ourselves. What shall we do and say after listening to the depth of God's love for us? There are several possible responses, and one of them is to return love! This is the first and greatest commandment of the law! In the words of an ancient Church hymn: "How can we not love one who has so loved us?" (Sic nos amantem quis non redamaret?). There is, however, something that comes before that.
Another possible answer is to love one another as God loved us! Doesn't John the Evangelist tell us that "since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another" (1 Jn 4:11)? But even prior to this there is something else we must do. First of all, we must believe in God's love! "We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us" (1 Jn 4:16). This kind of faith is not a simple intellectual assent to a truth. It is much more. It is amazing faith, incredulous faith—indeed a paradox! It is such that, even while believing, we cannot convince ourselves of what we believe. How could it possibly be that God, so infinitely happy in the quiet serenity of eternity, desired not only to create us but to personally come and suf- fer among us? How can this be true? Most of the New Testament quotations cited so far are exclamations. They express the early Church's sense of awe: "He loved me and he gave himself for me!"; "God so loved the world!"
How marvelous this faith—a mix of awe and admiration—and yet more difficult than anything else could ever be. Do we really believe that God loves us? No, we don't really believe it, or at least not strongly enough! If we were to believe it, everything—our lives, ourselves, things, and events—absolutely everything would be transfigured before our eyes. This very day we would be with him in paradise, for paradise is simply rejoicing in God's love. An extra- canonical saying attributed to Jesus puts it this way: "Whoever is amazed will reign" (Gospel of the Hebrews). Whoever, in the light of God's unbelievable love for us, is seized with a pro- found sense of awe, whoever remains speechless before this love, will immediately enter the kingdom of heaven! As remarked before, however, we don't really believe that God loves us. It is increasingly more difficult to believe in love in this world. There is too much unfaithfulness, too many dis- appointments. Anyone who has ever been betrayed or hurt is afraid to love again and to allow themselves to be loved because they know how much pain another betrayal would entail. So the number of those unable to believe in God's love, or rather, in any love, continues to in- crease. The world and life are falling back into an ice age. The earth remains, as Dante said, "that flowerbed which makes us so ferocious" (Paradiso, XXII, 151).
On a personal level, our own unworthiness also tempts us: "God's love truly is a beautiful thing, but it's not for me! How could God possibly love anyone as unfaithful and lax as me? I am not worthy .. " Listen, however, to what God's Word says to us: "If our hearts condemn, God is greater than our hearts and knows everything" (see 1 Jn 3:19-20).
The world needs to believe in love.
We must begin again to proclaim the Gospel of God's love in Jesus Christ. If we fail to do so we shall be like those who place "their candles under a bushel" (see Mk 4:21). We would be depriving the world of its deepest hunger, its innermost expectation. There are many others besides Christians who preach social justice and respect for others, but there is no one, among philosophers or other religions, no one, who tells us that God loves us and loved us first. Yet this truth is what sustains everything; it is the motivating power behind everything. Even the cause of the poor and oppressed is a lost cause if it isn't based on the unshakable truth that God loves us and that he loves the poor and the oppressed. Words and expressions of grief, however, are not enough. Like Jesus, we must be ready to suffer and to forgive those who cause suffering. "Father, forgive them" (Lk 23:34) were the words uttered by Jesus on the cross, and he bequeathed them to us Christians that we might keep them alive through the passing of centuries and mobilize ourselves with them. Jesus did not intend to relegate these words of forgiveness to those who were his enemies at that time and have since died; rather, these words extend that forgiveness to his enemies today, our enemies, the enemies of the Church. Christianity is the religion of forgiving enemies!
Only when God's love has helped a person to forgive an enemy at least once can that person claim to know the love of God that was poured into their heart by the Holy Spirit.
We should publicly thank those sisters and brothers in faith whose lives, after having been touched by hatred or having lost a loved one to violence, humbly followed the impulse of the Holy Spirit to forgive, even publicly, those who had murdered those who were dear to them. They believe in love! They are splendid witnesses of how love, manifested to us on the cross today, is still possible in the Spirit, and how only this love can change the world because it changes human hearts.
I have responded to the prophet Isaiah's cry, "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service has ended" (Is 40:1-2). I, too, have dared to speak "to the heart of Jerusalem, to the Church, to remind her of her most precious possession: the eternal love of her divine Spouse.
Now the Spouse himself talks to the Church through the words of the Canticle:
Arise, my friend, my beautiful one,
For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth.
On this blessed day of Christ's death, a surge of joy uplifts the world.