Reflection for Good Friday
Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth… (Isaiah 53:7)
More than seven centuries before the coming of Christ, a Hebrew prophet named Isaiah wrote these words as part of a series of songs about a servant of the Lord, a man of sorrows, who silently endured sufferings and death to take away sins.
Isaiah wrote these words as if they were telling of an event that had already happened. Being a prophet, he wrote of future events as though they were already past. In fact, there was no one in the Jewish past, or in Isaiah’s own time, who fit this description. Only seven centuries and more in the future would Isaiah’s prophecy come true, in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
A few years after the Lord had ascended into heaven, a eunuch from Ethiopia who had come to believe in the one true God of the Hebrews was sitting in his chariot and reading the holy scriptures. He was reading these words of Isaiah: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” The story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8, verses 29-39.
A Christian named Philip, one of the seven first deacons, inspired by an angel of the Lord, went up to the chariot and asked the man if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”, and he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch asked him a question. “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself, or about some one else?”
Beginning with these words of Isaiah’s prophecy, Philip told him the good news of Jesus. As they went along the desert road and came to some water, the eunuch asked Philip for Baptism. Philip baptized him, and then was taken away by the Spirit, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.
About whom does the prophet say this?
It was not about himself, but about someone else, Jesus of Nazareth.
Before the coming of Jesus the songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah were a mystery. They were, to use an image of G.K. Chesterton, like a lock for which no one had the key. Unless the key fits perfectly, the lock will not open. In this case, God was the one who made the lock; but it was seven hundred years before He sent the key into the world. This key fits so perfectly that these passages in Isaiah have been called a fifth Gospel, a Gospel written ahead of time. It is a Gospel which can be understood after the events have taken place, with the help of the Church as teacher.
“Do you understand what you are reading?”, Philip had asked. Wisely, the man from Ethiopia answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
So the Church uses these passages to shed light on the mystery of Christ, and sees Christ as the key to explain these passages. The one from which the Ethiopian was reading is proclaimed by the Church in her Good Friday liturgy. Let us too make use of it, in order to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s suffering for our salvation, and the love that He has for us, the love that brought Him to the Cross.
The passage begins at Isaiah, chapter 52, verse 13:
“Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” And so our Lord has been exalted. He has been lifted up very high on the Cross; He has been exalted and lifted up very high in His resurrection and ascension into heaven. The two go together. The Cross is the means of Christ’s glorification. “And I,” He said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32)
He first is lifted up in suffering. Read what Isaiah says: “As many were astonished at him – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men – so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.” (52:14-15)
Many were astonished at Him: at the wounds that covered His entire body, so that his appearance was marred, beyond human semblance, so that He almost looked no more like a man at all. Isaiah also says, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Is. 53:2-3) How could this man, so covered with wounds, be a figure of glory? There was no beauty left in Him, not in His physical appearance. All was bruising, and the stripes from the scourging, and open wounds. “I am a worm and no man,” says David in Psalm 22 (verse 6), another prophecy of the crucifixion, the one from which Jesus quoted on the Cross. “They have pierced my hands and my feet. They have numbered all my bones.” (16-17) A crown of thorns made wounds all around His head. Nails through His hands and His feet held Him firmly to a Cross of wood set in the ground. It was the kind of sight from which men hide their faces, from which they turn away in shock and horror and pity. Only those who have closed down their emotional responses, who abstract themselves from sympathy for a suffering fellow creature, who regard Him as no longer a man, can endure to watch the agony.
Except for a few women, and John, and far above all the Mother. She stands beneath the Cross. She endures. She suffers all of it with Him, a more intense suffering than we will ever know. She too sees the beauty that is hidden from others; the beauty of His human soul, filled with love and compassion for sinful humanity; the beauty of His divine nature, of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, bringing the mercy of the Father into the world through taking our sins upon Himself. This is truly His exaltation. He was oppressed, despised, rejected, a man of sorrows – and now kings shut their mouths because of Him. (Is. 52:15) How many kings and princes have laid down their crowns before Him, the King of Kings, who gave His life for His servants.
And Isaiah wrote of it seven centuries before it happened: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:4-6)
Our selfish desires, our sins, have caused us to wander, like sheep without a shepherd, to go astray, each one meandering to destruction in his own way. Turning away from God always involves turning away from one another, and so the flock of the human family wanders in various directions. But the Lord, in laying on His Son the iniquity of us all, draws us back together into unity. Recall how He commanded us on the night before His death to serve one another, to wash one another’s feet, to love one another as He has loved us.
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Is. 53:8)
Isaiah saw the suffering. He saw that it was redemptive suffering, offered for our sins.
He also saw the silence. The lamb of God, led to the slaughter for the sins of the world, opened not His mouth in condemnation. He spoke only to forgive; to offer paradise to the repentant thief; to give His Mother to us; to declare His thirst for souls; to cry out the first line of the Psalm, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?; to declare that His sacrifice has been consummated, and to commend His spirit into the hands of His Father.
Isaiah saw, also, the burial: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (53:9) But all this was for our salvation: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days…” (53:10)
How can this be? The servant of the Lord has poured out His soul to death. Yet “He shall see offspring”, the countless believers who have gained eternal life through His sacrifice. “He shall prolong His days”, for His death is not the end of Him. It is the gateway to His full exaltation.
Kings shut their mouths because of Him. May kings and rulers of today and tomorrow learn from Constantine the Emperor, Canute of Denmark, Wenceslaus of Bohemia, Casimir of Poland, Stephen of Hungary, Edward of England, known as the Confessor, Louis of France, and countless other holy rulers, to submit their rule to that of the true King of Kings, Jesus Christ.
Isaiah proclaimed His saving death and resurrection seven centuries before it happened. The eunuch, a minister of the Ethiopian queen, was humble enough to learn from the Church that Christ is the key to this prophecy. All those other kings and princes saw the same. For our rulers, and for us, who have again gone astray like sheep, each following his own way, there is only one solution: to acknowledge that Christ Jesus, the man of sorrows, was led like a sheep to the slaughter, was wounded for our transgressions, and lives; to proclaim His kingship; to desire His beauty to obey His commands.
By Fr Daniel Utrecht, Cong. Orat.