In 1979, a large crowd gathered around the church of St. Agnes in New York to hear the wisdom of Fulton Sheen in the last Good Friday homily that he preached.
The topic of Bishop Sheen’s homily was “Spectators on and about the Cross.” He broke the spectators into three groups:
- The spectators of the indifferent or fallen away
- The spectators of pain
- The spectators of love
How does this relate to us? At one point during his homily Bishop Sheen said, “We are spectators this day. All of us in varying degrees are spectators.” This year on Good Friday as we relive our Lord’s passion and death we join in on the crowd of spectators.
The Spectators of the Indifferent or Fallen Away
The spectators of the indifferent or fallen away are the four executioners who just sit and watch our Lord on the cross. They don’t sit and watch in marvel, but rather, are told to keep watch just in case someone comes and tries to steal Christ’s body (since they were told that he might rise from the dead). As they keep watch, they roll dice for whoever will keep his 5th garment.
To the fallen away Bishop Sheen says that, although they do not believe, they watch and they think:
“Maybe He will rise from the dead. Maybe we’d better sit here.” And Sheen says to them, “You spend the time dicing, a little pleasure here and there, in order to make one forget that one has given up the faith, but all the while the grace of God worries you and disturbs you.”
Despite this turning away from God, Bishop Sheen ends on a positive note by saying that if the indifferent and fallen away but stumble into the confessional, then God will always welcome them back.
The Spectators of Pain
The spectators of pain are the thieves that were crucified on the left and right of Christ. The thieves identify with those of us who have pain, anxiety, mental worry, suffering, and sadness.
Bishop Sheen beautifully says, “It is only fitting, therefore, that the good Lord looked out on pain and leave us a lesson about it.”
What lesson did our Good Lord leave us about suffering? Through the example of the thief on right of Christ who had a change of heart and said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” we learn that God does not allow us to be burdened with pain beyond our measures. We learn that as C.S. Lewis said and whom Fulton Sheen quotes:
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Bishop Sheen explains that the ripple effects of pain do the opposite of what a rock does when thrown into a pond. Instead of the ripples expanding outer and wider, the ripples of pain go inner and closer until we are left alone with God. Pain can be instrumental in bringing us into union with God.
The thief on the right came to understand this and shows us that pain can be transforming as it is a window into the reality that our ultimate home is not this earthly life of pain and suffering. Rather, our ultimate home is a Kingdom to which Christ refers to as Paradise.
The Spectators of Love
The spectators of love are the two women that stood at the foot of the cross, namely, Mary our Mother and Mary Magdalen.
These two women stand for two kinds of love: a need love which, is a love we experience on account of our imperfection, and a gift love, which is a love that is in want of nothing.
Bishop Sheen explains that need love is on account of our imperfection because, as imperfect beings, we are in need of many things. For instance, “We need food for the stomach, thought for the mind, music for the ears, friends for the heart. They fill a want.” Need love is connected to erotic love which, understood by Freud, is not love for the person but merely a desire for the pleasure one can derive from a person. Gift love, however, “does not want anything. It just gives. Surrenders itself. Sacrifices itself.”
Before Mary Magdalen’s conversion, she stood for need/erotic love. After her conversion, however, Mary Magdalen’s love transformed into the same love as our Blessed Mother, namely, gift love. Mary Magdalen’s love for Christ became a gift love because she no longer sought any gain for herself but only desired to make a total gift of herself to Christ.
Are we Spectators in this Present Age?
As mentioned earlier, Fulton Sheen said,
“We are spectators this day. All of us in varying degrees are spectators.”
As we relive Good Friday each year we have the opportunity to join in on the spectators from 2,000 years ago and can relate to each group of spectators in varying degrees. Moreover, not only can we identify with certain groups, but we can also learn from them. The indifferent/fallen away show us that no one is ever too far from God’s mercy, the sufferers show us that God speaks through pain, and the lovers show us that true love inspires acts of total self-surrender.
We thank Fulton Sheen for his words of wisdom on this Good Friday. Here is a link to watch a recording of the entire homily.