“Nobody dies for me. Nobody dies for me,” a survivor of child clerical sexual abuse told me again and again, sitting in a chapel and pondering a crucifix. “Nobody dies for me. When it happens you are totally alone. With the experience, you are totally alone. Nobody understands. Not even you understand. Nobody is there.”
At first glance Jesus’ death seems like the lonely and useless death of a young man, who cruelly falls victim to violence too. A promising young life comes to an early, unnecessary end. Yet in today’s account of the crucifixion, the evangelist John offers another interpretation. Jesus’ last words are (19:30) "It is finished.” The Greek word used here does not mean finished in the sense of it’s over or even it’s failed, but in the sense of mission completed, mission brought to perfection. In Jesus’ death on the cross, God the Father has fulfilled not only scripture, but his mission, the mission for which he had sent Jesus (Jn 4:34). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
In the history of Christianity, Jesus’ death for us and his resurrection by God have all too often led to a misguided interpretation of human suffering. They were used as a justification for the plight of so many poor, abandoned, abused and marginalized people. “Simply bear your pain and offer it up to God, you will be greatly rewarded in the world to come” was the advice commonly given. This is not what the Gospel intends to tell us however. It would be pure mockery in the ears of our abovementioned survivor. God’s mission is not one of pain, but one of love. It’s not an invitation to silently bear injustice and mistreatment but an invitation to all of us to follow his example of love (1 Jn 2:5). In Jesus Christ God invites us to love even when it hurts because it might entail standing close to those in suffering and pain, bearing with them their silent cries, their cross and darkness, and joining in their fight against injustice and abuse.
This seems too great a task? We feel too small and incapable of sharing others’ pain and darkness? We shudder at the thought of what seeking justice might demand of us? This is what happened to most of Jesus’ disciples too. At the foot of the cross, only the women around Mary and the disciple whom Jesus loved remained; all the others had fled. It had simply been too much for them to bear.
After Jesus’ words “It is finished,” the Gospel continues: “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” Bowing to them, he did not simply give up life, but he handed over the spirit. At the moment of death he did not only give back his life to the father, he created the community of believers, his church, by bestowing the lasting gift of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love and solidarity (Jn 13:1, 3:16). Only by his spirit can the disciples, can we, understand and believe (Jn 20:8, 16, 22), can we form the community of love he envisages.
In Jesus Christ God entered into the deepest possible solidarity with our human pain and suffering. He knows and he understands. He is, and will be, there at our side whenever we are suffering – regardless of whether we can see or experience his presence in the moment of darkness, hopelessness and pain. Those who have been hurt, mistreated, and abused very often cannot.
Jesus Christ calls us into these situations. He invites us to be his hands and heart by staying close to those in pain and darkness, by enduring with them their agony, anger and anxiety, by giving voice to their cry for justice and by fighting side by side with them against evil and crime, abuse and oppression. How do we do that? First of all by meeting them where they are, by attentively listening to their stories without presuming to know what they could or should have done, by trying to understand their perspective on their own situation, the church, the world. By attempting to perceive their needs. By staying with them.
So this Good Friday could be an invitation to us to come closer to those in pain and suffering, to be touched by their lives and experiences, to share in their cross, their plight, their journey – for however long Good Friday and Holy Saturday might last for them until maybe, hopefully, by the grace of the spirit, they one day experience new life, their own personal Easter.
At the same time, such a Good Friday experience can transform us and prepare our hearts for the experience of Easter. Encountering those who have been marginalized and abused means encountering those most dear to Jesus. Being with them, listening to them, opening up to their pain – and yes, it is painful, very painful – brings us closer to Jesus’ heart and mission. It confronts us not only with their reality but also with our own suffering, our own brokenness, our own need for intimacy and friendship, for healing and salvation. By being with them we realize more deeply who God is and who we are – he our creator and we his creatures whom he abundantly loves and to whom he entrusts his mission of love by bestowing upon us his holy spirit. Let us try to live accordingly so that fewer and fewer people will have to say “Nobody dies for me. Nobody is there.”
Sr. Karolin Kuhn, a German School Sister of Notre Dame, is an associate professor at the Centre for Child Protection (CCP) at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. She contributes her pedagogical knowledge to the further development and teaching of the various educational programs offered by the CCP – a diploma and a licentiate (master’s degree) - in safeguarding offered residentially in Rome, as well as a multilingual blended learning program that helps participants from around the world develop their safeguarding competences.
The overall objective of the CCP is the academic and professional promotion of safeguarding through education, formation programs, conferences, and research. The CCP envisages a church and a world where all people – starting with the most vulnerable – can be safe and feel safe, and to which all persons, communities and organizations responsibly contribute.
Sr. Karolin is a social worker, theologian, and educator with a doctoral degree in theology. Before coming to Rome, she served as the principal of a Catholic girls’ high school in Munich, Germany. She is especially interested in competence-oriented models of teaching and learning that aim at the holistic growth of the entire person – something that is particularly important for future safeguarding professionals and attitudinal change within our church.
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