This year Good Friday has a unique character. First of all, because of Terri Schiavo – today is her seventh day without food or water. She is dying of thirst. Thirst was part of the suffering of crucifixion. The loss of blood, the Mediterranean sun caused the crucified man to experience a terrible thirst. Jesus himself cried out, I thirst. We can understand this as spiritual thirst – thirst for our faith – but first of all it was an actual physical thirst. Like Terri Schiavo Jesus experienced a horrible thirst.
Good Friday has a special character also because it falls on March 25. The early Christians calculated that March 25 was the actual date of Jesus’ death. In fact that is the reason they assigned the Annunciation to this date. It sprang from the idea that a great man would begin and end his life on the same day. Thus, they agreed on today for the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which Jesus began his human existence, the day of his conception by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin’s womb.*
The coincidence of Good Friday and March 25 is not so common. The last time it happened was 1932. Because of that coincidence a pro-life group here in Seattle decided to focus prayer on the issues of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. About a hundred of us gathered at the Institute for Systems Biology, a biotech lab which does experiments utilizing embryonic stem cells.
I sent a letter to its director, Dr. Leroy Hood and received a response this week from the ISB’s External Affairs officer. We had an informative, but somewhat tense conversation about the Institute's work. She began by explaining to me that they are doing exciting, cutting-edge research which may help find cures for various diseases. I said I had admiration for scientific research, including the use of adult stem cells, but was concerned about research using human embryos and also about the director’s advocacy of human cloning.
She explained to me that they favored cloning for therapeutic purposes, but that they would never clone for reproduction. I asked her what she meant by “reproduction.” She replied that it was a philosophical question about which people disagree. I said I was only asking what she (and the Institute) meant by the word. When does reproduction take place? Does it happen at birth or some time before? She said she did not want to answer that question. I reminded her that she was the one who said they would not “clone for reproduction.” They should be able to tell people what they mean when they say that.
Of course, we have all seen the ultra-sound pictures so we know that a child exists before birth. The question is: when does human reproduction happen? Even without knowing all that we do about biology, DNA and so forth, the early Christians knew that human life began at the moment of conception. For that reason they dated Jesus’ human existence from March 25. It is true that nine months later he would be born, but the crucial moment was his conception.
Today is the traditional day of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life. This year it is also the day we celebrate his death. We have just listened to the Passion according to St. John. It describes the frightening consequences of sin, how Jesus was caught by a web of evil - not unlike what we see in today's society regarding questions such as euthanasia and the ownership of embryos. Jesus faced that evil so that he could bring us true freedom.
To illustrate the freedom Jesus' brings, I would like to focus on one detail of the Passion Narrative: a condemned man, set free on account of Jesus. We joined the crowds in calling for his release. When Pilate repeated his offer to let Jesus go, we said, “Not this one but Barabbas!”
We do not know what happened to Barabbas, although books and movies have been made about him. Most recently Barabbas was featured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He came across as someone who knew what he facing, but so haughty that he would not ask clemency from anyone. Then, all of a sudden, without doing anything, he is free. Inflated by his good luck, he gives a mocking look to the authorities and then to the crowd. But finally, he looks at Jesus – and everything changes.
Pedro Sarubbi, the actor who played Barabbas, recounts that something strange happened to him at that moment. “It was like I was really seeing Jesus” He stated. “I had never experienced such a thing in all my years of acting.” Sarubbi had done some serious spiritual seeking in his life, including six months in a Tibetan monastery. He says that now “I have reached the final goal of this search in Jesus.”
The man who played Jesus is an ordinary human like you and me. In fact, Jim Caviezel grew up near here, in Mount Vernon, and went to Kennedy High School. But every day, during the filming of the Passion, he attended Mass and received the Communion. Jesus was in him and brought about the conversion of a modern Barabbas. Said Sarrubi, “I do everything possible so that those eyes continue to be important for me.”
May we do so as well – especially this evening as we adore the Holy Cross – and remember the One who freed us from condemnation.
*See Calculating Christmas by William J. Tighe. A complex, but fascinating account of how early Christians settled on March 25 as the date of the Annunciation and then December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth.
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin ("When we awaken from this queasy nightmare, people will ask how it could have been that a court could post a police officer by the bedside to insure that a dying woman succumbed to a ghastly death by thirst.")
Good Friday Service for Life
Letter to Dr. Leroy Hood
Good Friday Service at Institute for Systems Biology
The Annunciation and Passion together by John Donne (March 25, 1608)
St. Mary of the Valley Album
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