Last Monday evening in the church of St. George the Martyr Preston, I gave the concluding reflection of a Lenten series on the Passion of the Lord. These talks were a commendable local ecumenical venture for the season of Lent in the Preston area and were well attended by members of the various Christian traditions.
It was encouraging to see Christians gathered for prayer and worship and to hear a reflection on some aspect of the Lord’s suffering and death, in this way nurturing their spirituality and faith for Holy Week and the coming solemnity of Easter.
My own reflection on the Lord’s passion was as follows:
‘One way of approaching the story of Christ’s Passion is to view it as a tableau or a drama having a range of actors, some playing major parts and others have less prominent roles. We think primarily of course of Christ as the principal actor who holds centre stage in this drama.
Then there is Pilate who would ultimately pass the death sentence on Christ; the chief priests and Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. All four gospels recount factually and without comment the denial of Peter, the first among the Apostles.
There is Judas who betrayed him, and his closest friends and disciples, the Apostles, who fled the scene when Christ was arrested. Minor actors might include the servant girl who caused Peter to disown Christ, or the young man in Mark’s gospel who fled naked at the arrest of Christ (was it Mark himself?).
Then there is Simon of Cyrene who was forced to assist Christ carry his cross on the way to Calvary, and the women of Jerusalem who bewailed Jesus as he was being led to crucifixion.
The scene at the foot of cross, especially in John’s gospel, constitutes a mini-drama in its own right, where Jesus commends his mother to the beloved disciple and the beloved disciple in turn to the care of his mother. This particular scene has been depicted countless times in art and religious representation, and the figure of the mother of Christ finds powerful expression in the Medieval Latin hymn ‘Stabat Mater’, so movingly set to music by, among others, the Italian composers Pergolese, Vivaldi and Rossini.
The continuing powerful attraction of the Passion drama is evidenced during Holy Week in such traditional Catholic countries as Spain and the Philippines with their elaborate Passion processions. The English conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, has recently written a life of Johann Sebastian Bach in which he muses aloud at how performances of Bach’s Matthew and John’s Passion continue to draw packed and fascinated audiences to the concert hall, notwithstanding the apparently secular age in which we live.
The enduring attraction of Handel’s Messiah, e.g., the aria ‘ He was despised’ also offers food for reflection.
As we listen to and ponder on the gospel accounts of the Lord’s Passion we are at once struck by their apparently factual and narrative style. Apart, perhaps, from references to the fulfilment of Scripture (The Old Testament) the story in all four gospels is allowed to speak for itself as it unfolds.
Each of the Evangelists adds little by way of interpretation, nor do they exaggerate or dwell on the physical brutality inflicted on Christ, e.g. the scourging, crowning with thorns, his being nailed to the cross, his last hours on the cross, and finally his burial. The reader/listener is invited to judge for his or herself. Christ’s betrayal, maltreatment and the gross injustice perpetrated on him are there for all to see.
In the Catholic liturgy of Good Friday the reading of John’s account of the Passion is heard in absolute silence. The congregation is consciously drawn into the drama, with each person present permitted to make to engage in their own meditation and prayerful silence. The perceptive Christian listening to this gospel and hearing how Christ’s side was pierced by a soldier, resulting in the outpouring of blood and water, will surely associate these elements with the fundamental sacraments we know as baptism and the Eucharist. This same Christian might take his reflection further and gain the insight of how the fourth Evangelist is clearly implying that the crucified Christ is the source of the Church’s sacramental life. The theme of Christ’s innocent suffering will also evoke memories in the observant listener of the great Old Testament figures who suffered unjustly, e.g. Jeremiah, and above all the so-called Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53.
What we are not permitted to be is mere bystanders or simple spectators of this drama of Christ’s passion. As we read or listen to we find ourselves caught up in it. The well-known hymn quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Church at Philippi describes the Incarnation as the self-emptying of Christ – he leaves aside his Godhead, assumes the condition of a slave, and becomes obedient even to the extent of dying on a cross (Phil. 2:6-11). The Christian can only wonder at the depths of Christ’s divine love for humanity which impelled him to walk the road to Calvary.
The words of hallowed hymns – ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’, ‘My song is love Unknown’, ‘O sacred head ill-used, – and sacred music already mentioned, such as Bach, Pergolese, can help us enter into the spirit of the Passion and the sacred time which is Holy Week. Yet ultimately we can only stand silent in the face of mystery, of the divine condescension, of the infinite love of Christ.
The emptiness of Holy Saturday adds to the human desolation, as we ponder on how Christ embraced and experienced to the full the lot of the ‘sons of Adam’. Christ’s Passion, however, must not be viewed in isolation; we must not stop there. His dismal and horrifying death would not mark the end of the story. As Christ would say several times in John’s gospel his Father remained always with him, because he came exclusively to do his Father’s will.
Mysteriously and incomprehensibly, God was at work even in the depths of his suffering and would finally reveal his hand in the splendour of Easter morning, when Christ would rise glorious and victorious over suffering and death.
Lent and Holy Week are a season of prayerful reflection on the temptations and fasting of Our Lord, his arrest, trial, condemnation, and the concomitant suffering and humiliation. We pray, reflect, and as a Church imitate liturgically Christ in these final phases of his life, but we do not separate this season from Easter. We meditate on the Passion, but always in the knowledge that it does not represent the final chapter in the story of Christ.’
On Friday morning I travelled to the Furness peninsula and returned to St. Pius X Primary School, Barrow, to offer a concelebrated Mass with the local clergy in thanksgiving for their Ruby Jubilee. A number of those pupils who enrolled on that first day all those years ago were actually present yesterday forty years later!
In my brief homily I spoke of the past, present and future. We thought with gratitude of those who founded the school, priests and parishioners, many of those no longer with us, but whose inspiration lives on. I spoke to the present children and staff and of their task to nurture and support each other in developing their God-given gifts, for a Catholic school is first and foremost a Christian community. In conclusion I wished all the school well as it moves beyond it first forty years and into the future. May St. Pius X School continue to be a beacon of faith and learning for all who pass across its threshold!
As we are about to enter into Holy Week, I stress again the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for us as Catholics.
Through this Sacrament of Mercy we make our own the saving merits of Jesus Christ which he gained for though the events of that first Holy Week, when he suffered the death of the cross to bring us God’s peace.
Here in our Diocese of Lancaster our parish churches will be open this Wednesday (16 April) for two hours (6-8pm)in the evening and our priests available and willing to minister the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This ‘Reconciliation Wednesday’ is part our diocesan initiative ‘The Light is ON for YOU!’
Christ the Good Shepherd is waiting to welcome us. May we not be slow in approaching his throne of grace!
As ever in Christ our Crucified Lord,
+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster