As we enter into this Easter season, all appears to be lost. The culture of death has woven its ugly tentacles into the very fabric of society, threatening to completely strangle all that remains of respect for human life.
The efforts on every level by faithful people of life seem to make very little difference. Yet, if just one life is saved, one person given hope, one life transformed by truth, then every effort, as difficult as it may be in the moment, is worth it.
In the Gospel of Life, Saint John Paul II reflects on the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death, illuminating for us the purpose of the cross in this great battle. I share with you here the great saint’s teaching on that first Good Friday and the glory of the cross. May you find in these words encouragement, strength and courage to continue the good fight, to love without counting the cost and to give all for our neighbour.
The Gospel of life is brought to fulfilment on the tree of the Cross
Saint John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae #50-51
In the early afternoon of Good Friday, “there was darkness over the whole land … while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Lk 23:44, 45). This is the symbol of a great cosmic disturbance and a massive conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between life and death. Today we too find ourselves in the midst of a dramatic conflict between the “culture of death” and the “culture of life”. But the glory of the Cross is not overcome by this darkness; rather, it shines forth ever more radiantly and brightly, and is revealed as the centre, meaning and goal of all history and of every human life.
Jesus is nailed to the Cross and is lifted up from the earth. He experiences the moment of his greatest “powerlessness”, and his life seems completely delivered to the derision of his adversaries and into the hands of his executioners: he is mocked, jeered at, insulted (cf. Mk 15:24-36). And yet, precisely amid all this, having seen him breathe his last, the Roman centurion exclaims: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39). It is thus, at the moment of his greatest weakness, that the the Son of God is revealed for who he is: on the Cross his glory is made manifest.
By his death, Jesus sheds light on the meaning of the life and death of every human being. Before he dies, Jesus prays to the Father, asking forgiveness for his persecutors (cf. Lk 23:34), and to the criminal who asks him to remember him in his kingdom he replies: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). After his death “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Mt 27:52). The salvation wrought by Jesus is the bestowal of life and resurrection. Throughout his earthly life, Jesus had indeed bestowed salvation by healing and doing good to all (cf. Acts 10:38). But his miracles, healings and even his raising of the dead were signs of another salvation, a salvation which consists in the forgiveness of sins, that is, in setting man free from his greatest sickness and in raising him to the very life of God.
On the Cross, the miracle of the serpent lifted up by Moses in the desert (Jn 3:14-15; cf. Num 21:8-9) is renewed and brought to full and definitive perfection. Today too, by looking upon the one who was pierced, every person whose life is threatened encounters the sure hope of finding freedom and redemption.
But there is yet another particular event which moves me deeply when I consider it. “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). Afterwards, the Roman soldier “pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34).
Everything has now reached its complete fulfilment. The “giving up” of the spirit describes Jesus’ death, a death like that of every other human being, but it also seems to allude to the “gift of the Spirit”, by which Jesus ransoms us from death and opens before us a new life.
It is the very life of God which is now shared with man. It is the life which through the Sacraments of the Church-symbolized by the blood and water flowing from Christ’s side-is continually given to God’s children, making them the people of the New Covenant. From the Cross, the source of life, the “people of life” is born and increases.
The contemplation of the Cross thus brings us to the very heart of all that has taken place. Jesus, who upon entering into the world said: “I have come, O God, to do your will” (cf. Heb 10:9), made himself obedient to the Father in everything and, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1), giving himself completely for them.
He who had come “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), attains on the Cross the heights of love: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). And he died for us while we were yet sinners (cf. Rom 5:8).
In this way Jesus proclaims that life finds its centre, its meaning and its fulfilment when it is given up.
At this point our meditation becomes praise and thanksgiving, and at the same time urges us to imitate Christ and follow in his footsteps (cf. 1 Pt 2:21).
We too are called to give our lives for our brothers and sisters, and thus to realize in the fullness of truth the meaning and destiny of our existence.
We shall be able to do this because you, O Lord, have given us the example and have bestowed on us the power of your Spirit. We shall be able to do this if every day, with you and like you, we are obedient to the Father and do his will.
Grant, therefore, that we may listen with open and generous hearts to every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Thus we shall learn not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also to revere life, to love it and to foster it.