The Cross of the Legion of Honor, one of the highest decorations of the French government, was given, after death, to a French nun by the name of Mother Mary Elizabeth of the Eucharist, wno was Superior of the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy at Lyon.
She had been deported into Germany, to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, when the German Gestapo, during the occupation of France, discovered in the basement of her convent, guns belonging to the underground. During the dreadful days in the concentration camp her encouragement, her cheerfulness, and her fearless example kept many another prisoner from despair and even suicide.
The day came when the camp officials selected a group of women to be put to death in the gas chamber of the prison. Among those to whom this cruel lot fell was the mother of several children. It was then our heroine, Mother Elizabeth, stepped forward and volunteered to take the place of the anguished mother. Her offer was accepted, and on Good Friday of 1945, at the, age of 56, the heroic French nun marched calmly to death in the chamber. For this deed of heroism and charity her government later decorated her with highest honors.
That Good Friday of 1945 reminds us of the Good Friday of the year 33. It was then that the greatest Hero of all history, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, went willingly to death for every single one of us. On this Good Friday we recall His death. We gather in grief to give Him the honor of our gratitude and love. We gather to gaze with loving thought upon His tortured body, writhing on the cross. We watch with Him as He breathes His last. We adore Him as He hangs there. We thank Him. We beg His pardon for our sins which nailed Him there. And then we beg our Lord to teach us the lessons of His death.
Surely, that French mother for whom the heroic nun gave her own life, never forgot the love of the one who died for her. Neither must we ever forget the love of Him who died for us. No doubt, too, on every Good Friday, the anniversary of the day when that Sister gave her life that another might live, the one who was saved would think of that sacrifice. So, too, on this anniversary of the day when Christ died for me, I will think of Him with loving gratitude. As I look at my Lord bowing His head and giving up His spirit, four thoughts come to mind:
He died; I will not fear death. He died for me; I will die for Him. He died in pain; I will accept pain. He died for my sins; I will never sin again.
1. The death of Christ takes away most of the fear of death. Why should I fear death, since -
"He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross?" Philippians, 2:8.A. Originally death was not the destiny of man. It came as a punishment of the first sin.
"By the envy of the devil, death came into the world." Wisdom, 2:24.Even our Lord, as Man, experienced a horror and fear of death. Little wonder that mere men would fear the end of this life.
B. But that dread of death Jesus took away by dying Himself. He came into the world not only to redeem us, not only to die for us, but to show us by His death how we are to die, to take the sting out of death, to give us courage in the face of it.
C. It is normal and natural for man to fear death, but it is not normal to let that fear run to excess, especially for us who stand here beneath the cross today and watch our Lord passing away.
You may have heard the ancient legend of the three trees that stood in a dense forest. They often wondered what would become of them when the woodsman cut them down. One day they decided to pray for what they wished to be when they were turned into lumber.
The first tree asked to become part of a beautiful palace, where kings and queens might dwell, where the great would come to gaze with amazement.
The second tree asked to become part of a great ship that would sail the seven seas, and travel around the world.
The third tree preferred to stay in the forest where he might grow into the tallest of all, and forever point like a finger to God.
Sometime later came a woodsman with saw and axe, and down went the first tree. But instead of being made into a beautiful palace, it was made part of a common stable. Yet, in that stable a Virgin Mother and her just husband took shelter on a certain night when a beautiful Baby was born. Ever since, kings and peasants, the great and the small, have honored that simple stable, and have echoed the song of the angels that night:
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will."After thirty more years the second tree was chopped down, and its lumber was made, not into a mighty ship, but into a small boat that was launched on the Sea of Galilee. From that boat a tall, magnificent Man spoke to the multitudes on the snore, spoke a message that has sailed the seven seas, and reached all the shores of the world.
A few years later the third tree was felled. Its lumber was hewn into a cross, on which the Baby of our stable, who was later the Man in the boat, was devilishly nailed to die the most cruel death that beastly men could devise. The wood of that tree stands not in one woods, it stands on all the hills of the world - pointing upward, pointing to God and God's heaven.
In this way the prayers of all three trees were answered in a more glorious way than they had ever dreamed. Before that third tree we stand today - the tree of the cross, as it points to heaven, as it takes away the sting of death, and assures us of a happier home above.
2. Jesus not only died, He died for us. Who, then, will refuse to die for Him?
A. Millions - the martyrs - died for Christ because He had died for them. We may not be called upon to give our lives as the martyrs did.
B. Nevertheless, if we are called upon to die the slow death of duty, we will gladly yield up our spirit for Him. Sometimes it would seem better to suffer the momentary agony of martyrdom, rather than the daily death of humdrum, drab, and wearisome duty. Die to self every day, as He died for you.
C. In any case we shall all have to die some time. Why not do so willingly, courageously? One of the best sacrifices, and at the same time one of the best prayers we can offer the Almighty is to accept death wherever, whenever, and however God decides. You might offer such a prayer to Christ on the cross, especially on Good Friday.
D. You might even ask for the spirit of the saints, those special heroes and heroines of God, who found the source of their spirit of sacrifice at the foot of the cross. One often wonders how they did it - how they denied themselves even many of the lawful pleasures of life, how they labored day and night for the glory of God, how they eagerly and joyfully accepted suffering and humiliation, opposition and defeat, and the darkness and discouragement that come frequently to those who serve the Lord. All this they learned at the foot of the cross. They reasoned: Christ died for me; I will die for Him.
3. Jesus not only died, and died for us; He died in extremest pain. Look closely at that cross today. Look at it as Jesus takes up the cruel wood to carry it to Calvary. Look at Him bend and fall beneath its weight. Watch Him as He greets His grief-stricken Mother. Reach out with your hands to Help Him as did Simon of Cyrene. With Veronica hurry to wipe away the blood and spittle from His sacred face, so that His countenance may be painted not merely upon a napkin, but upon your very heart. See Him fall again and again. Join the weeping women as they sympathize with His sufferings. Look, the soldiers tear His clothes from His sacred Body, fling Him upon the hard wood, and then, horror of horrors, drive nails through His hands and feet. Up, up they raise the cross and drop it roughly into the hole prepared for it.
There He hangs, His Body one mass of wounds from head to foot. What a cruel crown He wears, with its long sharp thorns piercing His temples. The weight of His Body drags down upon His riven hands and feet. The wounds grow wider and wider. Every nerve and muscle and bone is tortured beyond human endurance. How true the words of the prophet:
"Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted." Isaias, 53:4.Added to His other tortures is a consuming, burning thirst. This is made greater by His cruel tormentors, who give Him vinegar and gall to drink. Blood and tears almost blind His eyes. But through that blood He beholds His Mother and He tells us to behold her. Broken-hearted she stands there with a few faithful followers. Yes, He is even abandoned by His friends. Instead, a crowd of enemies call out revilings and blasphemies, wounding His heart even more cruelly than His Body. And all this lasted for three long hours, three dark and bitter hours, three red and cruel hours, until the heart that was filled with love for men, burst with that love. Then, bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.
A. Of all who have suffered, none have suffered more than Jesus - in mind and in body. We have read the stories of the martyrs - how they were thrown to lions, how their bodies were soaked in oil and were burned to light up the Roman nights, how they were tied to the tails of wild horses, to the wheels of chariots, how they were burned and maimed and stabbed and crushed and pierced with pointed sticks, how they were even nailed, like their Master, to cruel crosses. Yet, all their sufferings were small compared to His. And those witnesses willingly bore those tortures for the sake of Him who had suffered for them.
B. Since the fall of Adam and Eve it is the lot of all men to suffer. No one escapes. Read your daily paper with thought, and you find people of all classes and races, of all professions and trades, of all social levels and of all walks of life - all of them suffering either in mind or body or in both, at some time or other. Visit the rooms of our hospitals, and you will find all ages and all colors and creeds, even Christian Scientists, who maintain that there is no such thing as pain.
C. But the greatest variety you will find in the way people suffer. Many complain. Others groan and sigh. Still others deny that there is an All-good God. Some will demand every possible kind of pain-killer, while others, like the promoters of euthanasia - so-called mercy-killing, will bring on death to end the sufferings of a patient in pain.
How far they have wandered from the cross of Calvary. How ignorant they are of the lessons our Lord taught on Good Friday. How miserable must suffering be for those who have not studied in the school of the Savior. How blind they are to the meaning and value of pain.
The story is told of a father whose eight-year old son was run down by a hit-and-run driver. The little body was mangled and maimed into a mass of flesh and blood. The child died in torture and pain. Grief-stricken, the father rushed from the death-room of the hospital to the rectory of his pastor. There he shouted in bitter defiance:
"You and your God! How could He let my little boy die like that, if He is so merciful? Where was this merciful God of yours when my son was run over?"Gently and sympathetically the pastor answered:
"He was right where He was when His own Son was killed."Indeed, only in the light of the death of Christ can we understand all other death. Only in the light of Christ's sufferings can we understand all other suffering. Only beneath the cross, can we comprehend the crosses that come to all of us. Only in the spirit of our Savior can we bear those crosses.
D. Suffering can even become a blessing. Every priest who has the privilege of dealing with souls can tell of people who first began to think of their salvation, who first became serious about the saving of their souls, when some affliction struck them. Lying on their backs in a hospital, with their eyes toward heaven, many a soul has for the first time thought seriously about his salvation. Death and sickness and set-backs of all kinds have opened the eyes of many to the real meaning of life, the real purpose of their existence. Death has even reconciled those who had lost their love.
Years ago in one of the cities of the west a husband and wife became estranged and finally separated. The divorce decree gave custody of their only child to the mother. The husband left to live in a distant city. Not long afterwards their little son died. It was only after the funeral that the father heard of it. He took time from his business to make a trip back home. As soon as he arrived he hurried out to the cemetery, to the grave of their little boy. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he stood by the little mound of earth. Suddenly he heard a step behind him. He turned. There was his estranged wife. At first they both were tempted to turn away, but the chain of their love was in that grave. Instead of turning away, they clasped hands and embraced over the grave of their son. They were reconciled, never to separate again.
Nothing less than death could have reconciled those two. It was a bitter remedy for their selfishness and lack of understanding, but it worked. So, nothing less than the death of Christ could reconcile us poor, sinful human beings to our heavenly Father. Only in the light of Christ's sufferings and death can we understand the suffering and death in the world. It has a purpose, a purpose that is often hidden from our eyes, yet a purpose that is dear to the heart of our heavenly Father.
E. Without suffering it is impossible to be a disciple and follower of Christ. Either we accept the pain that comes to us, or we do some penance of our own choosing, or we perform the official penances - like fasting and abstinence - of Mother Church. Christ Himself has told us:
"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For he who would save his life will lose it; but he who loses his life for my sake will save it." St. Luke, 9:23-24.What a great difference there often is between our promises of penance and our performance. What a difference between our profession of love for Christ, and the carrying out of our love in action.
Unwillingness to sacrifice for one we profess to love, proves the love is shallow and weak. How flabby and feeble the love so-called of one who refuses to sacrifice, to suffer for the God-man who died on a cross with nails through His hands, spikes through His feet, a spear through His heart, bitter gall on His lips, and a crown of thorns on His head.
4. Christ not only died in pain for us; He died for our sins. Sin is an offense against an all-good God. Sin is an infinite, unlimited insult. Man, on the contrary, is a finite, limited being. He cannot make amends of himself for the infinite insult he has offered God by disobeying the Almighty. If we were to put all the penances and sufferings of the saints, all their prayers and fastings and watching, all their tortures and trials and virtues, on the one hand of a scale, they could not outweigh the crime of one single mortal sin. But, put into that scale the sufferings and death of Christ, and reparation is made to God, because Christ was the God-man, the true Son of the true God.
Look at that tortured Body of Christ and learn the malice of sin. Look at our Lord hanging there and learn how terrible it is to disobey the commandments of the Almighty. Look at Him long and lovingly, look at Him thoughtfully, look at Him with sorrow and repentance for all your sins and all the sins of the world. Sin nailed Him to that cross. By avoiding sin we can take Him down. May that be one of our deepest resolves on this Good Friday afternoon.
As we watch our Lord bow His head and breathe His last sigh, we will realize that His death takes away the sting of our death, that He died for us, and we will die for Him; that He died in pain so that we might accept pain for His sake; that He died for our sins that we might resolve to sin no more. Lord, Jesus crucified - have mercy on us. Amen.
Adapted from Lent and the Capital Sins
by Fr. Arthur Tonne, OFM (©1952)