February / March 2015 - Vol. 78

Repentant at the cross
“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” 
by Raniero Cantalamessa

He suffered and died for our sins

In the New Testament, the kerygma of the passion is always made up of two elements: of a fact—he “suffered” and “died”; and of the reason for this fact—“for us,” “for our sins” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 4:25). Christ’s passion is ultimately unrelated to us unless we enter into it through the narrow door of this “for us,” because only he who acknowledges that Christ’s passion is his work really understands Christ’s passion.


Therefore, my personal sin was also present in Gethsemane, weighing on the heart of Jesus; on the cross, my egoism and my abuse of freedom kept him nailed. If Christ died “for my sins,” then—simply by making the phrase active—I killed Jesus of Nazareth! The three thousand whom Peter addressed at Pentecost had not all been present in Pilate’s praetorium or on Calvary hammering in the nails, yet he lifted his voice and said to them, “You crucified Jesus of Nazareth!” (cf. Acts 2:23). And by the work of the Holy Spirit, they acknowledged it was true, because it is written, “They were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ ” (2:37).


“Were you there, were you there, when they crucified my Lord?” says an African-American spiritual full of faith. And it goes on: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Every time I hear this hymn, I am compelled to think, “Alas, yes, I was also there, I was also there, when they crucified my Lord!”


It is necessary that every man experience an earthquake once in his lifetime and that he experience in his heart something similar to what happened in nature at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the rocks split, and the tombs were opened. It is necessary that a holy fear of God once and for all shatter our hearts, which are so self-confident in spite of everything. Peter the apostle experienced something like this, and he was able to cry out those tremendous words to the multitude because he had first cried them to himself and had “wept bitterly” when Jesus looked at him (Luke 22:62).


In the reading of the passion, we hear these words from John’s Gospel: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (19:37). May this prophecy be realized in us too; let us look on him whom we have pierced and mourn for him as one mourns for an only child (cf. Zechariah 12:10). If the world is not converted by listening to us preachers of the gospel, let it be converted by seeing us weep and mourn!

Long for repentance

By resurrecting Jesus from the dead, God transformed our greatest sins into his greatest mercy. By killing Jesus, we have killed our sins, which he had taken onto himself. Only if the word “repentance” has reached the bottom of our hearts shall we be able to savor now the floods of light and love enclosed in this joyful Easter message. Whoever has been able to say in all sincerity, “I killed Jesus of Nazareth” knows what it means to be “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). It is like someone being convinced that he has killed another person, who flees in desperation, believing there is no escape in this world for him, when unexpectedly he hears that the person managed to survive and has forgiven him and even wants to be friends with him.


Sin itself holds no fear for us because we no longer bear it by ourselves. He was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25), that is, so that he could take our sins and, in exchange, grant us his justice. A repentant man has been “baptized into Jesus’ death” (6:3), and now it’s as if Jesus were dragging him together with himself out of the tomb and into a new life. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5).


Perhaps you think this joyful message is not for you because your veil hasn’t been torn and your eyes haven’t overflowed with tears of repentance. Don’t be sad and don’t despair; this is God’s gift, and he can give it to you from one minute to the next or gradually, perhaps when you least expect it. Just persevere untiringly in imploring him and desiring it, just as I do. If you ardently long for repentance, you have already repented! Let yourself be born again to “a living hope,” and begin to live your new life.

Excerpt from The Fire of Christ’s Love: Meditations on the Cross, © 2013 Raniero Cantalamessa, published by

The Word Among Us Press. Used with permission.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (born July 22, 1934) is an Italian Catholic priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. He has devoted his ministry to preaching and writing. He is a Scripture scholar, theologian, and noted author of numerous books. Since 1980 he has served as the Preacher to the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. He is a noted ecumenist and frequent worldwide speaker, and a member of the Catholic Delegation for the Dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches.

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