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PreachMarch 17, 2024
Jesuit Father Andriy Zelinskyy, coordinator of military chaplains for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is pictured in a 2018 photo. Jesuit Father Andriy Zelinskyy, coordinator of military chaplains for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is pictured in a 2018 photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Andriy Zelinskyy, S.J.)

When reflecting on the life, death and resurrection of the Lord while living in a state of military invasion and active war, Andriy Zelinskyy, S.J., says that “everything becomes more authentic.” For this Jesuit priest, who serves as the chief military chaplain of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the task of preaching to those suffering in Ukraine, “from the trenches to the President,” has brought the challenge and promise of preaching hope on Good Friday into stark relief.

Confronting such profound suffering forces us to “the edge of humanity,” says Andriy, who is also the co-founder of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy and an advisor to the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He believes this is where the brutality and inhumanity of life push the boundaries of what it means to be human. These “edge cases,” witnessed in the horrors of war in Ukraine and mirrored in the crucifixion, challenge our understanding of humanity itself, he says. They prompt us to grapple with the depths of human cruelty and resilience.

Christ was also at the edge, but in his example, we learn that “our humanity doesn’t fall beyond its edges,” Andriy says, and that hope and love can persist despite all odds. “God ceases to be just a concept, or just a word, or just an idea; then he really becomes a source of life and all hope for you and for those who are around you.”

It is a message of immense hope, but to authentically preach this message in such dire circumstances, the preacher must first find hope themselves. “It begins with your search for hope,” Andriy shares with “Preach” host Ricardo da Silva, S.J. “And this is already a result of your search for sense, to find God in everything that’s happening around you.”

Andriy tries not to rely too much on certain techniques to communicate God’s message. “I’m not against the techniques,” he says. “They’re important, but in their due time. When you are in front of a living human being, please be a living human and be in the here and now.”

Instead, he searches for God in his experience. “It’s important to notice what’s going on around you in order to be able to understand what God is saying to you,” he says, “with his word for this day, for this moment of your life, at this edge of your life situation.”

And from that hope, Andriy is empowered to speak to people of all different stripes by recognizing our shared humanity, which is, for him, “a great treasure that at times is being neglected because it’s so obvious.”

When we think about war, we might think of its abstract signifiers: bullets, artillery, missiles. Andriy reminds us that there are real people enduring this war, living out their humanity even among trying conditions. “We can’t just decide, okay, now we’ll put our lives aside and let’s defend, let’s fight, and then someday we’ll start reading, being joyful, being human again,” he says, explaining the impossible choice the war has thrust upon those in Ukraine. Instead, by affirming our shared humanity and opening one’s heart up to Jesus, the suffering servant, “war is also a place for our spiritual growth.”

Scripture Readings for Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion

First Reading: Is 52:13-53:12
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-16, 17, 25
Second Reading: Heb 4:14-16, 5:7-9
Gospel: Jn 18:1-19

You can find the full text of the readings here.

Homily for Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion, by Andriy Zelinskyy, S.J.

I come from a country severely afflicted by war. Millions of refugees, internally displaced people, thousands killed, lost in action and in Russian prisons. Families without fathers, fathers without families. Rivers of children’s tears. With the unknown today and uncertain tomorrow.

Everything was so clear yesterday, nothing remains the same today, and nobody is sure how the next day is going to look like. The people, though, are still strong enough. What is injured— that’s our humanity. In the battlefield, I learnt that humanity does have edges; those lines beyond which, it seems, it ceases being human.

The first edge that I discovered is the unprovoked violence of an aggressor. Violence is always brutal. But the unprovoked one—that is, violence for no reason—is brutally absurd. Absurdity doesn’t offer answers. Pain is not interested in your name, in your personality—it seeks only to disfigure the shape of your personal existence. I saw something that I couldn’t believe, neither could I understand. Looking at those innocent civilians murdered by foreign troops in their own houses, that those people had been building their whole lives; and then looking at those children watching their moms being raped; and the elderly tying themselves to the radiator in order not to fall down from their legs in sleep, because there’s no room to lie down at night in the [basement, packed with human beings] for a whole month in a small Ukrainian village of Yahidne.

You look at all this thinking: “How come a human being can do so much violence to another human being? Today, in the 21st century. For no reason.” All this seems to point to a certain line in our behavior beyond which there is something about us that we have not yet discovered in our human nature, even after centuries of suffering.

The second edge of humanity is better seen from within one’s own personal suffering. When the whole world suddenly disappears to you, sometimes in one single moment, in a glimpse. And you lose your ground, and you lack courage to make another step, because from within the trenches, or from within the ruins of the destroyed house you used to live in for years; or from a hospital ward; or from within your cancer situation or your loneliness, and your pain and your loss of purpose, you can’t see any longer the sunshine, and the blue sky above. Or you simply can`t see. Reduced to pain and suffering, you can’t live to the fullness of your human freedom and dignity; you can`t be yourself. Now, you must suffer, and your sufferings can draw an edge to your humanity.

The third edge of humanity we notice, I think, from a distance; you know, that’s when your indifference becomes a distance from somebody’s real pain. For the human vulnerability, you may agree, is an undeniable mark of being truly human. Wounded humanity can never be far away. We all share in the same human nature. Injured in one place, it can certainly bleed elsewhere if not taken care in due time. Illusions don’t last long, they easily crumble. You can’t simplify reality to be able not to notice disturbing images of somebody’s suffering. A simplified mind, I think, can’t find answers to complex problems—can’t hide. There’s no ocean so wide to separate you completely from a wounded humanity no matter where the scar is. Indifference trims our human dignity.

Well, this is our world today: torn to pieces and shred by missiles, tanks and drones, pierced by indifference, scourged by a sense of loneliness for so many. This is our humanity, our common humanity today: nailed to the harsh reality of wars and unjustified violence, confined by uncertainties of the present moment.

This humanity, I think, must be the edge of my existence. Isn’t it? If this is the edge, there must be nothing beyond: no future, no life. What could be the sense of these thousands of lost lives, of the rivers of children’s tears, of the tons of broken dreams, all the affliction and loneliness in this world?

The Cross of Christ, too, marks the edges of humanity, but doesn’t leave us without hope. He was there too—at the edge, unprovoked and undeserved cruelty from all those who despised, envied, hated or feared him. Their voice was strong and clear: “Crucify him!”

Unbearable suffering and annoying pain of loneliness within his body and his heart. Crushed, annihilated, “a man of suffering… from whom people hide their faces.” Satisfied with whispers of those observing from a distance: Had not he saved others?—remember the words—How come he himself can’t step down from the cross now?

Well, true hope requires a sincere touch to reality—ugly and disfigured as it may look at times, painful and repulsive. But reality is always greater than what our sight can reach. There must be something beyond those lines that appear to us as edges; the edges right in front of our eyes. Or better, I’d say, there must be somebody beyond those lines.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola proposes a very special kind of prayer. Standing in front of the cross and gazing at Jesus crucified, he invites us to talk to him “as a friend talks to a friend.” Right there, at the edge of humanity, rejected, humiliated, abandoned, crucified Messiah. Talk to him. Today is the day! Do not be afraid to ask him: “Jesus, my Lord, how come you’re once again nailed to a cross? How come a human being, once again, can be so cruel? How come a human being can be exposed to so much suffering today? How come a human being can be so indifferent today? How come I... Maybe, better to say: What have I done at the edge of humanity?... And what can I actually do?

 You can do what Jesus did. Remember, he loved, honestly and to the very end. And it was this love that opened the door to a new day in our human history. And it still can do it, when and if only you, and me, and us, don’t stop loving—like he did. In Jesus, love is stronger than death, not only for him, but for me and for you too.

You know, one of the most striking icons in Byzantine sacred art that really shocked me a long time ago, was the icon of the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior with an inscription right above his thorn-crowned head saying: “King of Glory”. Notice, it’s not on the icon of Resurrection, but here, above the cross. Here is our King; and here’s his glory, simple, silent, pierced, nailed glory of our naked God at the edge of humanity. But you know, he is not simply dying there. He’s dying for me and for you. And this changes everything! Right there at the cross, in Jesus, our humanity doesn’t fall beyond its edges. Even there, even then, he continues to love, and even in that dense darkness, or loneliness, that he experiences as a human being he doesn’t let himself forget that he is loved too: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Talk to Jesus. Today is the day. It is here that a living hope takes its roots—from the tomb sealed with a heavy stone. For even there, at the edge of humanity, he continued to love. He never stopped. He never will. Maybe you shouldn’t either. This is solid ground for our hope in the time of uncertainties, here, today, at the edge of humanity.

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