Pope Paul VI presided over the beatification ceremony of Maximilian Kolbe. Near the pope was seated a dignified looking man in his mid-fifties, wearing a plain business suit. Everyone was asking who he was and why he was sitting there so close to the Holy Father.
During the homily Pope Paul VI described the life of Maximilian Kolbe. As you know the story well suffice it to say that he was a Polish Franciscan priest who was arrested by Nazis in February of 1941 for publishing unapproved literature. When a young man called Franciszek Gajowniczek was picked out to die in the starvation bunker as a reprisal for a prisoner who escaped, he cried out ‘my wife, my children!’ There and then Maximilian took his place and joined nine other prisoners who were placed in the starvation bunker for a slow, agonising death.
After solemnly declaring Maximilian blessed the Holy Father pointed to the man next to him. It was none other than Franciszek, the man who was replaced by Maximilian. He survived the concentration camp and has devoted his life to telling others what Fr. Kolbe did for him.
If Franciszek has that much gratitude to Fr. Kolbe, how much should we have this evening to Jesus? What Maximilian Kolbe did for that Jewish prisoner, Jesus has done for each one of us. He died in our place. That’s the story of Good Friday.
John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Ron Rolheiser has a poignant reflection on this. He states that Jesus took away sin by absorbing and transforming it. How? The image he uses is that of a water filter. A filter takes in impure water, holds the impurities inside of itself, and gives back only pure water. It transforms rather than transmits. We see this in Jesus. Like the ultimate cleansing filter he purifies life itself. He takes in hatred, holds it, transforms it, and gives back love; he takes in fear, holds it, transforms it, and gives back freedom; he takes in jealousy, holds it, transforms it, and gives back affirmation; he takes in Satan, murder and all those abominable and heinous crimes, holds them, transforms them, and gives back God and forgiveness.
And, in doing this, Jesus doesn’t want admirers, but imitators; He doesn’t want fans, but followers. The Garden of Gethsemane invites us, everyone of us, to help absorb, purify and transform tension and sin rather than simply transmit them. Such is the love of God for us revealed in Jesus’’ suffering on the cross.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is good example of this kind of suffering faithful love. She stands at the foot of the cross, not giving in to despair, not trying frantically to stop the execution of her innocent son, but rather just being there, taking it all in, holding it, pondering it, believing and trusting that somehow, God would turn even this parody of justice into something positive, and we know that God did. The Garden of Gethsemane, and the Cross, invites us to be like Mary, to transform evil into hope and forgiveness.
What we are blessed with here is total unconditional love. Jesus has truly given us his all so that we too may be transformed by and immersed in love. The challenge is not to forget this. We may chide ourselves if we forget a friend’s birthday or anniversary. The Paschal Mystery of Christ must always remain unforgettable and written in our hearts. Our one true response must be eternal gratitude, like that of Franciszek for Maximilian. Hence we are gifted with the sacraments which are founded on the unconditional love of Christ. In the Eucharist we meet the body of Christ, broken for us and his blood, poured forth for us on the cross. These same elements become for us now the bread of life and the new wine of salvation. The water that poured forth from his side becomes for us the font of Baptism that joins us to him and opens for us the way into his kingdom even now, in this life.
This is the Church’s way of remembering the self-sacrificing love of Jesus for each of us. There are many other ways also, but the nice thing about these sacraments is their communal value. We come together as a family to confess as one that Jesus is indeed the Saviour of the world; that he is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. In remembering this together, our hearts cannot but be filled with gratitude and love.
As we continue to celebrate today, let us pray that we may have a stronger and stronger faith in the power and depth of God’s love for us, and that we may respond to that love by learning to truly love each other from the heart, through loving relationships and humble service.
Friday, 18 April 2014