It requires no keen powers of observation to notice that with this Sunday something special is happening. The images dear to us because they remind us of the beloved objects of our faith are now veiled in the colour of penance. It’s as if all of creation were uniting with us to wail the sufferings of God. For that is indeed what it is about. For the next two weeks, our minds and hearts will be continually summoned to follow our Blessed Lord as He makes His way to Calvary.
In his presentation of the contemplation of the passion of Christ in the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola observes that we should be attentive to what Christ suffers, or what He wants to suffer. Two profound thoughts are found there. The first is that we need to make an effort to think of the specific sufferings He is enduring at any given moment of His passion. Is it the heartbreak of the betrayal of Judas or being rejected by His own people when they prefer Barabbas? Is it the scathing slash of the whip that tears through His sacred limbs? Is it the spike that is hammered into His hands and feet? Each of these sufferings and many others of all kinds, the Saviour underwent for your salvation and mine, and therefore each of them deserves attentive consideration, not just a passing thought, on our part. The second is that Christ wants to suffer. Yes, Christ wants to suffer. Suffering did not come to Him by accident. His passion was not the awful outcome of events He could not control. No, He came precisely to suffer for our sins. In the discourse on the Good Shepherd, He tells us: Therefore doth the Father love me: because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No man taketh it away from me: but I lay it down of myself. And I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again. This commandment have I received of my Father (Jn 10:17-18).
Those two points are destined to revive within us the love we should show to Our Lord in exchange for His love, the gratitude that we must have for our supreme benefactor who, when we were lost in our sins, did not abandon us, but came in person to pay the price that we could not.
The epistle chosen for today’s Mass leads us in the same direction. St Paul explains how, in the Old Covenant, the blood of animals was poured out daily to symbolise atonement for sins, but this blood was powerless to achieve what it signified. How, indeed, could the blood of a senseless lamb make atonement for the sins of men? It was precisely because of this that the Son of God came, in order to, through His own blood – per proprium sanguinem, the expression is one that is meant to jar us from our torpor – through His very own blood which was poured out on the cross and is poured out in each Mass, win for us eternal redemption.
The same text tells us that He offered Himself as an immaculate, undefiled victim in the Holy Spirit. There is a beautiful text in St Thomas in which he asks himself why there is no ritual fire in the New Covenant as in the Old. In the Old covenant indeed, the holocaust was to be burnt up with fire on the altar. St Thomas replies that in the New Covenant, the ritual fire is the Holy Spirit burning in the Heart of Christ. Pope John Paul II, in his beautiful encyclical on the Holy Spirit Dominum et Vivificantem, writes in similar vein: “The Old Testament on several occasions speaks of fire from heaven which burnt the oblations presented by men. By analogy one can say that the Holy Spirit is the fire from heaven which works in the depth of the mystery of the Cross. Proceeding from the Father, he directs toward the Father the sacrifice of the Son, bringing it into the divine reality of the Trinitarian communion. If sin caused suffering, now the pain of God in Christ crucified acquires through the Holy Spirit its full human expression. Thus there is a paradoxical mystery of love: in Christ there suffers a God who has been rejected by his own creature: They do not believe in me!; but at the same time, from the depth of this suffering-and indirectly from the depth of the very sin of not having believed – the Spirit draws a new measure of the gift made to man and to creation from the beginning. In the depth of the mystery of the Cross, love is at work, that love which brings man back again to share in the life that is in God himself. The Holy Spirit as Love and Gift comes down, in a certain sense, into the very heart of the sacrifice which is offered on the Cross. Referring here to the biblical tradition, we can say: He consumes this sacrifice with the fire of the love which unites the Son with the Father in the Trinitarian communion”. (no. 41).
What is the lesson this holds for us today? Quite simply, that if we want to enter into the great mystery of the Trinitarian love revealed in the passion of Christ, we must allow ourselves to be drawn into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings. And how do we do that? By uniting all our pains and sorrows with Him in the Holy Spirit. Whether it be a headache, a heartache, bad weather, a complaining spouse, a difficult decision made by superiors, lack of cooperation from a fellow worker, or a voluntary act of penance such as fasting, abstaining from certain foods or drinks, giving alms to those in need and thus depriving ourselves of something we would like to have, etc., every opportunity is good to let ourselves be drawn into the mystery of suffering, the mystery of Christ’s suffering, that suffering which saves the world and to which we too can add our drop of blood by accepting the daily crosses that come our way.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Our Sweet Saviour admonish the Pharisees wth these startling words: He that is of God heareth the words of God. Therefore you hear them not, because you are not of God (Joh 8:47). What is the word of God that is addressed to us today, and by which we can know if we are of God, if it is not that word St Paul refers to in his first epistle to the Corinthians: The word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness: but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. … For the Jews require signs: and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men: and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Co 1:18-25).
The word of God then is the word of the Cross, that word that God, in Christ, spoke to our broken world 2,000 years ago, that word which brings healing to all those who accept it, who let themselves be drawn into its mystery. The world continually chimes in with its false promises of pleasure and satisfaction, its futile efforts at removing suffering and poverty from our world. No, suffering and poverty will always be there, but henceforth it is the path of peace and salvation. Ever since God died on the cross, such is the word that is addressed to each generation.
So look up to the cross, spend a long time contemplating the cross. But, Father, you will say, the cross is veiled, we cannot see it! Precisely. We only veil what is precious, what we really know is worth keeping close to our heart. Just as the bride is veiled when she is brought to her spouse, and this veiling only increases his desire for her, so the Church veils the Divine Victim on the cross to increase our desire, to stir into flames our longing to enter inside, to penetrate the mystery by prolonged prayer during these holy days. Blessed that soul who understands the word of the cross and lets it transform her from the inside.
Today the Word of the Cross rings out in our ears. Today, if we hear that word, if we hear that voice, let us not harden our hearts, but open them wide to the saving grace.