Lectionary Reflection: Good Friday

Reading I: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Responsorial Psalm: 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-16, 17, 25; Reading II: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; Gospel: John 18:1-19:42

The book of the prophet Isaiah has sometimes been called the “Fifth Gospel,” because Christians have mined it so thoroughly for prophecies of the Messiah. In it they have found passages that are illuminated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; in turn, these passages themselves have cast a light that has helped Christians interpret the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). It is hard to imagine that these were not among “what referred to him in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27) that Jesus interpreted to the disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter evening. It is hard to imagine that the first Christians did not look to such passages as they began to tell the story of the passion and death of Jesus, finding in them a way to understand Jesus as the one who “was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed” (53:5). It is hard to imagine that Jesus’ resurrection was not understood in light of Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s servant, “shall see the light in fullness of days” (53:11). So it is appropriate that the Church offers us on Good Friday a reading from this first “passion narrative,” which has been so significant for the Church’s understanding of Christ’s death.

If Isaiah offers us Scripture’s first passion narrative, John might be thought of as offering us Scripture’s last passion narrative, since John is widely thought to be the last of the canonical Gospels to be written, and shows the fruit of several decades of reflection on the significance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In particular, John’s passion account emphasizes the divine glory that is revealed on the Cross. John’s account of Jesus’ trial is punctuated repeatedly by the use of the divine appellation “I am” (18:5, 6, 8); in his dialogue with Pilate, Jesus stresses his heavenly Kingship (18:37) and Pilate’s ultimate powerlessness (19:11); even on the cross, Jesus displays great equanimity, dying with the cry “it is finished,” indicating the fulfillment of God’s saving plan in him (19:30). Whereas Isaiah underscores for us the saving significance of Christ’s sacrificial suffering and death, John seems to focus more on the events of the passion as the paradoxical revelation of God’s glory.

One of the great gains of historical critical biblical interpretation is found in the importance it places on listening to the distinctive voice of each biblical text, reminding us of the polyphony of the biblical witness. Isaiah and John speak with different voices. At the same time, more traditional forms of interpretation, in which Scripture is read as a whole, unified by a pattern of promise and fulfillment, can serve to remind us that while the different books of Scripture speak with different voices, it is still the one Gospel of Jesus Christ that Scripture proclaims. Both the first passion account and the last, while retaining their individual distinctiveness, cast light on the saving significance of the passion of Christ: the atoning sacrifice in which the glory of divine love is revealed.


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