Tuesday, April 29, 2014

God in the Gallows


The following homily was preached at our Good Friday Celebration of the Lord's Passion.

In high school, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel, in which he recounted his imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  But there is only one scene that I recall from the book.

     Three prisoners were being punished with execution by hanging, including a small boy.  The SS, as was their custom, forced all the prisoners to watch the punishment in order to impress upon them their subjugation.  When the trap doors were unhinged, the two men died almost instantly.  The boy was not so fortunate because he was too light to have the weight of his body break his neck suspended in the noose.  For a half hour, the boy remained suspended, writhing with his legs.  Watching the ordeal, Elie Wiesel then heard someone behind him ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  “And from within me,”—this is Wiesel speaking—“I heard a voice answer:  ‘This is where—hanging here in the gallows.”

     That silence we hear in our suffering is in fact God shouting so loudly that we become deaf.

     Just four short months ago we celebrated God becoming an infant, becoming one of us—and why?  God became Man not to take away our sufferings, but to share in it.  “Ours was the sufferings He bore; ours the sorrows He carried.”  Like I said when we celebrated Jesus’ birth, Christmas is the empathy of God.  And how far does God take His empathy?  So far, in fact, that the cry from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me,” Jesus lends His voice to the tears, the grief, the anguish of all humanity.

     But why allow suffering in the first place?  What’s the point of suffering if someone concludes that an omnibenevolent God and evil cannot exist at the same time?  Because at least it’s gotten even the atheist to think about God; suffering shifts our gaze to God, even if our hearts remain closed to him.  God can deal with a closed heart later, but for now, he’s got your attention, and that’s why we’re allowed to suffer.  As C. S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

     Holy Mother Church teaches that we are made for happiness.  St Thomas Aquinas defines happiness as the “attainment of the Perfect Good”; most of us, however, confuse happiness with pleasure, and pleasure always leaves us hanging, wanting more.  Happiness makes us content.  And happiness cannot be found in anything or anyone other than God.  Why?  Because our hearts were made to be in friendship with God and the immensity of God and his love means that there can be no substitute to fill that void in our hearts.  As the Trappist monk Fr Thomas Merton said, “We are not called to pleasure; we are called to joy.”

     The sad reality is that suffering has entered the world through the collusion of our First Parents:  They—and we in them—have disobeyed and turned away from God; and when we turn away from the Only One Who can make us happy, we will be anything but happy; we will suffer.  And the turning of the human heart back to God is a painful process, even if it is only that of a pure heart already turned to God but opposed by you and me—by crucifying Jesus.  “Obedient unto death, even death on the Cross.”  Jesus’ perfect gaze and heart fixed upon His Father shows the Man of Sorrows reaching the fullest of human flourishing.  Jesus, for all His extreme humiliation and pain, on the Cross was the happiest of men.

     My friends:  There is no-one in this house of the Church that does not suffer.  But Holy Mother Church offers us no faerie-tales so that we can go on imagining that the whole wide world is our nursery.  To be Christian means to take off those ridiculous rose-coloured glasses and to see the reality around us, and the reality within us:  “Pain insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”

     Elie Wiesel was right.  God was in the gallows that day when that boy was hanging between life and death.  Even the bad news of human suffering has its silver lining, and the Good News isn’t far off.  God will overcome suffering.  Despair does not exist in Christian vocabulary.  We now wait outside the Tomb of Jesus, the tombs of our lives, in hope.

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