Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A blessed sacrifice

Read Hebrews 9:11-15

I’m lucky to have to go to Rome once in a while. When I’m there, I make sure to visit a special place: it’s at the back of Saint Peter’s Basilica, on the right hand side. There, behind a large protective window, is Michelangelo’s extraordinary sculpture known as the Pietà.

This masterpiece of classical sculpture eternalizes the moment when, after his death on the cross, Jesus’ body is handed to his mother, Mary. What tenderness, what love shine forth from this work of art. Michelangelo has managed to sculpt a block of stone in such a way that something which touches all hearts has been brought forth. And he has done this with a simple chisel and a hammer.

This transformation of a slab of marble into a work of art can perhaps help us to understand the transformation Jesus himself worked upon the cross. The brute matter of the cross is horrific: a violent death, an assassination, consequence of deathly hatred and complicity of a corrupted political power. Yet Jesus managed to transform this brute matter into an act of mercy, love and forgiveness.

What were his hammer and his chisel? None other than the Holy Spirit. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says in today’s text: “Through the Holy Spirit, Christ offered himself without blemish to God.” It is the power of the Spirit that allowed Jesus to transform his death into a saving act.

When I contemplate the Pietà, I do not concentrate on the marble, but on the masterpiece that it has become. When I contemplate a crucifix or when I listen to the story of Christ’s passion, I do not concentrate on his suffering, which is only brute material: I focus on the loving, saving act it has become.

This, then, is a sacrifice: suffering transformed by love, in love. Every time I accept some pain, great or small, for love of another; every time I offer up some pain because of my love for another; every time I love to the point of suffering, I am offering a sacrifice just as Christ did on the cross. What is important in all of this is not the suffering itself, but the love that transfigures.

At each celebration of Mass, we are confronted with Christ’s sacrificial love for us. This is why we call this liturgy “The Holy Sacrifice of Mass.” The crucified Christ makes himself present to us in this ritual enacted in memory of his death and resurrection. And it is the same eternal Spirit who makes his presence possible.

We don’t have to be transported through time and space to find ourselves in Jerusalem in the year 33. We don’t even have to go to Rome. There is a church, not far from us, where we can gather every Sunday to contemplate this great mystery of love, this masterpiece of the Holy Spirit: Christ dying, so that we might live.