Miserere (Plate LVII)


Catholic Peace Fellowship

Deacon Tom Cornell


After the Last Supper, Jesus and his companions walked across the Kedron Valley to Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives.  If you visit Israel today, you will surely want to see the Mount of Olives where Jesus suffered his Agony in the Garden.  You come to a little stream at the bottom of the valley on the way.  The guide tells you, “This is the Kedron River.” You are surprised.  It’s not much of a river now, just a little stream, not much more than a trickle.  You can hop over it.  It was broader then, the guide tells you.  Jesus and the apostles took their sandals off to wade across.  Imagine it.

Jesus knew he had a special relationship with the Father even as a boy.  “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”  At his baptism he had heard the voice from the clouds, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”   Then the Spirit led him into the desert where he fasted and prayed for forty days and nights to discern his mission.  And there he was tempted by Satan, who at last departed from him, for a while, we are told, for a while.  Satan would come back and tempt him again, maybe now.  As they waded across the river, if Jesus turned his eyes to the right, southward, did it occur to him that safety was not far away, escape?  The caves!  Caves where robbers and insurgents hid were just a night’s walk into the desert.  Night was about to fall.  By morning he could be far enough away….  True God, true man.  What drowning man does not grasp at straws?

Jesus knew what was coming, who was coming, an arrest party, Judas.  In righteous wrath Jesus had upset the tables of the buyers and sellers in the Temple court; he had driven their animals out with a knotted cord and he had castigated the Temple authorities: “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.”  He had enemies.  They were coming after him now, to kill him.  If he made it to the caves to hide for a month or two maybe the anger against him would pass, maybe the tide would turn again in his favor. Or maybe they’d just forget.

Just a few days earlier the crowds had greeted Jesus on his arrival in Jerusalem riding on the back of an ass. Then they shouted for joy, wouldn’t you, wouldn’t I?  Imagine you are in that crowd.  “Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They cast their cloaks down before him, and palm fronds.  We are in the same crowd a week later before Pilate’s praesidium.  This time the shouts have changed.  Now it’s “Give us Barabbas!”  “We have no king but Caesar!”  “Crucify him!”

Imagine the humiliation on the Cross, Jesus stripped in front of men and women too, his mother.  His body is weakened by hours of beating; he heaves, gasping for breath.  Taunts are hurled up at him, gall and vinegar raised to his parched lips, three hours of this.  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  It is over.  The salvific act is completed.  We are saved.  At the reading of it we fall to our knees in awe and sorrow and we pray.

God’s command to Abraham to spare Isaac signaled the end of child sacrifice.  The descendants of Abraham were never to do such a thing, the most horrid abomination among the pagans, feeding their sons and daughters to Moloch.  Today, old men — and now old women, send young men — and now young women to kill and to be killed in war and they call it sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice they call it, when it is more truly sacrilege.  God does not will the death of a sinner.  He did not will the death of Isaac and he did not will the death of Jesus.  God cannot will evil. Sin did it, we did it, you did it, I did it.  God willed faith and obedience. Obedience for Jesus was the acceptance of his destiny as it unfolded in the spirit and in the deeds of nonviolence.  And this Jesus did to the utmost, achieving atonement, at-one-ment.  But why such a brutal death?  To show us the ugliness of sin and the greatness of God’s mercy!

Just imagine:  what if Jesus hanging on the cross had prayed, “Father, you are just.  I demand justice now.  Avenge me!”  There would have been no salvation.  No!  He prayed, “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do!”  Jesus obeyed.  Jesus heard the will of God in the depths of his soul and he acted upon it: God demands compassion, forgiveness.  So were we saved, by his obedience and his prayer of forgiveness, in the final revelation of God’s love, the Paschal Mystery, life out of death.

From what are we saved?  From sin, of course, the results of sin, hell.  Rings of torture, fire, steam and ice in Dante’s Divine Comedy are poetic images inadequate to describe what it is not to love any more, to be alone.  “Hell is not to love anymore” (George Bernanos).  Sin is a deliberate rupture of right relationship.  Sin is a turning from love.  Sin is refusal to acknowledge Truth.  “What is truth?” Pilate asked, not the last skeptic.  From what are we saved?  From the wages of sin, death, the second death, hell, utter alienation.  It need not be.  It is true.  God’s seal on Christ’s redemptive act is the Resurrection.

Forgiveness is an act of will to break the cycle of vengeance and violence and death.  Jesus forgave.  Peace is Christ’s gift to us, a peace that the world cannot give.  There can be no peace without justice.  Pope John Paul taught there can be no true justice without forgiveness for we are all enmeshed in the web of guilt.  Vengeance is death.  Forgiveness is life.

Oh God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.  Inscribe in our hearts your law of justice; carve into us the New Commandment that Jesus gave his own at the Last Supper, to love one another “as I have loved you,” that is, even unto death.  Make us know that every time we turn to violence even in a just cause we shout, “Give us Barabbas!”  Every time we put loyalty to nation-state above loyalty to God we shout, “We have no king but Caesar!”  Every time we strike out in anger to harm or to kill, we shout, “Crucify him!”

Forgive us, Lord, we know not what we do! +

Image: Georges Rouault (1871-1958) Image: Miserere (Plate LVII) Aquatint 58 x 42 cm. From Miserere (L’Etoile Filante, Paris: 1948) Caption: “Obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”