I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ....
Now there's a fascinating expression we might overlook as we're looking for something else: "...and witness to the sufferings of Christ..."
The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter has fallen this year deep in the season of Lent, and we are preparing to witness the sufferings of Christ. A culture disinterested in history, obsessed with personal experience and individualism might say, "I wasn't there; I wasn't even born yet; it doesn't matter to me."
Lent must wean us off that atrophied way of thinking. We were there. Especially in Lent we walk the fourteen Stations of the Cross. We recite the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. We remember Good Friday as if it were yesterday.
Throughout our history the Holy Spirit has refreshed our memory -- our impressions -- of that Day. Saint Francis of Assisi, refused the gift of martyrdom by a Muslim ruler, was granted permission to tour Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa. His friars brought the custom back to Europe, erecting "stations" in churches and shrines, indoors and out, throughout Europe and the world. They wanted everyone to know what the man had suffered for our salvation.
Renaissance painters and sculptors, newly alive to the humanist spirit, described the physical suffering of Jesus in graphic detail. This fascination with Jesus' pain was something new. Until then European Christians imagined Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the saints as sitting on heavenly thrones, shrouded in comfortable glory. The devout begged for mercy from these all-powerful, benevolent patrons but no pictures, statues or stained glass windows suggested to them that their patrons had ever suffered poverty, abuse or hardship. Francis and the Renaissance opened that door.
With the Black Death, when a third of Europeans died in sudden agony, imagining the suffering of Christ became morbid and sometimes maudlin. Well into the twentieth century artists competed with each other to describe the horror of the cross in increasingly ferocious detail. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Cross reflected that strain. Gibson, the actor of cinema violence, knew what his audience wanted; but it was neither the first nor last effort to display the Passion.
Disciples of Jesus don't have to brutalize the imagination but we are called to witness the sufferings of Christ. We were born of the baptismal water that flowed from his chest; our mission began when he handed over the spirit to the Woman and the Beloved Disciple. Because you were there, a witness of the suffering of Christ, you can speak to the world of God's mercy.