By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
FROM THE 1980s to the 1990s, the country of El Salvador has been described as a land full of violence against the poor. During these years, thousands of Salvadorans, including farmers, teachers, elderly, and children were killed, not sparing the innocent. Among the victims of the regime was a certain Christian named Oscar Romero, an archbishop. In the exercise of his prophetic ministry, his mouth was unstoppable; it gave voice to the cry against the violence to the poor. He was the outspoken critic of the regime. Treated as an Enemy of the State, he was brutally murdered on March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Holy Mass. That his death occurred during a Eucharistic celebration has much symbolic value, because it imitated the body and blood of Jesus which he was consecrating, themselves signs of God’s love for the poor, even as Archbishop Romero died defending their cause.
But apart from its symbolic value, the death of Oscar Romero is a concretization of what, in the theology of the Gospel of Mark, the death of Christ means for us. Although Jesus was treated by his enemies as a criminal, and died like one, yet he gave up his life as the faithful Servant of Yahweh. In the Old Testament, the figure of the Servant of God is described in Isaianic four songs (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12) which attempt to give sense, meaning and purpose to Israel’s historical experience of exile in Babylon. The author probably hoped that in identifying themselves with the Servant of Yahweh so described, the people of Israel would find meaning in their seemingly senseless history, painful and humiliating as it was. The 1st Reading is part of the third song which portrays the Servant who does not refuse the divine vocation to bring the message of liberation to God’s people. Though people do not accept him, yet he persists in obeying God, willingly submitting to insults and beatings: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (Isa 50:5-6). He has great confidence not in his own power but in the power of God who called him (v 7),
The Church takes the Servant of God in Isaiah to refer to Jesus who, according to the 2nd Reading (Phil 2:6-11), was obedient to the Father’s will. Like the suffering Servant, he accepted the task of proclaiming the gospel to the poor, taking up their cause, and of liberating men from sin. His faithfulness to the task was proven by his acceptance of his death on the cross, a shameful and humiliating death, even as the Servant of Yahweh, though harshly treated, submitted and opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). Because of his faithfulness, God proved him right, and glorified him (Phil 2:11). His death is therefore not his defeat. In Mark’s understanding, the battle with Satan that began in the temptation story (Mark 1:13) ended with the victory of Jesus who, in his crucifixion, was acknowledged as the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Hence, those who mocked him, derided him, and crucified him were proven wrong. For this reason, Jesus’ loud cry before he died on the cross (Mark 15:37) should be interpreted as a cry of victory over his enemies.
It is, of course, not difficult for us, as Christians, to see in the death of Jesus an example to follow (cf 1 Pet 2:21-25). And Archbishop Romero was one of those who understood the exemplary meaning of Jesus’ death. Like the Eucharist which he celebrated (1 Cor 11:26), his death was a proclamation of the death of the Lord. But what is relevant to us is the view that even though Romero died, his death did not mean the triumph of the government which had a hand in the assassination to silence him. The Salvadoran government did not become a showcase of justice with the murder of the Archbishop. Rather, like Jesus’, his death can be seen as part of the fulfillment of God’s plan to liberate the people of El Salvador, especially the poor, from misery. His death was an act of liberation itself. It brought light to the plight of the poor. It made clear how evil the regime was. It had a saving value for the people of El Salvador. Therefore, he was not really defeated, nor was he silenced. Indeed, like the Servant of Yahweh, one can assume that Romero has already been crowned with victory in heaven, for he was obedient to his vocation to proclaim the gospel of liberation to the poor. Our analogy, to be sure, has its limits, because, for one thing, unlike Christ’s, Romero’s death has no eschatological significance. Still, it somehow gives us an idea how the death of Jesus was a victory over the forces of darkness.