ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson

Christ in His Historical Life



Christ our Friend Crucified


WE have been considering so far the Friendship of Jesus Christ, and the various modes in which He offers it to us, whether interiorly or exteriorly, in the depths of our own consciousness, or in His representatives on earth, each in his various degree. To-day we turn back to the Gospels for the actual record of that supreme pledge of friendship which He gave once for all, the manifestation of that greatest of all Loves by which He laid down His Life for His friends. As we look on Him crucified, we see a bewildering wealth of functions which He performs for us on the Cross; like a Sovereign He bears upon His own wounded Breast all those orders and insignia, which He alone can bestow. Priesthood is there, Royalty, the Prophetic Office, Sacrifice, Martyrdom -- all alike are jewels which He confers on those who follow Him, each in His own degree. But, for the most part, we shall pass these by: we shall consider Him from that same standpoint as that from which we have considered Him throughout -- as our own familiar Friend who trusted us, and who was rewarded by us with the Crown of Thorns; who yet is content to bear all this and a thousand Passions more, if at the end He can but persuade us that He loves us. He spoke Seven Words as He hung there on Calvary, and each tells us of His Friendship.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."{1}

Our Friend has climbed the Hill; He has been stripped of His clothes and laid upon the Cross that He has carried from the steps of the Praetorium. The executioners prepare and choose the nails. . . . Those whose love He is seeking stand round looking down upon His upturned face. He, lying there, sees them, and sees behind them all those whom they represent -- all those countless souls each one of whom He desires to win. And, as the hammer is lifted and falls, He utters His first Word. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I. And is such a word as this possible? Is it possible even for Divine Charity to declare that "they know not what they do"? He had lived three years in public as their servant and friend; He had helped all who came to Him, fed the hungry, healed the sick, relieved the tormented. Not once was it known that any who came to Him was cast out. Even those whom the world regarded as worthless, the ruined wrecks of humanity, the publican and the harlot, -- even those who had lost the world's undiscriminating friendship, found a friend in Him. All this was undeniable; it was even a matter of public notoriety. It was impossible to pretend that the world rejected Him because He rejected the world -- impossible to urge that the world was in ignorance of His prodigal charity and largeheartedness. He has been a friend to all. One only excuse was urged -- He was no friend at least to Caesar.

But what they did not know -- and it was upon this that Divine Charity fastened as the one loophole through which they might escape -- was that it was their God who had done all these things; that it was the Creator who had been so tender to the creature; that it was the Lord of Life even now whom they held beneath their hands. They thought that they were taking His Life from Him; they did not understand that He was laying it down of Himself. They thought that they were ending for ever a career of mercy which displeased them; they did not know that they were co-operating in a supreme climax of mercy. They knew not what they did.

They knew, then, that they were outraging a human friend, but not that they were slaying a Divine Friend. They knew that they were betraying a fellow-creature, that they were sinning against every code of human decency and gratitude and justice; they knew, like Pilate, that they were killing a just man, that they were taking upon their own heads the blood of an innocent person. But they did not know that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory, that they were attempting to silence the Eternal Word.

This, then, can at least be said in their favour -- "They know the horror, but not the full horror, of what they do. Therefore, Father, forgive them."

II. "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be." The world, as well as Jesus Christ, is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever. There is a Society in the world in which Jesus Christ dwells perpetually; and this Society, like Jesus Christ, is at once Divine and human. This Society, then, the Catholic Church, is ceaselessly engaged in both Divine and human works; and, like Jesus Christ Himself (and like every activity for good), meets with amazing ingratitude. Once more in our own day -- as in England three centuries ago, in Rome sixteen centuries ago -- this Society is in the act of being crucified by those whose relief and salvation it is her one desire to bring about. It is, in fact, a condition of things which must be perpetual so long as the world remains what it is; though this period or that may exhibit the fact more startlingly.

It is impossible to say that men do not know, at least in part, what it is that they do. They know that the whole of European civilization rests upon Catholic foundations -- that the Church fed the hungry, taught the ignorant, befriended the outcast, and made life tolerable to the sufferers, centuries before the State dreamed of doing so, before, indeed, there was anything that could be called a State, to do so. They know that she has been the mother of ideals, of the noblest art and the purest beauty. They use to-day, in every country of Europe, for secular or semi-sacred purposes, buildings which she raised for her own worship of her God. They know that the morals of men find their only ultimate sanction in her teaching -- that where dogma goes down, crime goes up. And here, again, the only charge against her is that she is no friend to Caesar -- no friend, that is, to any system that seeks to organize society apart from God.

But, thank God! Divine Charity can still plead for men that they do not know the full horror of what they do, that they still think that to cripple and torture the Church of God is to do God service. For they do not know that she is His Darling, and the Bride of His Son; that she is the Eternal City coming down from God out of heaven; that, further, in these very sufferings of hers, she is accomplishing and applying Divine Atonement for the sins of those who crucify her.

They know that they are outraging human justice, that they are dealing with a world-wide community in a manner in which they dare not deal with any nation; that they are severing the branch which supports themselves. But they do not know that in this instance human justice is a Divine Right; that in this instance a Society is a Body which incorporates, not the lives of men, but the Incarnate Life of God; that they are slaying, not a Prophet or a Servant, but an Only-Begotten Son.

This prayer, then, is one which we can take upon our own lips. . . . We have abused the French Republic and the Portuguese revolutionists, and the Italian Freemasons, and the Spanish anarchists, and the Irish Orangemen long enough. In the very point of our agony we must learn to pray. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

III. Lastly, it is for ourselves also that Jesus prays: since we too, in our own measure, have sinned in frantic ignorance.

For here are we Catholics to whom have been committed the treasures of truth and grace; and here about us is the world to whom we have not transmitted them. We confess to a little sloth and lethargy, a little avarice, a little lack of generosity. We "know what we do," in part: we know we are not faithful to our highest inspirations, that we have not done all that we might, that we have shown a little self-will, a little malice, a little pardonable temper. And we confess these things, and give an easy absolution. And yet we know not what we do. We do not know how urgent is the need of God, how tremendous are the issues He has committed to our care, how enormous is the value of every soul -- of every act and word and thought that help to shape the destinies of such a soul. We do not know the tense expectation with which Heaven waits upon our whims: we do not know how here, in these minute opportunities of every day, lie the germs of new worlds that may be born to God, or crushed in embryo by our carelessness. We finger the jewels He was given us, and forget that each is worth a King's ransom; we play, like children in the midst of a garden, trampling down the flowers which God can replace but can never restore. . . .

For it is a Divine cause that we Catholics are crucifying every day; and a Divine Honour that we are insulting. If we could but see Him, here lies Jesus in our midst, with the marks of His agony upon Him, waiting for "one to comfort" Him, but He "found none."{2} He lies here, and we gossip and stare, and go our ways where the tragedy is done, when He hangs between heaven and earth, descended from the one and rejected by the other -- our God whom we thought our slave, who desires to be our Friend.

Father, then, by this prayer of Thy crucified Son, forgive us also; for we know not what we do.

But, above all, is this ignorance of ours the more startling in that very aspect of the spiritual life with which we are concerned. We know how it is a constant experience of those who are Christians to meet with Jesus suddenly coming to them as a Friend. There is scarcely an instructed Christian, at least, anywhere, who, usually in his youth, though occasionally in more mature life, does not suddenly awaken to the fact that Christ desires more than mere obedience, mere faith, or mere adoration -- that He desires such a Friendship with Himself that its inception is no less than a moral conversion. It is a wonderful and a beautiful sight to observe a soul in this manner becoming conscious -- as a maiden becomes conscious that she is loved -- of the heart-shaking fact that her God is her Lover. He comes, as to His own -- and His own receives Him.

And yet, again and again, as in human love, so in Divine love, the romance wears off; and the soul which a few years ago centred all upon Jesus Christ, a soul which reformed her life and arranged its details with the single object of growing more and more conformed to her Friend, which embraced devotion as her principal business, which concentrated her capacities and instincts for beauty, her interests, her emotions, her understanding, solely upon Him; which took a new start in life and a new centre from which to act; which sloughed off her sins almost without an effort in the sunlight of His Presence -- such a soul as this, when a little while has passed, when the searching processes of the Purgative Way begin to sift her through, or when imagination becomes weary, or maturity dulls the keen emotions of adolescence, or when the dreary facts of the world begin to reiterate their claim to be the sole proper object of consideration -- little by little such a soul as this, instead of tightening her hold upon her Friend, instead of clinging, even in a faith that amounts almost to a virtue of desperation, to that which has, as a matter of fact, been the most real and vital experience of her life, instead of seeking to transfer the image of Jesus from the romantic mood which has, it may be, passed, to the mature state which is now hers, instead of striving to cling to Him with her weakness, in place of the natural strength which has gone -- instead, relinquishes the tremendous reality among the fairy-stories of her youth, and counts Him and His Friendship as among those illusions which, though natural to early years, must pass away as experience increases. She is still content, perhaps, to treat Him as her God, as the ideal of the human race, as the Saviour of men; but no longer as the Lover who desires her among ten thousand, as the prince who has awakened her with a kiss, to whom, henceforward she must wholly belong. And yet so seldom it is that she knows what it is that she does! She regrets it, maybe, a little; she sees that it would have been more perfect to have persevered; she even envies, a little, those who have persevered. She knows that she has been wanting; but she knows not how much. She knows not that she has forfeited the possibility of sanctity, that she has missed for ever a thousand opportunities that can never come back: she knows not that, if it were not for God's mercy, she would have forfeited for a certainty even the probability of her salvation.

{1} Luke xxiii: 34.

{2} Ps. lxviii: 21.

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