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The mercy that streams from the Cross

Reflection at Vespers for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

By Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p.

In Lent, the Church calls us insistently to reflect on our need of salvation, and perhaps, as we approach Passiontide, there is nothing of which we are more conscious ourselves. How wonderful it is, then, to be told, that “this message of salvation is for us”. But in our reading tonight this message is thrown into reassuring relief by what looks like an implication that there are others, for whom it is definitely not. The people in Jerusalem and their leaders, after all, may have been the instruments of our salvation, but surely the unwitting instruments, bringing about God’s purposes, as we are told here, by condemning his beloved Son to a cruel and shameful death. Surely the good news of salvation can’t be for them or for people like them? And if, by contrast, it is for us, then surely that means we’re not like them?
Except that a closer reading of our text, and of its context, suggests something slightly different. The episode in the Acts of the Apostles from which our passage comes sees St Paul preaching in a synagogue in what is now Turkey, and there is no reason to assume that his audience there would have been very different in outlook to the leaders and people back home in Jerusalem. We are not, in other words, supposed to see a contrast between those who had Jesus put to death and those to whom Paul is speaking here, but a continuity: if the congregation before Paul on this particular Sabbath in Antioch had been in Jerusalem on the first Good Friday, they too, might have been clamouring for Barabbas to be released and scheming to have Jesus eliminated. And yet it is they Paul insists, who are the us to whom salvation is promised. And if we see ourselves too, as doubtless we should, among this “us” to whom Paul is speaking, then there are consequences, initially somewhat unsettling, perhaps, but finally deeply consoling.
In the first place, if we are among those addressed here, we cannot rule out the possibility of a continuity between us and the mob outside the Jerusalem praetorium, either. We are reminded, uncomfortably, of this every year during the liturgical reading of the Passion when we are asked literally to make cries of “crucify him” our own. And it is good to be so reminded, not least because it undercuts the shameful (and utterly inconsistent) anti-Semitism that has so disfigured Christian history. “The Jews” did not crucify Jesus: we all did, and do.
But shocking as this is, it is the ground of our deepest hope. Because if we number ourselves among that crowd, then the voice of Jesus begging his Father’s forgiveness for those who know not what they do embraces us, too. This message of salvation is for us, and we, with the humble tax collector, can call with confidence on the mercy that streams from the Cross, tonight, throughout Passiontide, and always.