“It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain”. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but those words from our first reading brought me up short. They shook me and shocked me. This passage from the prophet Isaiah is taken by Christians as referring to Jesus, and it reads as if God was deliberately inflicting pain on him.
I tried looking at other possible translations but they were even worse. One read “the Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity”, making God out to be some cruel sadist, enjoying inflicting pain on his Son. There are many who do see God like that, unfortunately, accusing him of making people suffer, and, what’s more, enjoying doing it. Such people are very much unaware of the Scriptures if they think that of God. The Bible makes it quite clear that it is Satan who enjoys torturing people under his power and attacking the innocent, whereas God is persistently shown as the One who seeks to save his people from such dreadful evil. To understand this passage from Isaiah rightly, we have to see it as a prophecy of atonement, the atonement for our sins achieved by Christ through his suffering and death on the Cross, a suffering willingly offered to the Father by Jesus as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. God is not forcing his Son into anything, the will of God the Father and the will of his Son are one and the same on this matter, and on any other matter.
The very next words of our first reading affirm this. “When you make his life an offering for sin”. This is how God sees his Son’s whole life on earth, as a sacrifice, a self-offering to his heavenly Father to make atonement on our behalf for our sins. Jesus himself said to his disciples: ”My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4: 34) .” What fills me, what satisfies me,” Jesus is saying to them,” what makes me happy, is to know I am doing the will of my Father and bringing his work of salvation to its finish”. Can we say that of ourselves , brothers and sisters, that our “food” , the thing that sustains us, and gives us joy, is to know that we also are doing God’s work on earth and helping bring his salvation to the world ?
Pay attention to the words of consecration today during our Eucharistic Prayer, when I say these words about Jesus, “At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion,, he took bread and giving thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you”. Jesus is saying to his disciples , and that means to you and me, “Just as this bread is broken and given to you to satisfy your hunger, so will my body be broken on the cross and given up for you , and for all people, to satisfy your need for forgiveness and eternal life”. Jesus will go on and do the same thing with the chalice, saying over it: ”Take this, all of you and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, which will be poured out for you and for the many for the forgiveness of sins”.
Implied again in these words of Jesus is his invitation to us, his friends, his disciples, to join him in the work of being broken and poured out in service of others, to bring them to salvation by sharing with them the incredible news that Jesus loves them so much that he went to the Cross to win them eternal life. And this is what sets apart those who are really disciples of Jesus, and those who are just fair-weather followers: the willingness to be broken of our desire just to have a nice, quiet comfortable life, without bothering much about others, and the willingness to pour ourselves out in service of God and of others. It is a question of sacrifice, and of willing sacrifice at that. How far am I willing to sacrifice time, effort, money to help others in need? How much is enough? What is the limit of how far I have to go in this? Well, for disciples of Jesus, the answer is obvious. Just look at the Cross and those arms of Jesus extended out over the world.
When I read those words of our first reading “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain”, I think of other words, the words of Psalm 34: 18, for example. “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit”. So many things can crush our spirit these days: fear and anxiety, poverty, illness, grief, the weight of responsibility we have on our shoulders. To those who are experiencing terrible burdens like these, Jesus stretches out his hands from the Cross and says: ”Come to me , all you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest. Learn to lean on me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11: 28-29). To find rest in those arms of Jesus, through surrendering our burdens to him, to look into those eyes of suffering and love and know that he knows our suffering, because he also was one who suffered, and who suffers still because of our suffering, (Pascal) is to know peace, the peace that the world cannot give, but which is his gift to us, his disciples (John 14:27). And when we receive his Body and Blood into our own body and blood through Holy Communion, we receive the strength and compassion and courage to be able to stretch out our hands to others around us in need and say to them “How can I help you? How can I serve you?”
Of course, the real burden crushing our spirits, what should really break open our hearts in grief, is the realization of our sinfulness, and how our sins have done such damage to ourselves, to others and to the fabric of the world. Sadly, the devil, the world and our own flesh have done a great job of hiding the real fact of the grievousness of our sins from us, so that our real shame and guilt is pushed down inside of us, and made easier for us to ignore. The sight of our Savior on the cross should move us to tears, of sorrow and repentance, because how great must sin be if it takes such a sacrifice to atone for it, and how great must Jesus’ love be for us, if he is willing to bear the burden of such sin to death on the Cross? But I know that I am not nearly close to being aware of all of that. I stand or kneel before the cross of Jesus so many times, and still the enormity of what I am witnessing eludes me. The enormity of my sin, the enormity of the love of Jesus , that he would do all this for me …and I pray often, “Lord Jesus , break open this callous heart of mine, that I can see my sin for what it is, not some collection of petty indiscretions, some small white lies, some impure thoughts, but part of the whole sin of the world, a crushing burden too great for any one of us, or even all of us, to make up for, to atone for . And then open up the eyes of my heart to see and understand and grasp hold of, such love as yours, that you would willingly take on that burden yourself, and bear it to the cross, while you pray over me to your heavenly Father :”Father, forgive him, he has no real understanding of what he is doing when he sins, and what suffering it adds to the suffering of the world”. Such sin as mine, such love as his.
And, finally, when I think about Jesus being “crushed”, I think of grapes in the wine press, of feet pounding down on them, to force out the juice of the grape to make wine , wine that will give pleasure to the world. (“wine to gladden human hearts”, Psalm 104: 15). Jesus is “crushed “on the Cross, under the pounding of the weight of our sins, so that his blood flows out to wash away our sins and make us glad to know we are forgiven because of him, because of Jesus. That blood we receive sacramentally as wine at Mass, knowing that it is poured out for you and me and for the many, many sinners of the world, for the forgiveness of our sins. And so, as the first reading concludes: “out of his anguish, he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge “; That “light “is the light of salvation, of our salvation, won for us by Christ’s Passion. Jesus’ “satisfaction” comes through the “knowledge” that he has saved us, the “crushed in spirit”, by allowing himself to be “crushed “ as well.
As the book of Hebrews puts it: ”For the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame , and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12: 2) Jesus is no masochist, any more than God, his Father, is a sadist. The joy each feels before the Cross is not because of the pain and suffering endured , – and remember, God the Father , endured every bit of the pain and suffering his Son went through , ask any parent or spouse who has ever sat beside a loved one on their sick bed – but because each knew that the darkness of the Cross would lead to, and be the direct cause of, light flooding into the world, the light of salvation, the light of forgiveness, the light of eternal life. And that Jesus’ death would not only end up with him being seated at the right hand of his Father in heaven, but with you and I ending up there as well, as Ephesians 2: 4-6 reminds us :”But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”.