|O Crux, ave, spes unica|
|“Hail Cross! Thou only hope of man. During this Passiontide increase the grace of the pious and purge sinners from their guilt.” (Vexilla Regis.)|
Holy Week Meditation
The first four weeks of Lent were but a preparation for the intense grief of the Church during the final two. She knows that the enemies of Jesus seek His death and will lay their sacrilegious hands upon Him within twelve days. She asks us to climb the hill of Calvary with Him; to witness His Passion and death; to see the stone placed against the Sepulcher where His lifeless body is laid. The work of our redemption required that Our Lord should be set as the salvation of mankind upon the tree of the Cross so that, whence came death, thence also life might rise again. On Palm Sunday He rides forward like a conqueror for the wondrous struggle between the Prince of Life and the Prince of Death (Easter Sequence). On Good Friday He mounts His costly throne as a victim for our salvation.
The Church asks for more than our compassion and our tears. She asks us to repent, to amend our lives, to follow the example of His humility, so that we might be made partakers of His Resurrection. (Collect Palm Sunday). During the four weeks that have preceded, the Church has been leading the sinner to his conversion; so far, however, this conversion has been but begun; now she would perfect it. It is no longer our Jesus, fasting and praying in the desert, that she offers to our consideration; it is this same Jesus, as the great Victim immolated for the world’s salvation.
The fatal hour is at hand; the power of darkness is preparing to make use of the time that is still left; the greatest of crimes is about to be perpetrated. The Church no longer needs to urge her children to repentance; they know too well, now, what sin must be, when it could require such expiation as this. She is all absorbed in the thought of the terrible event which is to close the life of the God-Man upon earth; and by expressing her own thoughts through the holy liturgy, she teaches us what our own sentiments should be. She wishes her children to reflect upon the love and affection of the Son of God, who has treated His creatures with such unlimited confidence, lived their own life, spent His three-and-thirty years among them, not only humbly and peaceably, but in “going about doing good” (Acts x:38). Now this life of kindness, condescension and humility, is to be cut short by the disgraceful death upon the Cross, to which none but slaves are subjected.
“Behold the Man”, cries Pilate as he presents our mangled and bleeding Saviour to the crowd whose “hosannas” have been changed so soon to cries of “Crucify Him!”. “Behold the Man!” – the Christian understands the full force of the word Man when applied to our Redeemer. Adam, the first man, rebelled against God, and by his sin deranged the whole world of the Creator; as a punishment for his pride and intemperance, the flesh tyrannized over the spirit; the very earth was cursed and thorns were to be its growth. Jesus, the New Man, comes into this world, bearing upon Him not the reality but the appearance of sin; in Him the work of the Creator regains its primeval order; but the change is not wrought without violence. To teach us that the flesh must be brought into subjection to the spirit, Jesus’ flesh was torn by scourges; to teach us that pride must give way to humility, the only crown that Jesus wears is made of thorns. Yes – “Behold the Man!” – the triumph of the spirit over the flesh, the triumph of humility over pride.
The Just One becomes a prey to every bitter suffering – His soul “sorrowful even unto death”, weighed down by the malediction of our sins. He drinks the Chalice, which He had so humbly asked His Father to take from Him, even to the very dregs. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He cries upon the Cross. This it is that fills the Church with her immense grief; this it is that she now proposes to our consideration; for she knows that if we once rightly understand the suffering of her Jesus, our attachment to sin must needs be broken, for, by sin, we make ourselves guilty of the sin we detest in those who crucified Him on the First Good Friday.
But the Church knows how hard is the heart of man and puts before us those fearful imprecations which the Prophets, speaking in Jesus’ person, pronounced against them that put our Lord to death. They teach us what the Christian must also expect if, as St. Paul so forcibly expresses it, “we again crucify the Son of God”. But, if by our sins we have made ourselves guilty of the death of the Son of God, it is equally true that the Blood which flows from His Sacred Wounds has the power to cleanse us from the guilt of our crimes. The cruelty of Jesus’ executioners made Five Wounds in His sacred Body, and from these flow Five sources of salvation which purify the world and restore within us that image of God which sin had destroyed.
Let us, then, approach with confidence to this redeeming Blood which throws open to the sinner the gates of Heaven, and whose worth is such that it could redeem a million worlds were they even more guilty than ours. Long ages have passed since it flowed down the wounded Body of our Jesus and fell in streams from the Cross upon this ungrateful earth; yet its power is as great as ever.
St. Paul reminds us that we have been bought at a great price and the Prince of the Apostles explains: “Know ye that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as gold or silver — but with the precious Blood of Christ, as of a Lamb unspotted and undefiled”. The power of this Blood has broken the very gates of hell, severed our chains, and “made peace both as to the things on earth and the things that are in heaven”. Let us receive upon us, therefore, this precious Blood, wash our wounds in It, and sign our foreheads with It as an indelible mark which may protect us on the day of wrath, from the sword of vengeance. An adoring gratitude towards the Blood that has redeemed us, and a loving veneration of the Holy Cross – these are the two sentiments which ought to be uppermost in our minds during these two weeks.
At the same time, we must not lose sight of the event to which the sorrowful events of these two weeks are leading – the triumph of Easter, the victory of the King who overcame Death and the Adversary during that first Easter night, that “truly blessed night, which alone deserved to know the time and the hour in which Christ rose again from the grave! This is the night of which it is written: “And the night shall be enlightened as the day; and the night is my light in my enjoyments. Therefore, the holiness of this night drives away all wickedness, cleanses faults, and restores innocence to the fallen, and gladness to the sorrowful. It puts to flight hatred, brings peace and humbles pride.” (Preface – Easter Vigil)
Throughout the sorrows of Passiontide and the joy of Easter, we should unite ourselves with the Mother of Our Lord and Our Mother. The sword of sorrow which pierced her Immaculate Heart upon Calvary gave us admission there. Can we wonder that Jesus chose this moment for making her the Mother of men, in the person of St. John the Beloved Disciple? Never had Mary’s heart loved us as she did then; from that time forward the Second Eve became truly “Mother of the living” (Gen.3:20). For time and eternity, Mary will extend to us the love she has borne for her Son, for she has just heard Him saying that we are her children. He is our Lord, for He has redeemed us; she is our Lady, for she generously cooperated in our redemption. St. Ambrose writes: “She stood opposite the Cross, gazing with maternal love on the wounds of her Son; and thus she stood, not waiting for her Jesus to die, but for the world to be saved”.
“Who is there would not weep to see Christ’s Mother suffering so?...Do this, O Holy Mother! Deeply stamp the wounds of the crucified upon my heart. Let me share with thee the sufferings of thy Son, for it was for me He graciously deigned to be wounded and to suffer.”
“Make me lovingly weep with thee; make me compassionate with thee, our Crucified Jesus, as long as life shall last. This is my desire – to stand near the Cross with thee – and to be a sharer in thy grief.”