[“Madonna of the Pilgrims” by Caravaggio, in the Church of St. Augustine in Rome]
Look at the crucifix. Notice the execution notice that hangs above the head of Jesus — INRI. That stands for the Latin phrase for, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” It was meant as another cruel jest of our Lord. A visible sign of what happens to people who claim to be a king in opposition to Caesar. Yet for us Christians, that execution notice became “confession of faith,” the real starting-point of the Christian faith. As a crucified criminal Jesus is the Christ, the King, and the crucifixion is His coronation. For it is His coronation, His Kingship to surrender Himself to men.
When we contemplate the Passion of our Lord, Jesus Christ the King, we cannot doubt that He experience the absolute depths of human misery. There is no doubt that as prophesied by Isaiah, Jesus was “spurned and avoided . . . a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom people hide their faces . . . .”
We have all felt like that at some time in our lives, because we live in a fallen world. We have all been sick, betrayed and hurt, and we have all caused pain in others. Jesus saves us by coming down to our level. He steps into the middle of our pain and sorrow. Again, as prophesied by Isaiah, “It was our infirmities that He bore, our sufferings he endured.”
Jesus did not save us by eliminating suffering, but rather by suffering WITH us and FOR us. Through His example, Jesus teaches us to trust and love God even in the midst of suffering.
Have we fully realized what this amazing truth means? It means that we do not have to become perfect before we can be friends of God. It means that with, in and through Christ Jesus, we can go right into God’s presence just the way we are, will all our miseries and confusions, wounds and sins. Jesus’ arms are outstretched on the cross to embrace us. The Letter to the Hebrews understands this, as we read in our second reading, “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” This sentence, this earth-shaking sentence, can set us free from all fear and hesitancy in our relationship with God.
In the church of St. Augustine, in Rome, there is a painting by the great Italian baroque painter Caravaggio, that illustrates this memorably. It is called “The Madonna of the Pilgrims” and it shows two pilgrims kneeling in front of the baby Jesus, who is in Mary’s arms. The pilgrims — a man and a woman — are poor, dressed humbly, with walking sticks for their only possessions. Their hands are clasped in heartfelt prayer. Both Jesus and Mary look at them with interest and compassion, listening intently to the pilgrims’ prayers.
The painting was quite controversial when it was first unveiled. It was meant to be hung above the altar, above the viewer. When you look at it, you can clearly see the faces of Mary and Jesus, but you mostly just see the pilgrims’ backs. The man is barefoot, and when hung above the altar right at eye level, you are staring at the soles of his feet as he kneels in prayer — the ugly, dirty, grimy soles of his feet. The sophisticated public, at the time of the painting’s unveiling, complained that it was disrespectful to put someone’s dirty feet in such a prominent position, right above the altar. They called it shameful and in bad taste.
Yet Caravaggio was right. Jesus came to earth precisely for that reason; to meet us right where we are, in the grime of our struggles, our wounds, and our sins, and to lift us up from there into His Kingdom. The coronation of Good Friday reminds us that Jesus, our King, knows our misery because He shared it. Therefore, we can “confidently approach the throne of grace,” just as we are.
Although we are saddened by the pain our Lord experienced in order to save us from our sins, today our hearts should also be glad, because we know that we are not alone in our sufferings, and that we will never be alone. God’s door is always open to us, and His arms are always stretched wide to welcome us. God’s throne is always just a simple prayer away. Let us not leave church today without thanking the Lord for this great gift. When we come up to the cross today and kiss it, let us do so with the smile of gratitude in our hearts.
At the same time, we should not forget that many people have still not received this gift. Many people are not here today; they have not heard the good news. Too many do not know that they can confidently approach the throne of grace. Too many are suffering alone.
Perhaps we know someone like this. Maybe we know someone who is afraid to come to Christ Jesus. Is there any better way to please our Lord and to be his faithful followers than by bringing this good news to that person?
From today until Easter, all the tabernacles of the world will be empty, and all the altars will be stripped bare. Where will the suffering women and men of the world go to find the comfort of Jesus’ love? They will have nowhere to go, so we will have to go to them. From today until Easter, we will have to be living tabernacles; our hearts will have to be the altars where Jesus’ love comes down to earth, by loving our neighbors as Christ has loved us. When we receive the Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion today, let us ask Him — with humility and confidence — for that grace to be Jesus’ living tabernacles filled with the love of Christ, our King.