Today we stand before our crucified Lord, contemplating his death on the cross for each one of us, for us all.
His death is a fact of history. The Gospel gives a clear account of what actually happened. It is not a story told for our encouragement. Yet this single event is of huge, unique significance. It opens for us a horizon onto eternity. It transforms our entire understanding of ourselves and of our destiny.
Pope Francis has encouraged us to be a people who want always to point to a horizon of beauty. He wants us to invite others to gaze on this same beauty. He wants us to invite them to our special beauty spot. It is here, at the foot of the cross. Yet to understand to beauty of this place, to see beyond its horrendous surface we must look closely, with a rare openness of heart.
In St John’s account of the Passion, the phrase ‘this took place to fulfil the Scriptures' occurs four times. Clearly here is a greater purpose than the death of one man being worked out. That man, Jesus, himself said: 'For this was I born, and for this have I come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.' So here, in this event a great truth is being told. And we search for the lasting beauty of that truth.
Pilate said to the people 'Behold the man!' The same is said to us this afternoon: ‘Behold the man!’ But, we ask, who exactly is this man?
Jesus tells us. He says 'I am He.' And,at these words, the people 'drew back and fell to the ground.' Why? Because the words Jesus has used are the very words used by God himself, to identify himself to Moses: literally 'I am who am.' (Exodus 3.14)
The true magnitude of the events we witness today is that it is the Eternal Word of God, in our flesh, who is hanging on the cross. From the very beginning of the Gospel, John has made that clear: 'The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.' It is this Word who hangs in bodily death before us. It is his glory and his truth that we can now begin to see!
How do see here this glory, grace and truth? Where is the beauty in this crucifixion?
This long Good Friday is the history of our humanity in all its horror and destructiveness. The One on the cross, the Eternal Word through whom all things were made, takes to himself, as only he could do, the sufferings of every person, from the first Adam to this very day. He soaks into himself all the anger and sin of our humanity. And it renders him disfigured: 'So disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human', as the Prophet Isaiah said. In him we see the terrible truth of our human condition, all our awful history of damage and destruction of each other, of the ways we disfigure and deface all that is good and beautiful.
Yet already a new horizon is dawning because we know that in the person of Jesus we do not see a helpless victim but rather one who has willingly accepted the cross and embraced all its horror. In him we see love expressing itself unto the very end, faithful, paying the ultimate price, never wavering from love's embrace, never saying 'That's enough, I will take no more!' In him we see the beauty of limitless love.
In him we sense, even now, the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit embracing this broken form, our broken history, and drawing it into its new future, its true form, its fulfilment. The crucified Jesus is then a statement of our terrible truth bathed in a redeeming light. This is the beauty of love’s final depth.
The cross is a horizon of such beauty, an opening to the pure light of God, for only one reason: because here we see love in its moment of true victory over its two enemies: betrayal and death. This beauty is love which does not end and it is life which, in its final emptiness, conquers even death itself.
All beauty, if it is not to be superficial or fleeting, must overcome all that opposes it. True beauty endures. It is always more than skin deep. Here, in Jesus, in this one man, is the whole of God's eternal and created beauty: the beauty of love overcoming all limitation. Here, in Jesus, we see the eternal plan of God for all his creation. It is stunning and absolutely compelling.
At the end of this long Good Friday, which is the history of the world, lies the glory and victory of beauty itself, the beauty of God which we are all called to share as our eternal destiny. That is our joy, our victory, our redemption!
In the Solemn Prayers of today’s liturgy, which follow in a moment, we hear, spelt out for us, glimpses of how things are meant to be, the beauty of God's intentions. We pray that those intentions may be more clearly achieved: in the Church, among all Christians, among all people, in government, in all who suffer. These prayers reflect the light of the horizon of beauty that shines from the depth of the Cross of Christ soon to be held high for our adoration.
And in due time, we are invited to reverence the cross ourselves, to embrace our crucified Saviour. When we do so, we not only accept our broken state, but we reach out to him who alone can heal us, who alone has the life which can restore in us the goodness and the beauty which is ours as truly beloved sons and daughters of our Eternal Father. Then we understand that our pathway through life is a journey to the fullness of beauty. So our moral guide is that of rejecting all that damages or deforms that beauty within us again.
On this day of our salvation, let us praise God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and for ever, Amen.
+ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster