- “Christ Suffers death on the Cross”
By Rev. J. A. M. Gillis
This is Passion Sunday, and a pall of grief rests on the sanctuary. The images – the crucifixes and statuary – are deeply veiled in mourning; and the ritual of the Mass is bereft of every symbol of gladness. The Gloria, with its beautiful significance of joy and gladness, is omitted. The Psalm of David, in which the royal prophet pours forth the sorrows of his heart, is not to-day recited at the foot of the altar. During the rest of the year, in festival and ferial, this penitential Psalm forms the preparation of the Mass, before the priest ascends the altar. But to-day, and during the whole of Passiontide, the mass itself, in the Introit, opens with the Psalm. In this the church would have us direct our thoughts to the one great sorrow of which the sorrow of David, poured forth so piteously, was but the faintest shadow.
The Gospel relates how the Savior hid Himself from the people who cruelly attempted to stone Him. The Church evidences her sorrow at this ill-treatment of her Divine Spouse by concealing from vision the crucifixes and sacred images which are thus deeply veiled with purple – the garb of penance and sorrow.
In the days of Sedicias, king of Judah, gloom and sorrow fell over Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, sent his armies against the city. For two long years, from the ninth to the eleventh year of the reign of that unfortunate monarch, a cry of hunger and distress arose from the besieged city. Day after day saw new horrors enacted, and the dirge of the doomed city sounded with deeper despair. The massive walls of the holy city at length yielded to the enemy; the army of the Assyrian entered through the break, and sword and fire completed the work of desolation. The noble structures which lent beauty to the ancient capital of Judah were plundered and left in smoldering ruins. The flower of the nobility and all the warriors who could raise the sword in defense of the nation were carried away in captivity, so that of the once proud city of kings not one was left but a few dressers of vines and husbandmen. And, saddest disaster in the work of desolation, the holy temple, the pledge of the favors of the Lord God of Israel, and the witness of the glories of a past age, that noble pile of marble and living gold, built and enriched by the munificence of King Solomon, was despoiled of its sacred treasures and burnt to the ground.
It was then that the holy prophet Jeremiah stood over the ruins of the fallen city and temple and delivered those messages of sorrow so beautifully voiced in his Lamentations.
In the words of the text the desolate mourners bewailing the doom of Jerusalem and the holy temple and the captivity of his people in foreign land, challenges all other sorrows to compare with the story of his Lamentations: “Ye who pass by the way attend and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.”
These words can have their full significance only as applied to Him who bore the load of all human grief upon His shoulders and whose sorrows were as the mighty ocean compared with the tiny streamlets of the sorrows of men. Hence, the prophet Isaias, seeing, through the mystic veil of the future, this Divine Victim of the sins of men weighted to the ground amidst the shadows of Gethsemane, covered with a sweat of blood and making his pathetic appeal to His Eternal Father, says of Him: “We have seen Him despised, the most abject of men, a man of sorrows.” Hence the Church applies the words of the mournful Jeremiah in His Lamentations to Him, who alone is the “Man of Sorrow.” “All ye who pass by the way attend and see if there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow.”
That doleful night of the Last Supper, when the last farewell was exchanged in the eating of the Pasch and the institution of the Eucharist, accompanying the Savior’s words: “Amen, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine until that day when I shall drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” That night with His three chosen and privileged Apostles failing to watch one hour with Him to lessen His burden of grief; that night with the desertion of all whom He most favored as His companions, with the denial by one and the betrayal by another; that gloomy night of humiliation and suffering, when dumb nature must have groaned in lamentation, as it did no the morrow by the darkening of the skies and the quaking of the earth and the rending of the veil of the temple; that night, when God, in His eternal love, was suffering for man and man showed only ingratitude, witnessed that limitless ocean of sorrow of which all other sorrows are but shadows in comparison.
Is there anything which touches the sensibilities so much as the ingratitude of a friend? And, if that friend has been more highly favored than others, if special privileges have been conferred upon him, if our tenderest love has been shown him, then his ingratitude, his forgetfulness of our favors and love, wounds our feeling a thousand times more. It is such ingratitude of bosom friends which intensified the Savior’s grief that, in the prophetic words of Isaias, He is the “Man of Sorrows.”
A banquet is to be given. It is a fest of love. A generous Master invites His friends s His guests. They come. They partake of the feast. The kindliest of friendly greetings are interchanged. The time passes like the sweet pleasures of a happy dream. But as the hour of parting approaches, this kind-hearted Master announces to His guests that He is with them for the last time; that the object of His inviting them was to say to them a long and lasting farewell. Would anything be expected on the part of those guests on hearing such words but expressions of kindliest and warmest friendship and feelings of deepest and most genuine sorrow? One who was their truest friend and most liberal benefactor; one who lavished upon them every kindness which the most generous love could prompt; one who stood by them in every need, who sorrowed with them in their sorrow and rejoiced with them in their joy, was with them for the saddest duty which friend owes to friend – to pronounce a lasting farewell.
Words cannot adequately picture the sense of horror which must fill any heart capable of sympathy at the thought of one of those favored ones, not only returning the coldest and deepest ingratitude to such a friend and benefactor on such a sad occasion, but actually, at that sacred moment, planning to betray Him.
A picture of such kindness and love on the part of One, and of such cruel ingratitude on the part of the other, will bring home to us, in some measure, the last sad events which weighed down the Savior with that burden of sorrow so piteously voiced in the words of the Lamentations.
The Last supper and the events immediately preceding and following it present that example undying love on the one part and forgetfulness and cruelty on the other, which lend to the story of the Passion its unparalleled tinge of sadness.
Jesus sends His Apostles to prepare a dining-room where He was to celebrate the Passover with them.
St. John, who attended to the most minute details in his Gospel narrative, tells why the Savior selected this occasion to be present with His Apostles: “Now, before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto His Father, having loved His own who were in the world, loved them to the end” (John xiii, I). It was the transcendent love of Jesus or His Apostles which inspired all the beautiful and touching details of the Last Supper. In the depths of His infinite love, Jesus calls them “His own.” What more endearing expression was ever used by one friend to another?
To bring out the picture of enduring love in all its captivating beauty, the very Apostle who is about to betray Him is given a post of honor close by Jess’ side. The Evangelist, St. John, testifies of himself that he reclined on Jesus’ bosom, hence he occupied a place of honor by the side of the Savior. And who sits by His other hand? The details of the Gospel leave little doubt that in that other place of honor by the side of Jesus sat he who was about to betray Him. He dips his guilty hand with Jesus “in the dish,” and he talks with a familiarity and asks questions and gets replies to them, which lead us to conclude that he sits close by the Savior’s side (Mat. xxvi, 21-25).
In the course of the Supper Jesus made the announcement which renders this banquet of love also one of sadness. It was then He furnished them with the information that this was the occasion of His bidding them a last, long farewell. St. Luke opens this chapter of the Savior’s love and of the farewell which was prompted by it: “With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you before I suffer, for I say to you that from this time I will not eat it till it be fulfilled in the Kingdom of My Father” (Luke xxii, 15-16).
The scene of the Supper is passed. The Garden of Olives is reached. Here comes another pang of grief to the sad heart of the Savior. This time it comes from the conduct of those three Apostles on whose bosom, as it were, He hung for support when the traitor went froth in the silence of the darkness to complete his work of treachery.
Knowing that the end was at hand, Jesus goes forth to pour forth His soul to His Eternal Father in a prayer of appeal, and, at the same time, of perfect resignation: “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass away from me, nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Mat. 26-30). And feeling the over-powering weight of sorrow weighing Him to the ground, He seeks consolation from the presence of His beloved Apostles. He comes back to them, as if to have His load of grief assuaged by their words of sympathy, but even these – the Apostles whom He favored in a special way, the three privileged ones who stood by Him to witness his glory on the mountain of Transfiguration – have forgotten Him and are fast asleep. He addresses them His words of mild and loving compliant; “What? Could you not watch one hour with me?” And with a silent farewell he moves on through the darkness to meet a traitor. “Friend, whereto art thou come?” are the endearing words of the Master to His fallen Apostle. In the infinite depts of His compassion He would remind the unfortunate decuple that there was still time for repentance; But the heart of the traitor is hardened against the sweet grace of repentance; he is bent upon carrying out his work of treachery and sin; and to give his confederates the prearranged sing, he implants his traitorous kiss on the divine lips, and the innocent Victim is place in the hands of sinners.
The long, wary hours of that night of indescribable suffering and humiliation we pass over in silence. No human words can picture the sad tragedy. The Divine Victim Himself gives us the keynote when He pours forth His lamentation in the Garden of Olives: “My soul is sorrowful even unto death.” The day opens with the consummation of the tragedy in sight. Jesus, loaded with the heavy Cross, at length reaches the hill of Calvary. The instruments of torture are hastily prepared, and the innocent Lamb is laid on the altar of sacrifice. Hardened sinners look without remorse on the melancholy scene, but dumb nature protests against the cruelty of man, and pours forth its sympathy. The heavens which, in the words of Psalmists, show forth the glory of God and the firmament which declares the work of His Hand, look on in mourning. The sun veils its splendor and leaves the world in gloom and darkness. All nature is troubled and trembles as if sobbing at the sight of its outraged Creator.
A few days before this tragedy the Savior enters Jerusalem amidst the plaudits of the people. It is His day of triumph. The multitude rush forth to meet Him and to greet Him as their King; they strew their garments beneath His feet, and sing Hosannas of praise. All is joy, gladness and splendor. And when the Pharisees rebuke the people in their manifestation of loyalty, the Savior points to the hard stones of the pavement and tells the impious Pharisees that should the people refuse to acknowledge their Lord and King, those very stones over which He trod would cry out and show Him homage. Now, when the guilty hand of man has nailed Him to an infamous gibbet, the hard rocks is touched at the piteous sight and are rent asunder to manifest their sympathy.
To-day, the Church brings home to us the saddest of scenes and is befittingly garbed in mourning. The crucifixes and other sacred emblems are hidden from view, and sadness marks the whole ritual. There was a day in the ancient law, it fell on the tenth of the seventh month of the Jewish year, and was a day of universal mourning among the people of God. By the command of the Lord God of Israel every soul was to be afflicted with sorrow on that day, for it was the solemn day of atonement and propitiation. That day of atonement, in the God-given ritual of Israel, was but the figure of the great Atonement and propitiation of the New Law. In the Epistle of the Mass to-day, the Christ is placed before us as the great High Priest of the New Law, whose person and sacrifice infinitely transcends the priests and priestly offerings of the Ancient Law. So the atonement He offers for sinners infinitely outweighs in merit the atonement of the Jewish ritual. He is the High Priest par excellence, the one eternal mediator of redemption between God and man. Hence, in the Breviary, the official prayer of the Church, the commemorations of the saints are omitted during the Passiontide, not that those intercessory prayers are not efficacious during this time as on other times of the year, but to direct our attention On the eve of the Passion to Him who alone offers condign satisfaction for sinners to the offended majesty of God.
In the Preface of the Mass the fruits of this satisfaction of Christ for sinners is brought home to us in the words: “It is truly meet and just, right and available to salvation, that we should always and in all places give thanks to Thee, Eternal God, who has fastened the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross that from whence death originated life might arise, that He who conquered by wood might be overcome by wood through Christ our Lord.
From the “Tree of Knowledge,” through the disobedience of the first Adam, came to the world sin and all its concomitant woes. Again, through a tree, the tree of Redemption – the Cross, the second Adam, the great Antitype, by His obedience “even unto death,” restored the pristine happiness of man in the happy state of grace and heirship to God’s glory.