Spectators On and About The Cross
By Venerable Fulton Sheen
This is the 58th Good Friday in which the good Lord has permitted me to talk about His Passion and Death. 58 years. (Now, in case you’re counting them back, I started at 4.)
Each year, I have chosen a different topic. And this year, our meditation will be on Spectators On and About The Cross.
There are 3 kinds of spectators: the indifferent or fallen aways; the spectators of pain; and finally, the spectators of love.
First, the spectators of indifference.
The great french writer Pascal said, “Christ is on the Cross until the end of the world.” And the conversion of St. Paul gives proof of this indeed, for when the Risen Lord spoke from Heaven, as Paul was persecuting His Church, Our Lord said, “why are you persecuting Me?” So Christ is still on the Cross, until the end of time.
The Gospel tells us that as he was led to Calvary, there were many spectators. And a very interesting line about them is that those who executed Him, “sat, and watched; divided his garments; and then gambled for the seamless robe.” It seems that Our Blessed Lord had 5 garments. The executioners were 4 in number. They divided 4 of the garments, but the 5th being seamless (maybe made by His own Mother), and also knowing perhaps that it had wrought a miracle, decided to shake dice for it. They were spectators that day. We are spectators this day. All of us in varying degrees are spectators. Some are totally indifferent, just like the executioners. They sit, and watch.
Someone gave me a canary to be my companion during a long sickness, and I’ve often thought as I looked at that bird, if I told that bird, “you are in this tiny little narrow cage, and you have wings, but this is the right place for you,” I’m sure the bird would be depressed. If, however, the bird could understand and I said to him, “you’re in the wrong place; you have a gift of song that should mount to the heavens, and you have wings that should fly,” the bird then would be happier. And so, we are unhappy when we’re locked in this little cosmos, which could be shattered by a bomb. But if we’re told that, well there’s another world, then life becomes a little bit happier.
But the indifferent people “sat and watch.” Now the word “watched” in Scripture does not mean they looked at the Crucifixion because it was interesting to see a man die. It was rather because the executioners were told that Christ said He would rise again from the dead. And they were told to be on guard, lest someone steal the body and say that He was risen. So it was a different kind of watching.
Now that’s the kind of watching there is in the indifferent who once had the faith, those among you who had the faith and no longer practice it, or who are in bad marriages, or living evil lives. You’re spectators. You say, “well I do not believe,” but you watch: “maybe…” “maybe he will rise from the dead, maybe we’d better sit here.” And you spend the time dicing, a little pleasure here and there, in order to make one forget that one has giving up the faith. But all the while, the Grace of God worries you, and disturbs you. We watch. We say, “we do not believe,” but we half believe. And we carry with us maybe a few remembrances and relics, like the Sign of the Cross on the forehead at night. But as spectators, The Lord will take us. Even when we are unable to walk, if you but stumble into those Confessional boxes, He will welcome you back.
So much for the first spectators. They were the indifferent. Remember that famous poem, of G. Studdard Kennedy, about indifference; he compared Our Lord coming to Calvary and coming to the modern city of Birmingham. He said:
When Jesus came to Golgotha, They nailed Him on a tree.
They crowned Him with a Crown of Thorns, Red were His wounds and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, When human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, They only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, They only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, They would not give Him pain.
They only just walked down the street, And left Him in the rain.
And so it rained the winter rain That drenched Him through and through
And when all the crowds had left the street, Without a soul to see,
Then Jesus crouched against a wall, And sighed for Calvary.
It was more endurable than the indifference of men.
Now we come to the second spectators. They are on the cross. Spectators of pain, and in pain.
Pain, anxiety, mental worry, suffering, sadness, all of these disturb the soul. And it was only fitting therefore, that the good Lord look out on pain, and leave us a lesson about it.
So on either side of Him were crucified – we call them thieves; they were rather, rebels. Remember that at that particular time, Jerusalem was under the power of Rome. And many a Jew was a loyalist, and opposed to the Roman government. So that, as lawless rebels, Pilate made an example of them and had them crucified.
They both suffered equally. The crucifixion was such a terrible form of punishment, that Cicero once said he hoped no Roman would ever see one. And no Roman citizen was ever crucified. St. Paul was a Roman citizen, he was stoned to death. But these two were nailed on either side of Our Lord.
They both cursed and blasphemed. So there was no difference between them at the beginning. The first one, the rebel that was on the left of Our Blessed Lord, represents the pain of those who say, “take me down.” The one on the right wanted to be taken up.
The one on the left turned his head (as much as he could) and said to Our Lord, “if you are the son of God, save yourself! save us!” He thought that all Our Lord was was a healer. A healer. You know, there are many today who are beginning to believe that that is the essence of Christianity: healing. The Lord does heal, but not always. There will be not a complete healing, until the whole cosmos is renewed. Our Lord did not heal Lazarus, He allowed him to die. Our Lord did not release John the Baptist from prison, though he prayed. God will, now and then, heal, and He does, but healing is not the essence of His Coming.
That was all, however, that the rebel on the left wanted. Just to be healed. As a matter of fact, if he were living today – you see, he never thought of sin. If he had money, he would have spent thousands of dollars on psychotherapy, wondered maybe why he was a rebel, why he was a thief. But the thought of sin never entered into his mind, just to be taken down. And he probably would have gone on with the dirty business of stealing and robbery and lawlessness.
Few of us think of sin, even when we’re sick. As a matter of fact, whenever I pass a hospital, I always think of how much wasted pain there is. Pain that is not offered up, because there is no one to love. Love will not kill pain, but it certainly will soften it. When one has no one to love, then one is apt to curse, as he did.
And on the other side, this rebel had a change of heart. It might have been the sight of the Lord’s Mother at the foot of the Cross, or the Word of Our Lord extending forgiveness for sins. But whatever it was, the straw that was there was kindled. And he shouted to his companion, he said, “we are suffering justly for our sins! This man has done no wrong!” And then came a burst of faith: “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom!”
Imagine! A kingdom!
Crowned with thorns: A royal diadem!
Nail: A scepter!
Cross: A throne!
But he had that faith. And the Lord answered him back, “this day, thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.” One of the first companions of the Risen Lord into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, this rebel that was on the right, I think he leaves us this great example about pain: that much pain comes to us undeserved – so we say. But honestly, look into your own heart! I’ve looked into mine. I’ve had a great deal of suffering, in the 83 years of my life. Physical suffering, and other suffering, that should never have happened, that lasted over many years. And yet, as I look back, I know very well, that I have never received the punishment that I deserved. God has been easy with me. He has not laid on me burdens that were ever equal to my failures. And if we look into our own soul, I think that we will also come to that conclusion.
For, God speaks to us in various ways. As C. S. Lewis put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures; He speaks to us in our conscience; and He shouts to us in our pain.”
Pain is God’s megaphone! Pain is heaven’s loudspeaker!
And like the ripples that are made in a brook or sea when you throw in a stone, the ripples of pain, instead of going out to distance shores, they narrow and narrow and come to a central point, where there is less of the outside of the circle, and more of the center; not the ego, but the real person and the real self. And one begins to find oneself alone with God. That is what happens in pain.
The one on the right saw that. And as we look at pain in those and suffering, we only wish that they could understand the mystery of it – “why does it happen?” See, I’m sure that that man on the left said, “well God is evil.” That’s why he said, “if you are the son of God, save us! – or you’re – if all God does anyway is cure!…”
When I was a boy and had a toothache, I would always go to my grandmother, because she’d give me oil of cloves. And I was afraid of going to my father because he’d take me to the dentist, and he would hurt me. One day he took me to the dentist, and the dentist said, “you have a very grave infection in your tooth, and it’s spreading through your organism, and that tooth has to be pulled, and it’s going to give you some pain.” The dentist pulled the tooth – my father stood there, holding my hand, which really did no good at all. And, then even though I was just a boy, I somehow reasoned that, “why doesn’t he stop the dentist? Why does he allow him to make me suffer?” Because he wanted to prevent that infection through my body.
And so the Heavenly Father says to His Son on the Cross: “You take on the sins, the infections, and all the poisons of the world,” and the Father was with Him. But the Father let Him suffer, because of the eventual good that it would do for us in the Resurrection.
But more than that, the Man on the central Cross was in pain, too. And it was a very unusual kind of pain, which He knew that He would have, which He foretold on many occasions. It was actually the burden of all of our sins. That is why Our Blessed Lord came to this Earth. His name “Jesus” means “Savior.” He saves us from our sins! So that He took upon the sin of each and every one of you, whether you know it or not.
Now down here before me are two of my doctors who saved my life 3 or 4 times, and they’ve seen me close to death in various occasions. They’ve been in the intensive wards, intensive care wards. And suffered with the patients, as these doctors of mine did. But imagine Our Lord walking through the Intensive Care Ward of the World, and like a great sponge, absorbing into Himself every wounded member, every weak heart, every broken blood vessel, every torn muscle, every battered head; were walking through a battle field, and drawing to Himself all of the wounds of those who are wounded.
That is what He was doing on that Central Cross. So that we could never say, Does God know what it is to suffer? Does he know what it is to be an exile? Does he know anything about poverty (living in a stable)? Does he know anything about living under totalitarian governments? If God is good, why does he make me suffer? In the end, we will discover that sometimes when we’re very good, the suffering is to make us better, and we’ll have a higher place in Heaven.
But in any case, as we see now, when we come to this next Word, or rather this next view of spectators, how all of those wounds change. And the third spectators were lovers. (It is indifferent that they both were women, because we are relating them to love.) At the foot of the Cross, was Mary Magdalen, who was never shown standing. She was too prostrate with grief. Whenever she appears in the Gospel, she’s always at the feet of the Lord. And His Blessed Mother. They stand for two kinds of love: one is need love, the other is gift love.
Need love is that which we experience because we are imperfect. We need food for the stomach, thought for the mind, music for the ears, friends for the heart. They fill a want. The gift love is a love that does not want anything. It just gives. Surrenders itself. Sacrifices itself.
Now the first kind of love, which is – the Greeks called it “eros” – was the love of friendship, the love of friend for friend, and the love of a good husband and wife, and so forth. Eros was a blessed love, until Freud changed it into the “erotic.” Then it became “sex”, so that today in America, whenever the word “love” is used, it is generally used as “sex.” As a matter of fact, have you noticed that automobiles are now being advertised as “sexy”? (I think the reason is they break down after two years!)
Now what is the erotic love of which Freud spoke, and which Mary Magdalen practiced. The erotic love that Magdalen practiced was a love that was not directed to a person. It was to a pleasure. To a release of energy. It’s a love that admits of a substitution. Love that is for a person remains the same; sex love is transferable! A man walking on 42nd street says he wants a woman – he doesn’t want a woman, he just wants a release; the woman makes no difference to him. It is really not love at all, because when you love a person, you love the person in the entirety. It’s not the face, the body, or anything else, it’s just the totality. And in that love, say, of a young man and woman which eventually ends in marriage, there is very little thought, if any at all, in either, about the relations that they may have one another as husband and wife – that comes later, it’s the person that’s loved. But in this Freudian, erotic, “sexy” love, the person does not matter. It is just as much as if we suddenly became crazy about feet! And everybody began talking about everyone else’s feet! Not the least bit concerned about their person.
Well that’s the way Magdalen was. And she changed. How she changed, we do not know – she probably heard Our Blessed Lord preach – but in any case, when Our Lord was in Simon’s house just a short time before the Crucifixion, she brought a vessel of precious ointment. And it was very expensive, because Judas, who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, judged it as worth about 300 pieces of silver; about 10 times as much as Our Lord was worth. That ointment, that nard that she had, she’d been using in her profession. And she broke it. Poured it over his feet. And Our Lord said, this was for His burial. And she became completely changed as a result.
And the love then became the same kind of love as the other woman that was with her: Our Blessed Mother. Our Blessed Mother had the “agape” love: sacrificial love. She never lived for herself. Her love was such that, from the very moment of her existence, she had completely identified herself with Our Lord. Completely. And in His Providence, He had indicated that to her.
Now you who are mothers, imagine yourself at the birth of your son, and your friends bring some myrrh and funeral spices as a gift. That’s what the Wise Men brought her. Imagine! Embalming fluid! To a babe! And his Mother had to look at it and said, “alright, I’m consecrated to Him, He is giving Himself for the life of the world, and I’m going to unite myself with Him as much as I can!”
And then when he’s presented to the Temple at 40 days, old Simeon said, “a sword will pierce thy heart too!” In other words, when He was hanging on the Cross, and a centurion would pierce His Heart, she would be so identified with Him that her heart would also be plunged.
And then, at the marriage feast of Cana: she asked for a miracle, and He says, “I must be about My Father’s business.” He begins to alienate Himself from her; there is to be no maternal ties of the physical order. And when she’s pointed out in the crowd as His Mother, He says, “who’s My mother? Anyone who does the will of My Father in Heaven is My father, My mother, My brother, My sister.” There was an entirely new relationship.
And then looking down to John, whom He did not call John, but “the disciple”, to indicate that he was not the son of Zebedee, but a follower of Our Lord; we’re disciples of Our Lord, all of us. So when He was speaking to him, He was speaking to you and to me. And he said, “there is your mother; there she is.” So, He delivered her over to us. It was a very poor exchange that she was getting, giving up the Son of God, merely for us. But she did it. She did it to be our intercessor. Our Lord was really telling us, “there has to be a feminine principle in religion, and it’s going to be My Mother. And when I go to Heaven, I will intercede with the Father; she will intercede with Me. You pray to her. She will help you.”
And this Lord, whom he saw on the Cross, and whom he witnessed as spectators, will come again. We know not when. He said, “you know not the hour or the day.” It could be very quickly. When we least expect it. For as the Bible said, when the sun rose on Sodom and Gomorrah that morning, it was bright. He said He would come like a thief in the night.
And when He comes, He will have not wounds, but scars. Scars on hands and feet and side. And that is the way He will judge us. “Show Me your hands. Have you a scar from giving? A scar of sacrificing yourself for another? Show Me your feet. Have you gone about doing good? Were you wounded in service? Show Me your heart. Have you left a place for Divine Love?” And that’s the way He will know His own.
As the poet Shillito put it:
If I had never sought Thee, I seek Thee now. Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars. We must have sight of thorn pricks on Thy brow, We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The Heavens frighten us; they are too calm. In all the universe, we have no place. Our wounds are hurting us, where is Thy balm? Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy Grace.
If then when the doors are shut, Thou draw us near, Only reveal those Hands, that Side of Thine. We know today what wounds are, have no fear; Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a Throne! But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak. And no God has wounds but ours alone.
As we say, kneeling, the Act of Contrition:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, And I detest all of my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of Hell, but most of all, because they offend Thee, my God, who art all-good, and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to Confess my sins, to do Penance, and amend my life. Amen.
God love you.