Why Catholics do weird things on Good Friday

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Someone’s question inspired me yesterday:
Why do we have the Passion Play? We don’t re-enact every bad event in history.” To that question I would also add, “Why do Catholics fast on Good Friday?

Do we have some sort of sick fascination with suffering and pain?

I acknowledge how strange it must seem: Someone volunteers to wear a crown of thorns and hardly a loincloth, walk through the street followed by a shouting crowd of people, carrying a heavy piece of wood, perhaps hit with cords or strips of leather, and then put up high where everyone can see…all while onlookers weep or cringe. Add to that the ache of a hungry belly and less energy from fasting. Why do it all?

How the Leaves Looked

Let me tell you a quick story to answer: When I first visited my husband’s hometown, we had been engaged for a few months. As a native Texan, this was my first time in California outside an airport. His mom picked us up and drove us to their home. She and Dan were talking up a storm, but I hardly said a word from the backseat.

Because I was busy. Everything about this place, I wanted to take in. My eyes were like two sponges packed into my head, soaking in the visual information as we sped past buildings, intersections, highway signs, trees, bicyclers, and the Bay.

We took the turn onto the street whose name I’d heard repeated so many times and had seen written on the corners of envelopes. Arriving to their home, I settled into my little guest room. “This used to be Daniel’s room,” his mom told me. I liked that.

As everyone was getting settled downstairs, I stayed in that room and sat on the bed studying the texture of the walls. Out my little window, a breeze caused the tree leaves to sway.

It may seem silly, but watching those leaves dance in the wind is probably one of my favorite memories from the entire trip – especially silly, maybe, considering the fact that we later spent several days in the mountains near a beautiful lake for a big wedding shower in our honor.

'Christ Carrying the Cross' by El Greco

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

But that’s what happens when you love someone; you want to know everything about them. You want to visit their hometown, eat their favorite foods, see their baby pictures, hear them recall their happy and somber memories. You want to experience their experiences as much as you can.

That’s what God did. God became human in the person of Jesus because he wants us to know that he loves us. He wants to show us that he’s experienced getting sand between his toes, enjoying a meal with friends, grieving the death of loved ones, earning an honest living, laughing until his side hurt…

…there was just this one thing: He is God. He can’t sin.

But that didn’t stop Jesus. He wanted to tell us, “I love you so much, that I want you to know I understand what sin feels like for you.”

Because of his love, Jesus did the unthinkable. He took on the effects of every sin that had ever been committed in the past and would ever be committed in the future. Jesus chose to take upon himself all the loneliness, the rejection, the betrayal, the anxiety, the emotional and physical agony which is the result of sin. Even death, and the cruelest method of torture and death in history. His love took him to the very lowest pit of despair – hell – to offer his love to the dead. “The gospel was preached even to the dead.” (1 Peter 4:6)

The Summit – and The Answer

Saint Paul reminded the early Hebrew Christian community that “since God’s children share in blood and flesh, [Jesus] likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Hebrews 2:14-15). In other words, God loves us so much that he wants to free us from sin and its terrible effects; he ‘paid’ the price of sin so that we wouldn’t have to. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).

“The Cross of Christ is the summit of love,” as Pope Benedict XVI has said. Why enact the Passion Play? Because it recalls and re-presents the summit of love. Jesus’ Passion gives us a model for our lives – a model of love. He told his followers before his Passion,

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

Not only do Passion Plays and meditations on the Passion remind us of Jesus’ love for us; these practices – along with fasting – are our little ways of growing in relationship with Jesus. Because when you love someone, you want to know as much as you can about them and experience what they’ve experienced. These are our little ways of saying, “Jesus, I love you, and your suffering breaks my heart. How can I stand by and watch? I cannot bear to let you suffer alone. Let me feel what you have felt. Let me enter into the depths of your love and learn from you.”

Let’s remember that as we commemorate the Lord’s Passion today.

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