The propelling drama of Holy Week finds the world stunned in complacency. We are too self-assured to mind what happened some time ago outside the city gates to a certain Christ. Either we do not care, and then life simply goes on. Or we are in the throes of despair, in active betrayal, and affected to the point of caring unbearably. We are either with Him or against Him, as were those who lived the event of His death. There is no middle way, or at least no convincing one.
And it is so, that of all the world’s religions, Christianity puts its focus squarely on this suffering of the Christ, and during Holy Week it especially looks to Calvary as it seeks answers for the plethora of agonies that afflict modern man.
Here there is no passive resignation, no attempt at achieving states of nirvanic dissociation from reality. There is simply the full and total engagement with suffering and sacrifice — and we are called, dared, to believe it good.
Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep — as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him…. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state…. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’etat. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People — the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are “Why hast thou forsaken me?”
—C.S.Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
The natural instinct is disbelief. All actually does seem lost, wasted. How could one who is the Son of God hang there, seemingly abandoned, in ignominy?
What about His disciples who denied Him, or fled in fear, compounding the silver piece betrayal?
And what of the agony of His mother who stood beneath Him dying? What kind of love is this?
How could suffering like no other make any sense, or further, be salvific?
The truth remains the greatest story ever told. And the glorious ending is not to be taken a figment of intelligent imagination.
What is surely missing from the narrative is the daring call to believe that the Crucifixion is real drama, and the Resurrection, real glory. And not just drama and glory, but the very crowning of salvation history on which all else depends.
All too often we deceive ourselves on reductionist narratives of the Passion and Resurrection that fail to acknowledge the divinity of the One who died and truly rose from the dead. If is easy to forget that apart from Christ’s salvific death and His rising from the dead, our death, human death would be a hopeless end, a tragedy sans redemption — the unbearable waste and privation of the good of life.
And it is here that we are well reminded to enter deeply in contemplation of the profound mystery of the Incarnation — the coming of God in the flesh — that permits our ascent to Him. For sin needed a Victor; slavery, a Liberator; the weakened, wounded, and at times hopeless nature of man, a Savior. And what Savior would He be if He were simply just another one of us?
It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of a human nature and the fullness of the godhead.
The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share his glory.
—Saint Leo the Great, Pope, Sermo 15, De Passione Domini, 3-4, emphasis added
The price paid is indeed high, and the means are lowly: human flesh, hung to die; a criminal’s end for One who is the fullness of goodness. The cost is the very life of the Son of God. What kind of love is this?
What are we left with, awaiting the moment when the veil of the temple is torn? Dare we look at our lives as a waste? A spectacular failure? Our misery, a hopeless, forsaken condemnation? Or do we otherwise turn around in the night to gaze back at that hilltop outside the city gates, and look upon Him whom we have pierced, innocent and reviled, abandoned to the fullness of the Father’s love and to the angry derision of a mob, and see transfigured before us the Savior of the World?
Can we dare believe ourselves loved in His wounds? Healed in His mercy? Held by the strength of a consummated dying love — as He begs our love in return? Dare we believe ourselves called to the com-passion our sufferings viscerally entail — brought to the gibbet of the Cross to share in His sacrifice as it shatters the darkness that envelops the land?
Or shall we refuse even this dying wish?
We must now pass through the first veil and approach the second, turning our eyes toward the Holy of Holies. I will say more: we must sacrifice ourselves to God, each day and in everything we do, accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honoring his blood by shedding our own. We must be ready to be crucified.
If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God….
If you are a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body. Make your own the expiation for the sins of the whole world. If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshiped God by night, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be the first to see the stone rolled back, and even the angels perhaps, and Jesus himself.
–From a homily by Saint Gregory Nazianzen, Bishop, Oratio 45, 23-24
Shall we weep there as the veil tears — visions of wasted life, indifference, losses untold — and dare behold ourselves grafted onto beams that unite heaven and earth? Will we waste our lives, or beg His strength and so offer them on the altar of the Cross? Can we survive the agony of The Passion?
And then believe the stone will be rolled away?
This is a sequel to The Infant of The Catacombs | On Helplessness and Grace, and Revelations on Pain.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com