Monday, 13 April 2020

Easter-tide: preaching Christ crucified!

‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’. So reads the translation of the gradual for Easter Sunday, sung before the great sequence, Victimae Paschali laudes. The past several weeks of Lent, the recent weeks of Passiontide and the past few days of the Triduum, have all come to their conclusion. All traces of mourning and penance are gone, the purple vestments are replaced by the resplendent gold and the altar is adorned with flowers. The organ sounds its’ magnificent pipes and the chants of the liturgy repeat the word Alleluia, which has not been heard since before Septuagesima. 
We know the reason for such rejoicing, for it is Easter, the day on which Christ rose from the dead, having conquered sin and death. His Incarnation, public life and salvific death, were all ultimately pointing to His triumphant resurrection. Had there been no resurrection, such events would have been meaningless. Therefore it is indeed a day for rejoicing! Haec est dies.
Yet, before moving too swiftly away from Holy Week, we must take care to remember the beautiful truths of the faith which we have been presented with in the last few days. Holy Mother Church has celebrated beautiful liturgies focussed upon the passion and death of Christ, the truths of which should remain with us even during Easter. The practice of penance is difficult, whilst feasting and rejoicing comes far more naturally, and without care, we can easily find ourselves happily enjoying the season of Easter without the proper remembrance of Lent, or indeed even knowing why we are rejoicing. Perhaps, if we have found our chosen penances particularly arduous this Lent, Easter will be seen as the great release when we finally permit ourselves that which we had been denying ourselves for so long. In secular culture we find great emphasis on the large scale consumption of all manner of delectables, and if we are not careful our well intentioned Easter spirit, rapidly becomes identical to the secular. There is indeed something greater to celebrate than the abundance of chocolates in our cupboards, yet it is not easy 
How then, can we ‘make a good Easter’? How is it that we properly celebrate Christ’s triumph, whilst truly remembering what exactly He triumphed over? How does Holy Week provide the constant food for our soul throughout Easter?

Easter understood through the Cross.

St. Alphonsus Liguori provides three meditations for the first three days of Easter towards the end of his work, The Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. The work itself is perhaps one of the most sublime meditations upon the passion of Our Lord, and makes for excellent spiritual reading, not just during the Lenten season, but through the entire year. In his first meditation for Easter Sunday he provides us with an answer regarding the proper celebration of the season. 

Oh, happy are we if we suffer with patience on earth the troubles of this present life! Distress of circumstances, fears, bodily infirmities, persecutions, and crosses of every kind will one day all come to an end; and if we be saved they will all become for us subjects of joy and glory in paradise: Your sorrow (says the Saviour, to encourage us) shall be turned into joy. {John 16:20} So great are the delights of paradise, that they can neither be explained nor understood by us mortals: Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it enters into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for those who love Him. {1 Cor 2:9}. Beauties like the beauties of paradise, eye hath never seen; harmonies like unto the harmonies of paradise, earth hath never heard; for hath ever human heart gained the comprehension of the joys which God hath prepared for those that love him.

It is with these lines that the great saint seeks to guide us as we move on from the meditation of the passion, to the meditation of the resurrection. Our sorrow has indeed been turned into joy with the advent of the triumphant Saviour. But note well here the important aspects of these few lines - joy must come from sorrow and if we have not aligned ourselves with the sorrow of Christ, then our joy will be less than it should. Easter is not a time for suddenly abandoning our pious practices and good works, turning instead to selfish self-indulgence and the pursuit of all that is joyful and enjoyable.
Lent has been a time for purging ourselves and truly learning to love Our Lord even more, by the use of frequent reading and meditation on His passion and the practice of certain penances. In fact, how can we fail to be moved to a greater love of Him, when we read all that He has suffered for us. The saints and mystics have provided us with many harrowing homilies and writings, depicting in great detail the sufferings Christ endured for our sake and our salvation. Indeed, Ligouri provides us with this beautiful line in a meditation for Maundy Thursday, spoken to us as if from Christ on the Cross: “O men, O men, love me, for I have done all; there is nothing more that I can do in order to gain your love”. Christ has died and risen for us; we are unworthy sharers in the eternal life which He has bought for us with a great price.
Hence it is with this in mind that St. Alphonsus’s words quoted above counsel us to suffer well all the troubles of this present life, for it is by this that our sorrow shall be turned into joy. We are well acquainted with the necessary hardships we must undergo in order to excel at some sport or skill, and so how can we expect to live Easter well or even to pursue salvation, without necessary sufferings and trials? Our quotation from St. Alphonsus above does not refer to an immediate cessation of any sorrow or distress now that we have entered into this great Easter-tide. The saint does not write, ‘Rejoice o happy men, now that our Saviour has risen from the dead, we can put off the life of the cross and give ourselves to great feasting with reckless abandon’. Rather, he depicts the wondrous beatitude that awaits us with the blessed in Heaven if we keep to the practice of the life of the cross. The saint does not promise or even counsel that there should be an abandoning of the cross now that it is Easter. If anything, the very opposite is true! 
After having spent many hundreds of pages presenting to us the awful torments endured by Christ, St. Alphonsus now mentions that our sorrow will be turned into joy, but first we must have sorrow before we can have such joy. The Easter joy is utterly empty and worthless if it is not based upon the abject sorrow and misery of beholding our Saviour upon the cross. There is no building which can have a roof, without having walls and foundations: no athlete who can win the championship without spending years in training: no doctor who can save lives without arduous training in the medical sciences. So also, there is no Easter joy without the Lenten sorrow. 
If we reject this Lenten sorrow as soon as Easter Sunday morning arrives, then we have instantly lost the meaning of this joy. In many artistic depictions of the resurrected Christ, we see Him holding the cross, showing His victory over it. These images can be very helpful in reminding of the subject of our meditation during this period, namely that we understand the resurrection only through learning to love and understand the cross. In the Credo at Mass, we have the line: 

Crucifíxus étiam pro nobis: sub Póntio Piláto passus, et sepúltus est. Et resurréxit tértia die, secúndum Scriptúras / He was crucified also for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.

Our faith is centred upon Christ crucified and resurrected, and we cannot separate one from the other. Hence this is the manner in which we must enter into the Easter season - full of a holy joy of the glorious resurrection of Christ, yet never allowing our minds to be drawn away from the contemplation of the cross. We cannot forget the heavy price which Christ paid upon the cross.


In sum then, how can we dwell upon the resurrection and properly celebrate the Easter period? The answer is found in the events of Good Friday. Christ conquered sin and death by His death upon the cross and so we must turn to the cross in order to properly understand and celebrate Easter. Our joy comes from the cross, from whence life and salvation flow. The collect of the Mass on Holy Saturday night recalls this when it reads: “O God, who dost illuminate this most holy night by the glory of the Lord's Resurrection, preserve in the new children of Thy family the spirit of adoption which Thou hast given; that renewed in body and mind, they may render to Thee a pure service”. We forget the bloody scene of Calvary at our peril.
This is truly a time for rejoicing at the wondrous triumph which Christ has wrought over the devil, recalling the Divine glory and power which He demonstrates in His resurrection. Yet it is also a time to take to heart the meditations of the past few weeks, and to make the spirit of the cross an even more essential part of our lives. As St. Paul writes, we preach Christ crucified, and so we must never abandon the scene of Calvary in our hearts.


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