When Jesus dies in the Gospel according to Mark, the centurion at the foot of the cross exclaims, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” We should not project onto that Roman officer’s words what we believe today about the divinity of Christ: eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, begotten not made, one in being with the Father. This wisdom is the fruit of almost 2000 years of ongoing prayer and reflection. What we can say though is that in the New Testament, the title “Son of God” connotes an intimate and special relationship with God. And somehow, even after witnessing such a gruesome death, a pagan soldier sees a striking connection between Jesus and God.
“Truly, this man was the Son of God!” This was not said of Jesus when he healed lepers and paralytics. Nor did those whose sight he restored nor those whose ears he opened proclaim this. Jesus fed multitudes and even raised the dead to life, but not after these miracles was it acknowledged that he was the “Son of God.” So what did the Roman centurion perceive for him to say this? And what can the Gospel of Mark be telling us by narrating this event?
One possible answer: Mark wants to teach us that when it seems God is absent, we should open our eyes more, look deeper, and then we shall see that God is most certainly present.
Think of the darkest time in your life, when you lost all hope and drowned in despair, when you thought that you could not sink any lower. Where was God then? However that incident ended (or perhaps you may yet be in the middle of it and still seeking resolution), God did not and has not abandoned you. As Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who with her family was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews, is often quoted, there is no night so dark that God is not there, no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. This is one message of the cross, and it is a message indeed worthy of celebrating this Holy Week.
You may ask, “How can someone’s suffering almost 2000 years ago be connected to my suffering today?” No one can explain exactly how, but I can share with you an image that may hopefully shed more light on this mystery. As a hospital chaplain in the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), the prayer I most dreaded to hear was when parents begged that their child’s pain be taken away even if that meant they themselves would have to take it on: “Ako na lang sana. Tatanggapin ko nang buong-buo ang sakit basta hindi na magdusa ang aking anak.” In my years at PGH, I never saw cancer transfer from a child to his or her mother or father. But one night, I was blessed to witness a miracle unfold. After praying with a young mother and father whose only child was suffering through the last stages of leukemia, I watched the parents climb onto their daughter’s bed and hold her as close as possible. The pain was not taken away, but somehow, the pain was shared. And this made it more bearable.
I think that something like that happens on the cross. God connects with our suffering and bears it with us. What makes the connection possible is the great love God has for us.
It is a love that is given not only to people who are kind and law-abiding. It is a love that is poured out also for those who hurt us and are guilty beyond doubt. This is after all a God who seeks the lost, who dines with sinners, and who is crucified with criminals. God loves not only the good but also the bad – and the rest of us who fall somewhere in between.
It is a love for the idealistic blogger who just wants to make a difference and the trolls that bully her. It is a love for the teenager who is curious about getting a “high” and the “friend of a friend” who gets him hooked and addicted. It is a love for the families of drug dependents, the families of drug dealers, and the policemen who knock on their doors. This is where God is also.
All this is an amazingly wonderful and a wonderfully amazing gift. But it is also a mission. Where is God? The answer is not just to point to suffering but to be present with God there. Where is God? We look for him in our suffering, but we also enter the suffering of others. In bearing these crosses – our own and that of others, we will see God.
It is consoling to know that God is with me in my suffering. But I find myself getting suspicious and even resentful when I think that besides me, God also joins the suffering of people I feel do not deserve his love. But “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Accepting this is surely part of the mission, but can I also see that the mission is truly a gift – a gift not only to the sinners I distrust but also to the sinner that I am?
This week can be truly holy if, when we see God hanging on the cross, we see ourselves and all those who are suffering hanging there with him. This is one of the most powerful reasons why God accepted the cross. We cannot pray to Jesus crucified if we do not see how he stays there with so many people who are crucified in many different ways and in many different places throughout history. And “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).