On Good Friday, 2020, the Preacher of the Pontifical Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa O.F.M.Cap., delivered a homily at St. Peter’s Basilica. Excerpts of the homily follow.
This year we read the account of the Passion with a question in our hearts—rather, with a cry—that is rising up over the whole earth.
The pandemic of Coronavirus has abruptly roused us from the greatest danger to which individuals and humanity have always been susceptible: the delusion of omnipotence… It took the smallest and most formless element of nature, a virus, to remind us that we are mortal; that neither military power nor technology are sufficient to save us.
While he was painting frescoes in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the artist James Thornhill became so excited about his work that he stepped back to see it better and was not aware he was about to fall over the edge of the scaffolding. A horrified assistant understood that crying out to him would have hastened the disaster. Without thinking twice, he dipped a brush in paint and hurled it at the middle of the fresco. The master, appalled, sprang forward. His work was damaged, but he was saved.
God does this with us sometimes. He disrupts our projects and our calm to save us from the abyss we don’t see. We must be careful not to be deceived however. God is not the one who hurled the brush at the sparkling fresco of our technological society. God is our ally, not the ally of the virus! He says in the Bible, “I have... plans for your welfare and not for woe” (Jer 29:11).
If these scourges were God’s punishments, it would not explain why they have struck equally the good and the bad and why the poor experience the worst consequences. Are they worse sinners than others? No! The One who cried at Lazarus’ death cries today for the scourge that has befallen humanity. Yes, God “suffers”, like every father and every mother. When we discover this one day we will be ashamed of the accusations we made against Him in this life. God participates in our pain to overcome it. St. Augustine wrote:
“Being supremely good, God would not allow any evil in His works, unless in His omnipotence and goodness, He is able to bring forth good out of evil.”
Did God the Father possibly desire the death of his Son in order to draw good out of it? No, he simply permitted human freedom to take its course, making it serve His own purposes and not those of human beings. This is also the case for natural disasters, like earthquakes and plagues. He does not bring them about. He has given nature a kind of freedom as well, qualitatively different of course than that given human beings, but still a form of freedom — freedom to evolve according to its own laws of development. He did not create a world as a programmed clock whose least little movement could be anticipated. It is what some call “chance” but the Bible calls instead “the wisdom of God.”
The word of God tells us the first thing we should do at times like these is to cry out to Him. He is the one who puts on people’s lips the words to cry out; at times harsh words of lament and almost of accusation:
“Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? / Rise up! Do not reject us forever!... Rise up, help us! / Redeem us in Your mercy” (Ps 44: 23).
“Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
Does God perhaps like to be petitioned so that he can grant His benefits? Can our prayer perhaps make God change his plans? …There are things that God has decided to grant us as the fruit both of His grace and of our prayer, almost as though sharing with his creatures the credit for the benefit received. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, II-IIae, q. 83, a. 26) God is the one who prompts us to do it: “Seek and you will find”, Jesus said; “knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7).
When the Israelites were bitten by poisonous serpents in the desert, God commanded Moses to lift up a serpent of bronze on a pole, and whoever looked at it would not die. Jesus appropriated this symbol to Himself when He told Nicodemus,
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14).
We too at this moment have been bitten by an invisible, poisonous serpent.
Let us gaze upon the One who was “lifted up” for us on the cross. Let us adore Him on behalf of ourselves and of the whole human race. The one who looks on Him with faith does not die. And if that person dies, it will be to enter eternal life.
“After three days I will rise”, Jesus had foretold. We too, after these days that we hope will be short, will rise and come out of the tombs of our homes. Not however to return to the former life like Lazarus, but to a new life, like Jesus. A more fraternal, more humane, more Christian life!