Vicarious Suffering

(Homily for Good Friday)

To understand Good Friday we must grapple with a very difficult theological concept: vicarious suffering. Isaiah describes a mysterious figure who bore our sufferings, endured our infirmities. (Is 53:4)

He was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sin;
upon him was the chastisement
that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed. (Is 53:5)

The New Testament writers make clear that this man who suffers on our account is Jesus. (e.g. Acts 8:32-35) But what does this vicarious suffering mean? Tonite I offer two examples as a help to understand what Jesus has done on our behalf.

The first is the great Polish saint, Maximilian Kolbe. When I was a seminarian in Rome I had the privilege of attending his beatification. The ceremony was presided by Pope Paul VI. Near the pope was seated a dignified looking man in his mid-fifties, wearing a plain suit. Everyone was asking who he was and why he was sitting so close to the Holy Father.

During the homily Pope Paul VI described the life of Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Polish Franciscan priest, arrested by Nazis in February of 1941 for publishing unapproved literature. They sentenced him to hard labor at the Auschwitz concentration camp. In August of that year a prisoner escaped. When he was not recaptured the Nazis took a reprisal. They lined up the other prisoners and picked out ten to die in the starvation bunker. One of the men selected was a farmer named Franciszek Gajowniczek. When Franciszek was selected, he cried out, "My wife, my children!"

Hearing that cry Fr. Kolbe stepped forward. He said to the guard, "I am a Catholic priest. I have no family like this man. Allow me to take his place." The guard hesitated, then agreed. Maximilian Kolbe, along with the nine others, was placed in the starvation bunker for a slow and agonizing death. After fourteen days four were still alive, but only one was fully conscious - Fr. Kolbe himself. The Nazis needed the starvation bunker for other prisoners so they injected Fr. Kolbe and the three others with carbolic acid.

Pope Paul then solemnly declared that Fr. Kolbe who had died only thirty years before was now Blessed Maximilian Kolbe. After the applause died down, the Holy Father had a surprise which sent a thrill thru the whole congregation. The man seated next to him was none other than Franciszek Gajowniczek. He survived the concentration camp and has devoted his life to telling others what Fr. Kolbe did for him.

If Franciszek Gajowniczek has that much gratitude to Fr. Kolbe, how much should we have this evening to Jesus? What Maximilian Kolbe did for that Jewish prisoner, Jesus has done for each one of us. He died in our place.

The second example is much simpler, but it brings out a beautiful aspect of vicarious suffering. It involved the English writer, C.S. Lewis. He was standing by the bedside of his wife, Joy, who was dying of cancer. She was in terrible agony. Lewis asked God if he could experience some of his wife's pain. His prayer was answer. He felt a horrible pain in his legs which lasted for several minutes. At the same time he saw a look of relief, peace come over Joy's face. This exchange was made possible not only by faith, but more important because of Lewis' deep love for his wife.

Now Jesus did something similar when he prayed in the garden. As God he saw each one of us - and all of our sins. He loved not humanity as a whole - let's face it, considering our history, there is little to love about humankind in general. But individual persons are a different matter. Jesus saw each person - you and me - and he would have gone to the cross if you were the only person who ever existed. He loves you like Lewis loved his wife, but much more so. He endured so much pain for you, my brother. His love, my sister, is personal, for you.

With gratitude tonite we will venerate the instrument of our salvation - and ask God to give us a glimpse of how much love he has for each one of us.


Version Castellana

From Archives:

2011 Good Friday Homily: Suffering Is Everything
2010: Do Not Waste Your Suffering
2009: He Learned Obedience
2008: According to Your Word
2007: He Took Our Suffering to Himself
2006: The Hour of Divine Mercy
2005: The Conversion of Barabbas
2004: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
2003: The Host
2002: Testimony of Bishop Dolli
2001: Blood From His Side
2000: Vicarious Suffering
1999: Old Testament Fulfilled
1998: He took our place

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Divine Mercy Novena (print ready in English & Spanish)

Easter Message

Holy Family Pilgrimage


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Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven


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Germaine Greer on Birth Control

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Stephen Jay Gould: Gorbachev of Darwinism?

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My bulletin column

Parish Picture Album

Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith - Presentation for Monroe Christian Pastors. (For pdf format click here)

Background for presentation on "Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith": High School Course World Civilization - Section on origins of Christianity. (For pdf format click here)

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