In the liturgy of Holy Thursday, the Church asks us to allow ourselves to be looked at by Christ and to be loved by Him. The Gospel of that day invites us to let Jesus wash our feet, if we are to have any part with him (cfr. Jn 13:8). On Good Friday, the liturgy asks us, instead, to look at Christ.
It is Jesus Himself who asks this of us through the words of the responsorial, Caligaverunt: videte, look.
Oculi mei a fletu meo:
Quia elongatus est a me,
Qui consolabatur me:
Videte, omnes populi,
Si est dolor similis
Sicut dolor meus.
O vos omnes,
Qui transitis per viam,
Attendite et videte
Si est dolor similis
Sicut dolor meus.
My eyes are darkened by my tears:
For he is far from me
that comforted me:
See, O all ye people,
if there be any sorrow
like unto my sorrow.
O all ye that pass by,
behold and see
if there be any sorrow
like unto my sorrow.1
The first time, it says only videte, “see, O all ye people.” After, this request is, as it were, made more precise, more specific; it seems to be directed no longer towards a generic “all of you” but to those who are passing by on the road –omnes, qui transitis per viam- to those who, even by chance, find themselves on the path that Jesus is also on. This question goes for all of us who have had the grace to find ourselves on His path. Then, the request is reinforced, as it adds attendite and videte: “Pay attention. Stop looking here and there. Stop thinking just about your own business. Stop looking solely at yourselves and look up.”
The Angel of Portugal, who appeared to the shepherd children before the apparition of the Madonna at Fatima (we are in the year 1916), taught them a prayer, which goes: “Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore You profoundly, and I offer You the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifference with which He Himself is offended. And, through the infinite merits of His most Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg of You the conversion of poor sinners.”
I was struck by how the Angel emphasizes the indifference that the world shows towards Christ, which offends him just like the “outrages” and “sacrileges”, just like the evil of sin.
Today, we are invited to rouse ourselves from distraction, from superficiality, from an indifferent gaze. The common life helps in this, fighting so that our gaze does not remain superficial and indifferent, fighting to deepen, in an ever increasing way, our gaze towards Christ.
Attendite et videte… can we be helped to stop and to look at Jesus? Today, the Gospel proposed by the liturgy tells the story of the various persons who encountered Jesus and looked at Him in the hour of His Passion: meeting Him, they found themselves before a mysterious man, a presence, who, without even needing to speak, provokes them by the mere fact of His being there.
The way these persons looked at Jesus can be of help to us, today, so we may also look upon Him. I will present them in pairs.
Judas and Peter
How do Judas and Peter look at Jesus, after both have betrayed Him, betrayals that were both foretold by Him?
Judas is a mysterious character, just as his story is full of mystery. He leaves the scene with a tragic epilogue: he goes to hang himself; falling, he is torn apart and his innards fall to the ground (Matt 27:5); the others, with the money he had received, buy the potter’s field, which was called akeldamá, that is, field of blood (Acts 1:18-19).
What can we say about him? Above all, that perhaps it was not for the money that he betrayed Jesus: 30 pieces of silver (sicles, which correspond to 120 denari) was the price of a slave of modest quality… The perfume of the woman who had bathed Jesus’ feet in Bethany was worth much more: it could have been sold for 300 denari (cfr. Mark 14:3-9), that is, for almost triple the value of the 30 pieces of silver.
Perhaps in Judas an illusory dream had been awakened, the illusion of a Kingdom of God that did not correspond to what Jesus was doing. In this way, “his heart turned to stone and his eyes were quick to flee.”2 I have always been struck by the truth of Chieffo’s psychological description of Judas. Think about the relationships among us, with our brothers: when do one’s eyes become quick to flee the gaze of the other? When am I no longer able to look him in the eye? When, within myself, I have already eliminated him since he does not correspond to the image I have of him; when I realize that I am not able to bend his alterity to the image that I have of him, to the claims I make over him, even if they are motivated by the best of intentions.
How many times have I felt this kind of a gaze in myself, before the vacillating freedom of young people, above all of those whom I preferred! After experiencing great things together, and judging those things together, at times, it seemed like they would be walking on quicksand, and still trying to walk forward. And I would feel like saying, “Are you so thick headed that you haven’t gotten it yet?! I’m done. I can’t deal with you all anymore.” The sentiment of revolt that comes from a claim on the other that is disappointed is akin to killing the relationship with the other. And then the temptation is to say, “OK, fine: I’ll decide for you, then!”
Perhaps this was the way that Judas looked at Jesus even before betraying Him. And perhaps, handing Jesus over to the priests, Judas wanted to force Jesus’ hand, obliging Him to reveal Himself according to the idea that the betrayer had of Him.
But things do not go as planned. Judas does some figuring and recognizes his error: “I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matt 27:4). Maybe he is even sincerely repentant. But why then does he go to hang himself? Why does he despair of finding forgiveness and salvation?
We are in delicate territory with these questions and so we can only hypothesize: maybe because, instead of looking to Christ, Judas directs his repentant gaze towards the ones who are incapable of giving him the forgiveness that he is seeking: in fact, the high priests say to him, “What does it matter to us? See to it yourself” (Mt 27:4). And this is exactly what Judas did: throwing the money to the ground, he went to see to it himself, giving into desperation, trying to undo the evil he had done.3
On the other hand, we have Peter: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly” (Lk 22:61-62).
That Peter meets the gaze of Jesus makes all the difference because it reopens the apostle’s heart to a relationship with the Lord. Placed dramatically before this presence, Peter is snatched out of anguish, pulled away from the ineffective and desperate temptation to “see to it by himself” as Judas does. Commenting on the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John, Fr. Giussani describes the extent of the drama of Peter’s situation before the presence and the gaze of Christ.4
In the face of betrayal, in the face of our own evil, we can direct our gaze to Christ as Peter did, feeling within ourselves, dramatically, the pain of not having reciprocated His love, but also deciding to remain in His sight; or, like Judas, we can, tragically, see to it ourselves.
Barabbas and Dismas
Even if the Gospels speak to us very little about him, we can try to imagine the story of Barabas: what would he have seen in Jesus when he went out into the praetorium, eyes blinded by the light that he was no longer accustomed to after so much time spent in prison?
This is how Lagerkvist describes him: “From the first moment Barabbas had seen him […] he had felt that there was something odd about him. What it was he could not say […] He didn’t remember ever having seen anyone like him before […] He still thought there was something very strange about him and that he was not like anyone else […] it was incredible that he was a prisoner […] how could they pass a sentence like that? It was obvious that he was innocent.”5 And yet, the crowd cries, “Free Barabbas!” (Matt 27:21). And they freed him. “It was none of his doing. It was their business. They were quite at liberty to choose whomever they liked, and it just turned out that way. They had both been sentenced to death, but one of them was to be released. He himself was amazed at their choice”6.
In Lagerkvist’s vision, Barabbas represents the humanity for which Christ died. For the rest of his life he would be distrubed, fascinated by the figure of Jesus, but he himself would never convert. For all of his life, Barabbas will not be able to forget that exchange, and he will try to understand why, but he will never be able to be a follower, a disciple of Jesus, except at the point of death.7
But that is what Lagerkvist wrote. In what we know from the objective brevity of the Gospels, Barabbas is simply one who escaped the gallows (or, better, the cross): in Jesus, he saw the one who could get him out of danger. He must have thought: “Let’s hope they yell, ‘Free Barabas!’”.
Dismas, instead, is on the cross: he did not escape, but ended up crucified. And from the cross, looking at Jesus, a few feet away from Him, he says: “I am here for what I have done, and I deserve it. He has not done anything wrong.” And then he says the words that we know: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). “Remember me”: he does not ask for mercy; it seems he is not even asking for forgiveness…He only says: “Remember me, who am, perhaps, one whom it would be better to forget.” And Jesus feels the gaze of Dismas on Him, full of this question, and He responds: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
The gaze of Barabas on Jesus is the gaze of one who wants to escape. Barabas is one who escaped. The gaze of Dismas on Jesus is the gaze of one who desires salvation. Dismas is one who is saved.
As a side note: I like to think of Dismas as a gift that the Father gave Jesus on the cross, in the midst of the physical suffering and abandonment that Jesus was feeling. It seems to me like the gift given to Jesus is a consolation: that of having seen that what he had prophesied about Himself -“if the grain of wheat dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24), and “when I will be raised up from the earth, I will draw all to myself” (John 12:32)- is already beginning to be realized.
Looking at Jesus on the cross, Dismas is attracted by Him, and becomes the first and the first fruits of a long series of persons who, looking at Jesus upon the cross, the grain of wheat that dies, are saved.
Pilate and Simon of Cyrene
I think that, at the beginning, the way Pilate and of Simon of Cyrene looked at Jesus was fairly similar: for both, the encounter with Jesus was the wrong thing at the wrong time, the thing that “I absolutely did not want to deal with today”, a hassle, the thing that makes you ask, “But why did this have to happen to me?”
With regards to Pilate: we know that he was in Jerusalem, having come from Cesarea Marittima where he normally stayed, since it was the Passover, a moment during which the desire for liberation on the part of the Jews normally manifested (as it many times did) with some surge of violence. In this climate, which was already tense, we find Pilate engaged in a religious and political diatribe, as he finds placed before him this man, this rabbi-prophet-saint-healer who everyone was talking about and who, above all, created division and made people’s blood boil. Pilate finds himself needing to play with fire around the powder kegs: “Did this really need to happen to me? Today, of all days?” he must have thought.
Wouldn’t Simon of Cyrene have thought the same thing? It seems that he was well known by the people around him; in the valley of Cedron, a first-century tomb was found that seems to have belonged to his family. Furthermore, he was from Cyrene, but he possessed fields around Jerusalem. It seems that Simon was also law-abiding: according to the prescriptions, since it was the day of Preparation, he was coming back from the fields around midday and not at the end of the afternoon, in order to prepare well for the feast of the next day.8
Certain rabbinical chronicles also tell us that the Roman soldiers had a particular taste for humiliating the more well-known people, forcing them to do servile and impure work, especially around the time of the festivals. And so Simon of Cyrene finds himself forced, in public, to be associated with a condemned man, dirited further by the impurity of having touched an instrument of execution, and, eventually, also the blood of Jesus, and therefore prevented from celebrating Passover on the following day. All of this, what’s more, in front of his children. They forced (Mk 15:21) Simon to carry the cross. They bully him into it, reads the original Greek text. “Is this really happening to me? I have nothing to do with it! I do not need this today!”
Let’s go back to Pilate: he finds himself in front of Jesus and immediately sees that he is innocent. Perhaps at the beginning, Pilate thought that the Jew before him was a bit crazy, but then he becomes interested: however, the crowd is screaming and the priests are accusatory and the Roman leader becomes hesitant. He cannot allow himself to do something wrong in the eyes of the Emperor; he’s scared. What’s more, his wife arrives with the story of her dream, and all of his superstition is awakened. Pilate is also frightened by this mysterious person who stands before him: “Where are you from?” (Jn 19:9), he asks Him…He wants to save Jesus, he tries to buy some time by sending Him to Herod, trying to delay the process, perhaps until after the Passover, or trying to pass the hot potato to Herod…but it doesn’t work. He has Jesus scourged, then he shows Him off exhausted and bloody, hoping to elicit the compassion of the crowd: “Behold the man!” (Jn 19:6). It does nothing. He then reaches for the paschal privilege: freeing a prisoner. He puts Barabbas next to Jesus and asks, “Who do you choose”, which leads to the fiasco of an ending.
Before Jesus, the eyes of Pilate are veiled by his skepticism: “Quid est veritas?” (Jn 18:38): does the truth really exist? Superstition, fear and political calculation further obscure how he sees things. The result: “You all do what you will; I will have no more part in it” (cfr. Matt 27:24).
Simone of Cyrene appears and then disappears immediately in the Gospel. We know no more about him if not what we can imagine from the glimpse that Marks gives us of him in his Gospel, when he writes that he is the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mk 15:21), and from the fact that the other two Synoptic gospels also mention him. It is thought that the mention of these names shows that they belonged to the primitive Christian community.
Let’s try to think what happened after the initial reaction, in that moment when Simon was passing by close to Jesus: did he know Him? Had he heard Him speak before? Had he ever seen Him? Surely he was not present at the trial because he was coming from the fields, at that very moment. What did he think of Him? What did he think of that man who now he saw battered, disfigured, bloody, and yet silent, not cursing and perhaps even looking at him? Can we imagine how Jesus would have looked at him?
Despite the fact that he was “bullied,” forced by abuse to carry a cross that he did not want to carry and that was not even his own, perhaps Simon of Cyrene, as he looked at Jesus beside him, following him on the road to Calvary, saw that was linked to, mixed up with that man, whose blood was now dirtying his clothes. Once the task imposed on him had finished, instead of saying, “Now, I don’t want anything more to do with this,” perhaps he did want to know more, or, perhaps, contrary to what Pilate did, he couldn’t help but want to know more. Perhaps he too remained there, at the foot of the cross, until the end. Perhaps some days after he went looking for the Eleven. Maybe he heard the news of the resurrection…
Perhaps he simply realized that, after what had happened to him, after what he had seen, he was no longer the same man.
Herod and the Centurion
We know that Herod had once sought Jesus out in order to kill Him. Now, finally, the king finds himself in front of Him and maybe even uses the occasion to settle an old score: “Let’s see what this guy can do, the one that everyone talks about, who called me an ‘old fox’…”.
Perhaps he expected to see a pious man fearful of possible condemnation and ready to do anything to get on the good side and receive the graces of the sovereign, in order to save his life. And so he prods at Jesus, provokes Him, asking Him to perform a magic show to entertain him and his court.
But Jesus is silent. “This generation wants signs,” he had said earlier, “But no sign will be given them if not the sign of Jonah” (cfr. Matt 12:39). The eyes of Herod look to Jesus for a wonder. However, he wants a wonder that entertains, more than a wonder that shows the authority of Jesus and forces him to believe in Him. However, Herod’s eyes are unable to see and to recognize that, before him, that sign of Jonah of which Jesus had spoken was being realized.
Much different is the gaze of the centurion: for work, he finds himself at the foot of the cross of Jesus when, all of a sudden, he sees the sky become dark, feels the earth shake under his feet, hears the last words of Jesus and, “seeing how Jesus had died, sa[ys]: Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:38; Matt 27:54). He lets himself be touched by what he saw, by the way that Jesus died, by His final words, by the dialogue with Dismas, by the request of forgiveness that Jesus asks of God for his butcherers. The centurion was there out of duty, unwillingly, perhaps, and worried about the situation. He found himself before Jesus and, simply looking at what was happening, understood that it was a sign of something. He had no preconceptions whatsoever about Jesus but realized, still, that what he had seen was the sign of the divinity of that man.
The priests and John
To the questions of Annas, who interrogates him about his teachings, Jesus responds: “I have spoken openly…” (Jn 18:20). Jesus seems to say to him: “Let’s be clear: I know perfectly well that you already know the things you are asking me about.” It seems like the scene of the man born blind: “Tell us again what you did”, “I already told you; you already know!” (cfr. Jn 9:1-41). The way that the high priests insist with the man born blind shows that they did not see because they did not want to see. The same thing seems to be happening now. They interrogate Jesus, trying to find charges against Him, and He responds yet again that He had done His good works in the light of day: “Why then do you want to kill me?” (cfr. 10:32), he asks. The priests do not see the signs because they do not want to see them.
Let’s remember, furthermore, that the priests had the function of standing before God to intercede for the people. The High Priest, once a year, went into the place that was inaccessible to all except him, the place of the Presence, the shekinah, the Sancta Sanctorum, where God abides.
Perhaps these priests had become habituated to being in the presence of God, to considering God as something that they could place before the people at will, and are unable to recognize in Jesus God present. In this way, instead of being before God as ones who implore (which is the typical attitude of the priest), they are before Jesus, before God, as those who tempt Him: “Come down from the Cross and we will believe in You!” (cfr Matt 27:40; Mk 15:32; Lk 23:35), that is, “do what I tell you, if you are God, and then I will believe.” They do not see because they do not want to see. They do not know how to stay in the presence of God because to them, He is different from what they expected Him to be.
The way John and Mary look at Jesus, instead, is the way of looking of those who do not understand, but “stay”: they stay before the cross of Jesus (Jn 19:25-27). They stay there, stunned, but they cannot but stay, cannot but look. And because they stay close and look, they receive from Christ the gift of the Church.
In particular, with regards to John, it seems that his staying before Jesus is truly the “astare coram Te” (“to stand before You”)9, a gaze and a remaining that is priestly: staying before Christ, John receives from Him the gift of the blood and water -“out came blood and water” (Jn 19:34)- that are the symbol of the sacrament. What John receives, he then transmits to the others: “the one who has seen gives testimony” (Jn 19:35); that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life […] we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1Jn 1:1-4).
We too, like John, are called to stand before Jesus: this is the essence of priestly ministry. Standing before Him, living with our gaze fixed on Him and receiving from Him the gift that He makes of Himself, in the celebration of the Eucharist, we are called to keep the world, burdened as it is by inertia, immersed as it is in indifference towards Him, open to God and alert to Him.10
Meditation from Good Friday in the House of Formation
April 2, 2021
- IX Responsory of Good Friday, Office of Darkness, Roman Breviary.
- Claudio Chieffo, Monologo di Giuda (Monologue of Judas), 1971.
- The author directs the reader to the claims of V. Messori, Patì sotto Ponzio Pilato? Un’indagine storica sulla passione di Gesù. Milan, ARES, 2020, pp. 42-43, on the possible meaning of suicide in the Old Testament.
- Cfr. Luigi Giussani, Generating Traces in the History of the World. Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010, pp. 59 ss.
- P. Lagerkvist, Barabas. New York, Vintage Books, 1951, 5-6.
- P. Lagerkvist, op. Cit., 6.
- Cfr. Introduzione of Giovanni Papini, P. Lagerkvist, op. cit., p. 14.
- Cfr. V. Messori, op. Cit. cap. 19.
- Cfr. Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer II.
- Cfr. Benedict XVI, Homily During the Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, March 20, 2008.