Passion Sunday - with veiled statues and images, the long fortnight leading up to Good Friday and Easter, thus begins. The purple vestments, worn since the start of Septuagesima, seem to have been here for so long, and now when Lenten resolve might well be dwindling, the statues and images in our churches and home are hidden, in yet another effort to redouble the Lenten sacrifice. The small consolation which one might gain from gazing up at these statues is thus deprived from pious souls in these final two weeks, as the focus turns ever more towards the cross.
As expected, the Mass texts follow this pattern of focus on the upcoming passion, and the Gospel depicts scenes far less pleasant than last week. Instead, St. John records the anger of the Jews at the teaching of Christ, and His words revealing Himself to be God: “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am.” The evangelist records that at that moment, the Jews “took up stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out from the temple.” All of a sudden, the reality of the passion and death are very much more real, as indeed they should be, for Holy Week is but days away. The anger and hatred which Christ incurs by revealing the Word of God is closely followed by the lust for His blood which stemmed from that hatred. The enemies of Christ begin their plots to kill Him, consumed only with hatred and a shortsighted desire for instant revenge.
These scenes are presented every year, and perhaps every year it is all too easy to allow them to pass by without giving proper thought to them. The crucifixion is so familiar, the resurrection closely following Good Friday is but the passage of time, and nothing more - at least, so it often feels if one is not paying attention to the liturgy. In a sense then, this season of redoubled efforts in Lent, this Passiontide, is a means given by the Church to refocus ourselves on the mysteries which are about to unfold in a few days. If Lent has been a season of poor adherence to one’s penances, then let the next fortnight be a firm preparation for Good Friday and Easter. The joys and celebrations of the Paschaltide are close at hand, and upon arrival they can easily make one forget the cross.
Can it be then, that one could pass through the entirety of Septuagesima, Lent and Passiontide, without properly meditating and praying on the cross? It is very easy for such to happen, but in order to for it not to be so, it is useful to turn to the words of St. Louis-Marie de Montfort as found in his beautiful Letter to the Friends of the Cross. This short work is but a few pages long, and makes for excellent meditation for these final days of Lent. His words provide a focus in the run up to Holy Week, allowing one to embrace the sacrifices and penances imposed, in order to gladly join in the sufferings of the cross:
“To suffer forever, without merit, without mercy, and without end - Do we think of this, my dear brothers and sisters, when we have to suffer some trial in this world? How fortunate we are to be able to exchange a never-ending and unprofitable punishment for a temporary and rewarding one just buy bearing our cross with patience! How many of our debts are still unpaid! How many sins have we committed which, despite a sincere confession and heartfelt contrition, will have to be atoned for in purgatory for many years, simply because in this world we contented ourselves with a few slight penances!”
“Ah, let us settle our debts with good grace in this life by cheerfully carrying our cross.”
With such words, the great Marian saint presents Lenten penance as a joy, an honour, and a necessary means of salvation. He posits the awful thought of hell in one’s mind, that place of eternal suffering without respite or purpose, or even the presence of God, and then contrasts it with the voluntary and happy sufferings which one encounters in this life as a way to atone for sin. Such is the true spirit of Lent, not a time when hardships are simply endured but not loved, but instead a time when such sufferings are joyfully accepted - even sought - so as to die a little more to self, and to imitate Christ on the cross ever more closely.
“And this is why He is mediator of a new covenant, that whereas a death has taken place for redemption from the transgressions committed under the former covenant, they who have been called may receive eternal inheritance according to the promise, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” With these words St. Paul closes today’s Epistle, providing the background for St. Louis-Marie’s words. Christ has died for us, as will be dwelt on increasingly so in Holy Week. Yet He calls each man to do likewise, to take up the cross and follow Him, which necessarily involves following Him to death. This does not have to mean physical death, although for many around the world it does and might swiftly be the case even in the Western world, but primarily means a death to self. Abandoning self-will, that most precious of all belongings, is necessary in order to heed the divine call. As St. Louis-Marie writes: “Friends of the Cross, do you not flatter yourselves that you are, or desire to become, the friends of God? Well then, resolve to drink the cup that you must drink in order to become his friends.”
With each line, the great saint unravels the mystery of Lent ever more. It is in fact an honour to be able to emulate Christ in suffering, sorrowing, dying, because by doing so one thus drinks the cup which He drunk. As St. Paul writes, those who receive eternal life do so “in Christ Jesus our Lord” and this is done by drinking the cup which is handed to each soul from the cross. It is “by virtue of His own blood,” writes St. Paul, that Christ wins our salvation, and it through a similar total gift of self that one follows Him to the cross, which is not a punishment but rather a joy.