The Word Among Us

Lent 2017 Issue

A Vision Both Bitter and Sweet

Fix your gaze on the cross.

A Vision Both Bitter and Sweet: Fix your gaze on the cross.

Ecce Homo! “Behold, the man!” These were the words that Pontius Pilate used when he presented Jesus to the crowd on Good Friday (John 19:5). Every time Mass is celebrated, the priest urges us to do exactly that: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”

This analogy can help set the stage to understand ongoing conversion. The banquet reflects two different ways we can choose to live our Christian lives. We can nourish ourselves with delicious, healthy food, or we can settle for food that is not only tasteless but bad for our health.

Behold. It’s an interesting choice of words. To behold something is to go beyond simply glancing at it. It involves fixing our gaze on something and looking closely and carefully at it. In a sense, this is exactly what the season of Lent is all about. For forty days, God asks us to look closely at Jesus so that we can grasp the depth of his love and the greatness of the salvation he has won for us.

So far, we have talked about some of the best ways to experience the Lord: through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We have also looked at Jesus’ desire to reach out to everyone and to fill us with his mercy and grace. In this final essay, we want to follow Pilate’s advice and “behold the man.”

A Vision Both Bitter and Sweet. Perhaps Pilate said, “Behold, the man” as a way to quiet the crowd or satisfy their desire to see Jesus punished. Or perhaps he hoped that after seeing Jesus beaten, bloodied, and crowned with thorns, the people might have had some pity and asked for him to be released. Or maybe he presented Jesus to the crowd out of contempt for them, as if to say, “Look at what your envy has done.” All three are possible answers, and maybe a mix of them was at work that day. But we do know that Pilate’s words have taken on an entirely new meaning for us believers: “Behold him! See your salvation! Come and gaze upon him in awe and adoration!”

The call to behold Jesus like this is bittersweet. It is bitter, of course, because we are seeing him, an innocent man and God’s own Son, dying an agonizing death. We want to join John, Mary, and the other women at the cross in weeping over how Jesus was treated. But it is also sweet because through that cross, we have been set free from sin and death. We are forgiven and redeemed! Satan and his powers of temptation have been defeated, and the doors of heaven have been opened to us. So our tears should be a mixture of tears of sadness over his death and tears of joy over his sacrifice for us.

Make it a point to behold the man every day of Lent. Let what you see inspire you to kneel before him in gratitude and adoration. Let it move you to give your heart to him. Let it help you be firm in your desire to follow him and give him glory in the way you live. Jesus gave his life for you; behold him every day so that you will want to give your life to him in return.

A Vision Both Loved and Hated. Jesus wants us to appreciate the cross and rejoice in his great act of love. But there is another side to the story. The passion of Jesus can cause just as much hatred as love. Remember: he was crucified because his message of love was too radical for many of the religious and political leaders of his day.

People hated Jesus because of the company he kept. He reached out to Samaritans, who were considered sworn enemies of Israel. He welcomed tax collectors, who were known to be corrupt traitors of the people. He even welcomed prostitutes and let them touch him! Jesus forgave people who were considered irreparable sinners, and he felt at home with the poor. As far as his opponents were concerned, all of these people were the “undesirables” of society, the outcasts who did not deserve the attention of a holy man. But to Jesus, they were children of God. They were people who needed to be loved, embraced, and brought back to life.

Neither did it end with the company Jesus kept. Over and over again, he took on some of the religious leaders themselves. He publicly confronted the hypocritical way they lived. He accused them of appearing clean on the outside but being corrupt on the inside (Matthew 23:25). He challenged them to stop building themselves up and to start practicing what they preached (23:3-7). He warned them of the fate that awaited them if they did not repent (23:33). It’s no wonder that they wanted to kill him. It’s no wonder that they would “behold the man” with anger and contempt and hatred.

Enemies of the Cross. Now, it’s a mistake to think that these Pharisees and scribes were awful, malicious people. They weren’t. They loved God. They loved the way God had worked in the past to save and protect their ancestors. They were devoted to preserving their faith and serving the people. But at the same time, they were preoccupied with appearances, positions, and decorum. They let pride get the better of them. They were trapped in their traditions when they should have been humble enough to accept Jesus and his teachings.

The same can happen to us when we let attitudes of pride, self-righteousness, envy, or elitism get the better of us. None of us hates Jesus. None of us is out to get rid of him. Yet inwardly, when we let sinful attitudes take over, we risk becoming more like these Pharisees. It’s as if we are joining the soldiers in driving the nails of sin into Jesus’ hands and feet and the lance in his side.

St. Paul once said, “Many . . . conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.” He also said that while their minds are set on “earthly things,” we who believe are living in eager anticipation of our Savior, “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:18, 19, 20). As we eagerly wait for Jesus to return, we want to stand firm against the temptation to let hatred, elitism, or selfishness rule our lives.

So why should we “behold the man”? Because beholding Jesus moves our hearts. It helps convince us to be more open to his grace. And it fills us with a greater desire to resist the self-centered attitudes that had captivated so many of Jesus’ opponents.

Sacred Gestures. As we said earlier, every Sunday at Mass, we are invited to behold Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. But this beholding doesn’t happen on its own. It isn’t magic. All of the outward gestures we use during the Mass—standing, kneeling, singing hymns, and reciting prayers—can seem like routine gestures that have little meaning. But in reality, these gestures play a very important part. They are meant as reminders and nudges to help us stay focused on the Lord. They are meant to direct our attention to each part of the liturgy: the readings, the homily, the offering, the consecration—so that we can “behold the man” more clearly. They help prepare us to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus did (Luke 24:30-35).

When we hear the priest recall Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood,” we are brought back to the upper room. When we hear him say, “. . . given for you” and “. . . poured out for you,” we are watching Jesus give himself to us completely, just as he did on the cross. Beholding such an act of love has the power to fill us with peace and love. It has the power to calm our fears and heal our wounds.

Compelled by Love. But beholding Jesus in the Eucharist does more than just comfort us, as important as that is. It also moves us to change. It moves us to echo the words of St. Paul: “The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all . . . so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15).

Every time he beheld the Lord, Paul was moved to offer himself back to God as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). Jesus’ love for him filled him with love for the people around him. It convinced him to pour himself out for them, just as Jesus had done. It moved him to put aside any self-centered thoughts and habits so that he could be “holy and pleasing to God” (12:1).

Brothers and sisters, let’s follow Paul’s example this Lent. Let’s promise not to become “enemies of the cross” (Philippians 3:18). Rather, let’s make it a point to behold Jesus and to see both the bitter and the sweet in his sacrifice. Let’s allow the love we see there to fill us and shape us. And let’s respond to that love.

“Lord, take us. Fill us. Change us. Make us part of your saving, sacrificial gift for the world.”

May God bless each of you this Lent.