"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
(St. Luke 23:34)
WE DRAW near to the Cross of our Saviour, on this Good Friday, to spend in prayer and meditation these sacred hours which witnessed His Agony upon the Tree of Shame and the consummation of our redemption through His most precious Death and Sacrifice.
Our first effort must needs be this: to fix our minds and hearts with lowliest reverence upon Him who suffers, to try to estimate with such truth as we may, and with deepest love and compassion the pains He had to bear; and, remembering that these were all for us, to summon all the powers of the soul to keep this watch by His side as sharing with Him the sorrow of His Passion.
But our watch by the Cross will require of us more than this if it is to be a true and full response to His love.
While we contemplate Him as the sinless Victim, bearing our penalty, suffering for our sin, and making thus His propitiation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, we have to remember that He is also our Pattern, our Example, our Leader in suffering. He goes before us as opening the way; He calls upon us to follow Him. We cannot truly lay hold of His Passion unless we remember this and determine with ourselves not only to enter into His sufferings, but, in the degree to which He bids us, to enter upon them. Only so can our Good Friday be real.
But this requires courage! Yes, and so to meet our necessity, our Lord sets before us in His Words from the Cross thoughts which may give us heart.
For though He is the great sufferer, He is also the Conqueror, cheering us on as He turns every assault of His enemy and ours into victory.
The Passion is a series of triumphs: a succession of manifestations of the fulness, the beauty, the loveliness, the completeness of triumphant achievement.
He calls upon us to share in that achievement, and we may listen to each of His Seven Words from the Cross as the Call of a Conqueror whose triumph may be ours.
Let us think then, first, of our blessed Lord's utterance when His hands and feet were nailed to the Cross, when He felt the first agonies of crucifixion, and the fountains of blood were opened from His veins: "Father, forgive them, for they. know not what they do."
The words take the place of the cursings, the screams of anger and of pain uttered by the ordinary sufferer upon the cross. So different they are that they form a prayer. Let us think then of the triumph of prayer as the first glory of the Passion.
Our Lord here calk us to follow Him, as conquering all difficulties, He sets before us the perfect example of prayer.
It is something if we can pray at all, though we pray only for ourselves; it is something if we pray only when we are ourselves in trouble and pain and feel the need of help. We may always turn to our Father in heaven and implore His mercy and His help, though this is but the lowest degree of prayer.
How much higher is the prayer: in which we pray for others, in which self is forgotten and the intercession goes up on behalf of our brethren. A higher step is taken when we pray for those who do not care for us, who never show us regard or consideration, but are indifferent to us. To remember such is surely a special mark of charity.
It is a higher degree still to pray for our enemies, for those who are more than indifferent to us, for those who hate us and wish us evil.
But that which our blessed Lord here illustrates is a higher degree than any of these; He is not praying for Himself, but for others; He is praying for those who wish Him evil; He is praying for His enemies; He is praying for them while they are engaged in carrying out their brutal work; He is praying for them while His head and His limbs and His whole body are racked with pain.
Here then we see the triumph of prayer, rising above all difficulties, forgetting self, expending itself upon others and those the very ones who are repaying love with hate.
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Look then upon your Lord as His executioners are finishing their work of nailing Him to the Cross.
Consider what this means. He whose tender flesh quivers under these cruel hands is God. He made Himself man, in order that our diseased humanity approaching His pure and sinless flesh might from the Godhead to which that flesh is united receive cleansing, healing, and life.
And this is the way we lay our hands upon Him. In the madness of our disease the only touch we know is this brutal one which, having bound Him last night and led Him before a false judge, is now satisfied since it has nailed Him to a Cross.
And yet, O the infinite love of it! Jesus has had His wish. He is the true
Joseph who says to His brethren, yes, even to these executioners: "Come near to
me, I pray you."
He desired the contact of our hands with His sacred humanity. And though this touch of ours is a rude touch, it suffices for the purposes of His love. He takes it up into His prayer, and since we have laid our hands upon Him turns the shedding of His blood to our blessing, His suffering to our salvation.
O, if on one hand it is true that in our ignorance we could not measure the outrage of this act committed on the flesh of the Son of God, it is also true that neither the ignorant soldiers nor ourselves could have imagined the cleansing, healing potency of that fountain which this very act has opened for sin and for uncleanness. They know not what they do: neither the wrong to Him, nor the restoration thus wrought for man.
But can a fountain send forth at the same time sweet water and bitter? Can the Cross be at once the exhibition of our sin and the instrument of His mercy? It is enough to answer that as the waters of Marah were healed by the wood, so the wood of the Cross here makes the bitter sweet. The prayer of Him Who suffers for sin turns the sin itself into salvation.
This is the perfect, the all prevailing prayer, and this prayer lives on. It is the power of every Eucharist. "As often as ye do this, ye do show forth My death." Can it be said of us still in our Eucharists, "ye know not what ye do," that we are forgetful or indifferent to the tremendous power of His pleaded Sacrifice?
For that ideal of prayer set before us on the Cross was to be realized and exercised by us through our union in the Eucharistic Sacrifice with His great Atoning Act.
We only pray as we are united to Him. He is our Head; we have really no voice of our own; we lend our lips to Jesus Christ and in Him, through His Holy Spirit our prayers go up to God.
Accordingly the great service of the Church is that Eucharistic act of worship, the principal part of which is the pleading of our Lord's Sacrifice, so that as He once stretched out His arms on the Cross, our great High Priest, He is here still the Priest and Victim whose Death we show forth until He come.
We present before the Eternal Father that prayer which is not merely a word of Christ, but is Christ Himself, His Godhead and His humanity, His Divine Nature, and also His human Spirit and human Body united to that Divine Nature; and this tremendous and perfect power of prayer, which is nothing less than the offering of Christ Himself, belongs to each child of the Catholic Church.
Ah, how do we value it? To what use do we put this power? Do we neglect it, do we forget it, do we waste it?
On the other hand, when we are wronged or injured or forgotten or slighted, does our evil nature rise up and say, "I will not pray for such an one, I will not forgive"?
Do we cease to pray when we come to that petition in the Lord's Prayer which says: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"?
Is some little injury, some trifling annoyance, some petty slight enough to bar us out from this power of prayer, and because we are not able in our selfish and unspiritual mind to pray for our brother, to close our lips in prayer altogether?
But our Lord triumphed over the greatest difficulties. It would be impossible to imagine a circumstance in which charity had more to do. He lifts up His eyes to His eternal Father, His heart full of the need even of those brutal soldiers and of the Jews behind them, whose hardness and impenitence had brought Him to this death. In perfect love, in sublime charity, in overwhelming goodness He includes them, and says: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
And oh! brethren, our part in that! What did not that prayer accomplish for us? Had it not been, breathed forth, where had you and I been? For we are verily guilty concerning our Brother.
Unless the voice of intercession had been His voice, no other voice could have been accepted in our behalf; it is only as He who has suffered at our hands, Himself becomes our advocate, that our sins can he forgiven. For us He prays, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
How little we realize what our sins are! Even those who carefully meditate upon the purity, the truth, the holiness of God, and who habitually view their sins against the background of God's love, even they cannot begin to grasp what they do when they sin, when they wound that sacred heart, when they trample under foot the Precious Blood afresh. And what shall be said of our headlong, impetuous sins and transgressions, where our own pleasure, our own selfish desires, have carried us away?
To cover all such offenses, to cover all our many sins of commission and omission there is hut one voice that can prevail in our behalf and that is the voice of Him who as He endured the agony which our sins have laid upon His sinless humanity, prays for man: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
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