Holy Week in Art: Easter Sunday—Matthias Grünewald’s “Resurrection”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Grunewald-Resurrection
“Resurrection” from the Isenheim Altarpiece (ca. 1515)
Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470-1528)

“O truly blessed Night, sings the Exultet of the Easter Vigil,
which alone deserved to know the time and the hour
when Christ rose from the realm of the dead!
But no one was an eyewitness to Christ’s Resurrection
and no evangelist describes it.
No one can say how it came about physically.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, §647)

With all of the images of the moment of Christ’s Resurrection that have been painted and sculpted across the centuries, it is perhaps easy to forget that these are images born in the theological imaginations of the artists themselves—that they are not based on any historical account of the moment when the stone was rolled away by angels (or was it perhaps blown away by a strong wind?) and Christ emerged from the tomb in His glorified Body, because there is no such historical account of that precise moment. There is only what happened afterward. As §647 of the Catechism continues, “Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.” Put another way, the Resurrection is, at its very heart, a mystery of faith. In fact, it is the mystery of faith. As St. Paul declares, “If Christ is not raised [from the dead], your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:17).

Given that the Resurrection lies “at the very heart of the mystery of faith,” and given that all visual images of the Resurrection themselves arise out of the theological imaginations of the artists who produce them (in collaboration with the grace of God at work within them), one can make the argument that images of the Resurrection of Jesus are, in a particular and unique way, born of the artist’s faith. Extending this argument further, one could also make the case that every artist who chooses to depict Christ rising from the dead becomes a witness to His Resurrection, and their works of art serve as their testimonies, Grunewald-full Christdeclaring to all who view them that Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead on the third day and lives forever in glory.

Of the myriad paintings of the Resurrection created across the centuries and throughout the world, there are few that can rival the beauty of Matthias Grünewald’s “Resurrection” from the famous Isenheim altarpiece. This painting immediately arrests the viewer with its striking use of vibrant color and dramatic contrasts. In this image, the words of the Exultet find a visual resonance: “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.” In Grünewald’s painting, the golden light of the sun and the silver light of the moon merge behind the head of the risen Christ, and the stars shimmer with an even greater brilliance in the midnight sky. These are the witnesses to the Resurrection. “O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!” (Exultet).

Grunewald-face of ChristYet the beauty of the scenery is as nothing when compared with the beauty of the risen Christ. Against the black of the “truly blessed Night,” Christ breaks forth from the tomb with the dazzling light of the sun at the dawn of a new creation. His Body radiates with life, a life more real than anything ever experienced on earth before, and His glorified wounds seem to pulsate with light as they testify to the love of the One who bears them—the One who shattered the chains of death in His Death on the Cross. The brilliance of Christ’s face is one with the radiance of the sun and the moon; indeed, in Grünewald’s image, it seems as though Christ’s face is actually the true source of light, and that sun, moon, and stars merely reflect His glory. In addition, Christ’s Body is nearly translucent in its glorified state, reflecting the reality that “in his risen body [Jesus] passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space. At Jesus’ Resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state, so that St. Paul can say that Christ is ‘the man from heaven’” (CCC, §646). Finally, as He emerges from the tomb triumphant over death, the One “through whom all things were made” greets creation with a benevolent smile: now all is fulfilled. Now His joy is complete. “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his Anointed One” (Rev 12:10). In the mystery of this smile, Christ, the Incarnate Word, the splendor of the Father, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), beckons us to imitate His example of love that gives unto the end so that where He has gone, we might also follow.

In this extraordinary painting, Matthias Grünewald conveys the cosmic ramifications of the Resurrection of Jesus: the “things of heaven are wed to those of earth and divine to the human” (Exultet). Moreover, by allowing his faith in the Resurrection to inform his craft as an artist, Grünewald painted an image that continues to inspire within viewers a firmer faith, a deeper hope, and a more ardent love. Gazing upon this image of Christ’s glorified Body cultivates a deeper faith within our hearts that Christ, “coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever” (Exultet). Contemplating the Light of the world as He scatters the darkness of sin and death enables us to sing with the angels, “‘Yes, Christ my hope is arisen!’” (Easter Sequence). And pondering Christ’s once-bloody wounds—the wounds caused by our sin, the wounds by which our sins are forgiven—enkindles within our hearts a greater love for Him who died and rose that we might have a share in the divine life that now thrums through His glorified Body. As we rejoice in the radiant light of the Resurrection, may our faith, hope, and love burn brightly, reflecting the glory of Christ our Light to all the world. Jesus lives! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Easter Vigil: Hearts Ablaze–The Sacramental Proclamation of the Scriptures

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Hearts Ablaze:  The Sacramental Proclamation of the Scriptures

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (Lk. 24:25-27).

What would it have been like to listen to this first sermon of Christ on the road to Emmaus?  In three short days, the assumptions of these disciples about what it means to be God were called into question.  Their hopes about the restoration of Israel dashed in the death of a now questionable Messiah.  The promises of the Scriptures, an illusion.  The empty tomb does not brighten this darkness but obscures it.  These two disciples no longer wait in watchfulness for the marvelous deeds of God in the city of Jerusalem but leave town, prepared to begin again somewhere else.  Wandering aimlessly to some other place, any other place, in which they will no longer confront constant reminders of this seeming divine blunder.  Of their own failure to stand by the tomb, watching and waiting, to keep the Vigil.  Yet, in a single moment, through the words of an unknown figure known by all, the foolishness of the cross becomes the wisdom of love.  This first truly liturgical sermon transforms human experience, radically altering the disciple’s narrative about God’s plan for the world.  The mysteries of the Scriptures become present to these disciples, their hearts burning while the unknown Christ preaches to them upon the way.

In some sense, dear friends, we can never stand in the place of these disciples.  We know the ending of this great salvific comedy.  We know that Christ is risen from the dead, and that through our baptism we share in his death and resurrection.  We know our destiny is to join with the angels in their song of adoring delight.  This is our faith, this is the faith of the Church, we are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Yet, each time we gather to listen to the Word of God proclaimed in the Scriptures and the homily, it is Christ’s own voice we hear.  He comes again to interrupt the smallness of our narrative, to rekindle our memory of these marvelous deeds, to make sense of our own lives as they are gradually conformed to his Paschal Mystery.  The Scriptures are sacramental because Christ speaks through these words, and no place in the liturgical year is this more true, than in the Easter Vigil.  We become the disciples on the road to Emmaus on this night, for this is the night.  Let us listen with the ears of our heart to Christ’s voice in the Scriptures.  Let us ask ourselves what he might have said to us, his pilgrim disciples on the road to the resurrection.

In the beginning.  You see, my beloved disciples, creation is the commencement of this story of redemption.  Out of nothing, out of darkness, God speaks a Word, and it is good.  And God creates man and woman to share in this delight, to walk with God.  From the very foundation of time, in this creation, God condescends, sharing with human beings a world that is utter gift.  And in the fall of man and woman, this gift is rejected, a logic of violence introduced into the created world through human freedom.  But such violence is not intrinsic to creation.  It is not genuine freedom.  It is not the divine plan.  The logic of love, the gift of the cross—this is the meaning of existence.  So what I have done on the cross for you is a renewal of creation.  Be recreated, perceive the marvels of love to the end.  For all of creation testifies to this fact if you had the eyes to see.  Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:8).

And such love to the end is the divine pedagogy.  Look to the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac.  See, the gift of my offering upon the cross in their loving obedience.  Abraham leaves his land to enter into covenant with God.  He is a promised a child, descendants as numerous as the stars of the heavens, and yet upon hearing God’s Word, he offers his long awaited son as a sacrifice.  Isaac himself obeys his father, not fully aware of what is to take place.  The story of Abraham and Isaac is my story.  Obedience led me to the cross, an obedience of faith to the will of my Father, to love unto the end.  I did not seek out death, I did not want to suffer.  Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done (Lk. 22:42).  But obedience to love is my mission.  It is my identity as the Word made flesh.  Be therefore a descendent of Abraham, like me.  Offer a sacrifice of love unto the end.  For this too is your identity as a son and daughter of God.

And I know, dear disciples, that you may forget this identity from time to time.  You too may be enslaved in Egypt, in a world of violence, of slavery, in the logic of sin and death.  But, you need not be.  Moses crossed through the Red Sea with the people of Israel, the waters crushing the Egyptians.  The people of Israel were freed from the source of their slavery.  Yet, freedom is hard.  The hymn of Moses and Miriam, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously (Ex. 15:1) is followed almost immediately by the grumbling of Israel.  There is no water, how much better to be a slave.  There is no bread, how much better to be a slave.  You too have passed through the waters of the Red Sea in the baptismal font.  You too are free from the enemies of sin.  Look back.  See violence and death, misery and suffering crushed in the waters.  Live no longer as slaves to sin but as free daughters and sons of God on pilgrimage toward eternal life.  Be free to truly love.

Indeed, this is why the son of man was crucified and rose again three days later.  To show the truly free nature of love unto the end.  That every act of sacrificial love is a mockery of death, a trophy of death’s demise.  It is never too late to learn this lesson of love.  You will spend a lifetime learning this lesson, discovering the true miracle that is the resurrection.  For the resurrection promised is one of the heart and the body.  Let your heart be resurrected now.  Know the mercy of God revealed in the cross, and aspire to belong to the heavenly city.  Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:1-2).  I will give you a new heart to make this possible, I will teach you to desire anew.  Every aspect of the created order is intended for you to practice this resurrection.  And at the end of time, when the saints are resurrected from the dead, you will be well-practiced in this resurrection vision.

Until then, your vision will be renewed through hearing my voice in the Scriptures, receiving me in the breaking of the bread.  For the tragic fault of humanity is a chronic forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness that you are created and not the creator.  Forgetfulness that love defeats violence and misery.  Forgetfulness that the resurrection of the flesh is the destiny of the human person.  To listen to this narrative each year, hearing my voice anew, you are reminded of a memory that will gradually become a part of who you are:

Don’t you know that all who share in Christ Jesus by being baptized also share in his death?  When we were baptized, we died and were buried with Christ. We were baptized, so that we would live a new life, as Christ was raised to life by the glory of God the Father.  If we shared in Jesus’ death by being baptized, we will be raised to life with him.  We know that the persons we used to be were nailed to the cross with Jesus. This was done, so that our sinful bodies would no longer be the slaves of sin.   We know that sin doesn’t have power over dead people.  As surely as we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.   We know that death no longer has any power over Christ. He died and was raised to life, never again to die.   When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God.  In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God (Rm. 6:1-11).

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQwIwa84f6c

 

Easter Vigil: The Mystagogical Pedagogy of the Exsultet

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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The Mystagogical Pedagogy of the Exsultet

The sun has just set.  Darkness begins to drape the nearly empty church.  The small parish community gathers outside around a newly lit fire, sparks ascending into the night sky.  A large candle is held beside this now growing flame.  Blessings are spoken.  Incense joins the smoke of the fire, diluting the toxic fumes with its sweet perfume.  The hefty candle becomes the leader of the procession into that sparse space, enlightening the aisle of the once dark church.  The deacon proclaims, “Christ our light,” and the Church responds, “Thanks be to God.”  The light of the candle is shared, tapers lit throughout the space.  Twice more Christ is proclaimed as the source of all light and the church responds in gratitude.  The candle is positioned at the front of the now iridescent church, and from the mouth of the deacon, the opening notes of the Exsultet resound.  With the words of this song, this chorus of praise that incarnates the exuberant joy that Christ has enlightened this night as the night of our salvation, the massive candle becomes the Paschal candle.  In this act of ecclesial remembering, the great Vigil commences.  The Church sits with open ears to ruminate upon the wisdom of God creating, saving, and wooing humankind through all ages.  Until the fullness of time, that sublime act, when Christ died upon the cross and was raised from the dead three days later.  The risen Christ overflows this night into those sacramenta of redemption:  baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, and Alleluias proclaimed through the morning watch.  This indeed is the night, echoing those eschatological notes from the Exsultet, that “shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.”

The transformation of human existence promised by the Easter sacrament is embodied in those opening moments of the Vigil.  The light that shines from the candle becomes the illumination of humanity in resurrection light.  A candle created through the common work of bees and humans is co-joined with the heavenly lights.  An ordinary night becomes the night of salvation, the mutability of time itself transfigured into the eternal.  The sin of Adam, seemingly the source of death and suffering, is felix culpa, a happy fault bringing forth a Great Redeemer.

The Exsultet, through this rich imagery, reveals the essence of the Catholic mystagogical imagination.  It is not that God is present in creation, dwelling in a hidden form within the visible world.  Rather, for the Christian practiced in the signs of faith, all becomes a sign of God’s wondrous works of redemption in Christ through the renewal of the memory.  This is the pedagogy of resurrection faith.  That human bodies might become divine, transfigured, a radiant light illuminating the dark places of human sorrow and suffering.  We are a sign, a work in progress, in which our rumination upon the sacred deeds and words of God through the signs of faith transforms our perception of the world, of what is possible within the visible world.  The Easter Vigil shows us signs properly employed.  Water’s vocation is baptism.  Bread and wine’s vocation is Eucharist.  The human voice’s vocation is to participate in the fullness of praise.

And no sacrament of the Christian life better performs this resurrection pedagogy, this entrée into the mystagogical imagination, this transformation of human existence, than the Eucharist.  Teilhard de Chardin writes within the context of a Eucharistic reflection:

To the total offer that is made me, I can only answer by a total acceptance.  I shall therefore react to the eucharistic contact with the entire effect of my personal life and of my life as linked to all other lives.  Periodically, the sacred Species may perhaps fade away in me.  But each time they will leave me a little more deeply engulfed in the layers of our omnipresence:  living and dying, I shall never at any moment cease to move forward in you.  Thus, the precept implicit in your Church, that we must communicate everywhere and always, is justified with extraordinary force and precision.  The Eucharist must invade my life.  My life must become, as a result of the sacrament, an unlimited and endless contact with you—that life which seemed, a few moments ago, like a baptism with you in the waters of the world, now reveals itself to me as communion with you through the world.  It is the sacrament of life.  The sacrament of my life—of my life received, of my life lived, of my life surrendered…. (The Divine Milieu, 126-27).

The Easter Exsultet incarnates the Eucharistic faith of the Christian in song, O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.  We eat the body and blood of Christ, and then our earthly body becomes wed to the heavenly reality of God’s self-giving love.  We become, through this union of human flesh and divine gift, a Eucharistic sign for the world.  In the Host, it is my life that you are offering me, O Jesus (The Divine Milieu, 126).

Dear friends, may we become a visible sign of this transformation, our hearts consecrated through the love of the Spirit poured out upon us.  May those who encounter us perceive a sacramentum of redemption.  In this way, the song of the Exsultet, sung but once a year, pours forth each day from a life conformed to the redeeming memory of the Church.  May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star, the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns forever and ever.  Amen.

 

 

 

Holy Week in Art: Holy Saturday—Fra Angelico’s “Christ in Limbo”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Christ in Limbo (ca. 1450) Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455)
Christ in Limbo (ca. 1450)
Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

“‘By the grace of God’ Jesus tasted death ‘for everyone.’
In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only
‘die for our sins’ but should also ‘taste death,’
experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body,
between the time he expired on the cross
and the time he was raised from the dead.
The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell.
It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb,
reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfillment of man’s salvation,
which brings peace to the whole universe.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, §624, citing Heb 2:9 and 1 Cor 15:3)

After the mystery of Holy Thursday and the sorrow of Good Friday comes the silence of Holy Saturday. On this day the Church watches. She waits. The stone has been rolled over the entrance of the tomb and the guards stand sentinel against the possibility that disciples will come and steal the body of Jesus. Yet while His human flesh lies in the sleep of death, His soul sleeps not: the divine and eternal Word of God descends into hell, where he “brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (CCC, §634). “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (§632). In other words, “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (§637).

At various points in Christian history, this dwelling of the just souls—our fathers and mothers in faith—has been called “limbo,” from limbus patrum. The word “limbo” means “hem” or “border,” as the souls within this realm stand on the border of the realm of eternal life, waiting for the Messiah to come and open its gates for them. In his painting “Christ in Limbo,” Blessed Fra Angelico depicts the moment in which Christ arrives in the realm of the dead, literally blowing the door off its hinges with His divine power. The souls of the just stand ready to greet Him, the long-awaited One, and now they are prepared to accompany the King of kings to the realm of endless day that He has opened forever by His Death on the Cross.

The Souls of the Just: (R-L) Abraham, David, Eve, Adam, Moses
The Souls of the Just:
(L-R) Moses, Adam, Eve, David, Abraham

Fra Angelico scholar Stephan Beissel ably unpacks this scene: “Christ carries the standard of the Resurrection and Victory in his left hand, and extends his right hand to Abraham, behind whom one sees Adam, Eve, Moses, David, and the other Patriarchs. … Christ does not touch Satan and advances on a light cloud. He is magnificently dressed in luminous garments and surrounded by rays of glory, while two demons are seized with fear and take flight.”[1]

Not only does Christ “not touch Satan,” but, as Fra Angelico depicts with even a slight shade of joyous humor, Limbo-Devil under doorChrist utterly squashes Satan beneath the door to the netherworld, recalling the words of the prophecy God addressed to the serpent in the garden of Eden at the dawn of salvation history: “I will put enmity between you and the women, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). The love of Christ poured out on the Cross has created an unstoppable force that breaks the chains of sin, shatters the door of the realm of death and cracks its very foundations, sends demons fleeing, and crushes the head of the serpent; and now he calls to the souls of the just, who have waited patiently for His coming: “‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. … I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead’” (CCC, §635, citing an ancient homily for Holy Saturday).

Limbo-Christ detailChrist has burst through the chains of death by “[giving] His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28b; see also Mk 10:45); now He bursts through the doors of hell, releasing the souls of the just from their time of waiting and bringing them to the heavenly Kingdom where they will dwell forever in the very heart of God. We who are still on this side of death keep silent vigil at His tomb, awaiting the moment when He will “burst His three-day prison” and reveal the glory of His resurrected Body and the promise of eternal life for all who believe in Him.


[1] Stephan Beissel, Fra Angelico (Parkstone Press, 2007), 113.

Holy Saturday: A Liturgical Celebration of Possibility, The Cosmic History of Christ’s Descent Into Hell

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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A Liturgical Celebration of Possibility:  The Cosmic History of Christ’s Descent into Hell

If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably have a hard time believing that Jesus really experienced the fullness of human death.  Perhaps, we can recognize that he knew the depths of human despair, the pain of the cross, the loneliness of friends leaving his side, the sorrow of seeing the tears of his mother.  Yet, when he dies upon the cross, it is tempting for us to imagine him waking up in the heavenly places but a moment later, the memory of his bodily life a bad dream to be forgotten, his human phase over and done.  Sure, he’ll come back in three days.  But kind of like a freshman in college who deigns to visit the old high school, letting everyone know how really cool and different he is since he went to college.  Look, I used to think this school was so great, but now that I’ve started college, everything looks a little less nice, the teachers a little less smart, and the students a little less athletic.  Don’t worry, though, college Jesus says.  Just suck it up, get through school, and one day you too can join me in a better place.

He descended into hell.  This mystery of faith, celebrated on Holy Saturday, guards us against treating Christ’s death as a partial participation in human existence.  Indeed, Christ’s soul (fully human and fully divine) descends into the place of the dead, into Sheol, announcing the good news that death is no more.  He comes as a fellow dead man to rescue the dead.  We should not think of his soul as the divine part of him, and the body as the decrepit human part, left behind until it can be refashioned in the resurrection.  Rather, he comes to rescue Adam as a son of Adam.  He comes to rescue Eve as a son of Eve.  They recognize in him the glory of the human person fully alive; the image of what God intended them to be.  In Christ’s death and resurrection, he does not leave behind his humanity but rather the Father completes it.  And this completion of his humanity becomes a sacrament for all of creation, a sign effecting what it represents.  We gaze upon the resurrected Christ in order to know the destiny of our bodies, not simply our souls.  Christ does not come to rescue us from this place.  He comes to transfigure it.

So, the true liturgical sign of Holy Saturday is the possible.  We gaze upon the created order, knowing that the beauty we discern will be even more beautiful.  We fast not out of repentance for sins but because we know that we can be made even fuller.  We keep silent not because we have no words to say but because we are waiting for the transfiguration of our word through the Word made flesh.  The Easter Vigil itself becomes the fruit of waiting.  The signs of light and darkness, of water and oil, of bread and wine, become transfigured matter through the sacramental life of the Church.  Human hunger is sated through tasting the bread of angels; and each fruitful eating increases our capacity for hunger.  Our words can become alleluias offered throughout the night watch.  And in this sacramental transformation of human existence, we too are called to descend into the hellish places of history.  To become sacramental signs of bodily hope that death and suffering, disharmony and disunity, war and strife, are not the ultimate measure of human existence.  Love is.

To forget that Christ descended into hell, that he never left his humanity behind even in death, is to turn the crucifixion and the resurrection into myth.  What we celebrate in Easter is not myth but a cosmic history that we may participate in, for even now Christ, in his glorified body, remains fully human—an icon of what we too will become.

 

Holy Saturday: The Cosmic Expansion of Love

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

Having a newborn around the house expands your capacity for love.  Not “love” understood as the welling up of feeling that inevitably occurs when you look into the eyes of your infant son, and he smiles with the recognition that indeed he knows you, delights in your presence.   Such love is easy.   Rather, having a newborn means learning to love waking up at 3:00 AM and changing his diaper, grabbing a bottle before he begins to express his newly discovered capacity for anger.   Having a newborn means learning to love coaxing your infant son to sleep, a state he begins to fight when he realizes how utterly wonderful the world is.   Having a newborn means learning to love re-orienting every facet of your life toward care and concern for this creature.   You discover, as you move more deeply into parenting, an expanding capacity for this sort of love.  It’s not easy–precisely, because it involves the abnegation of your will, of your hierarchy of order for the love of another.   And as you practice this gift of self, this gift of love–you find yourself becoming more open to the way that this love entirely re-writes your narrative.BabyTommy  You find the patience and humility practiced with your infant son begins to seep over into every relationship, into your prayer life.  Such love is cosmic in scope.

Thus far in the Triduum, we have been wooed through the dramatic love of the Father poured out as his Son bent over to wash the feet of his disciples in love, prayed through the evening in Gethsemene in love, underwent his Passion in love, and died in love.  And now, on Holy Saturday, there is silence.  Not the silence of an intermission but the silence in a symphony that is itself part of the piece, the pause in a monologue that “speaks” more powerfully than the actor’s words.   Tradition proclaims that on this day, Christ descends into hell, loosens the chains of death that imprisoned Adam and Eve, all the patriarchs and matriarchs, who were awaiting this moment.  The love of Christ manifested on the cross, that love which God is, becomes cosmic in scope.

Descent into Hell

And here we are–the disciples awaiting the resurrection, looking forward to gathering together in our darkened churches this evening, encountering the risen Christ in the sacramenta of the Great Vigil.

But what should we do as we wait?   Dear friends, it is naive for us to wait around, pretending that Christ has not already risen.   The history of the world has already been renewed, love has descended into the bitter darkness of death, and the process of redemption is underway.   But is this process under way for me?   Has the cosmic expansion of love already occurring in creation touched my heart?

As a theologian, I tend to be comfortable in devoting my energy to contemplating the broad idea of what it means that the Son, born from the Father before all ages, became flesh and dwelt among us.   That he loved us to the end, that he reversed the process of FrescoCrosssin and death, that he revealed to us what it means precisely to “think” and “speak” about God in the first place.   I have a harder time (perhaps, it’s my Irish Catholic self) with letting this cosmic process of love expand my own heart.   If having a newborn around the house renews one’s capacity to love, then knowing that the Creator of the world (who incidentally became an infant) offered himself upon the Cross as an act of love should entirely reconfigure my narrative relative to what it means to love in the first place.

Indeed, Christianity recognizes that Christ’s death and resurrection is cosmic in scope, a renewal of all creation.   But, this theological statement means little if this cosmic gift of divine love does not become incarnate in individual hearts.  The silence of Holy Saturday is an invitation to let this love become flesh in us hic et nunc, here and now.   If on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the depths of the love of the Bridegroom has been revealed to us, on Holy Saturday, we as the Bride now gaze back at our entire individual histories in light of this gift of love.  And we will certainly not see the perfection of this love in our lives.

In fact, the longer we participate in the Christian life, the more that we’ll discovery the tendency to “de-cosmicize” the love of Christ.   We fail to notice that in our individual lives we have let jealousy toward a co-worker, annoyance at a specific parishioner, hatred of humanity cloud our heart.   We have fallen victim to isolating this love of God to one facet of our lives alone, to re-writing the narrative of Christianity so that it becomes more comfortable, less disruptive of my entire identity, a series of ideas that leads me to CosmicChristignore the poor and forgotten.  We have lied to ourselves, failed to notice that each of our actions (insofar as it is knit into the cosmic love of God) is not simply an individual sin, a minor transgression, but a yielding of my narrative over to death and sin rather than the love of God.

The silence of Holy Saturday provides an opportunity for us to re-examine our lives before we celebrate fully the Resurrection of the Lord.   Such re-examination is not a matter of fear or self-hatred.   After all, during the previous two days, we have come to know the depths of divine love, that human action (no matter how dark) cannot conquer the love of God.   Rather, it’s simply akin to re-tuning an instrument that has become flat or sharp and using as our model the harmonious music of divine love.

In this way, the cosmic expansion of divine love begun when the Savior of the world gave up his spirit on Good Friday continues as this love descends into our individual souls.   For Christ does not simply descend into the hell of the patriarchs and matriarchs, into a now long forgotten Sheol.  Instead, he descends into the hell of my soul, the hell of my own hatred, of the love that I refuse to give.   And if a newborn can teach me the art of patience, of self-gift, of delighting even in the most disgusting of tasks, then the God-man can form me more perfectly in the logic of love that was the original destiny of creation.  After all, isn’t this what the resurrection about in the first place–the very transfiguration of the cosmos, starting one disciple at a time, through divine love?

Holy Week in Art: Good Friday—Pacino di Bonaguida’s “Tree of the Cross”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Tree of the Cross (14th c)
Pacino di Bonaguida

In this extraordinary work, Pacino di Bonaguida depicts the Cross of Jesus as the Tree of Life. In a cave at the root of the tree lies the devil (his image was scratched out sometime in the 15th century), and at ground level, the Genesis narrative of creation and fall unfolds, indicating that Christ’s death upon this Cross, this tree, sprouted from the seed of Adam and Eve’s sin. Twelve branches sprout from the trunk, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles of Jesus. Hanging from these branches are the fruits of the Crucifixion, and each fruit depicts a scene from the life of Christ. Read left to right, beginning with the bottom branch, these images take the viewer from the Incarnation to the eschaton. By depicting the Crucifixion as the central image among many images, the artist establishes Jesus’ complete gift of self on the Cross as the crowning event in salvation history, yet he also declares that the Cross contains within it the entire breadth of the divine plan for redemption. The Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the proclamation of the Kingdom, the institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the return of Christ in glory—all are rooted in the Cross. “The desire to embrace his Father’s plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus’ whole life, for his redemptive passion was the very reason for his incarnation” (CCC, §607).

To engage in a fully-fledged explication of this rich painting would diminish its power to help us pray through Good Friday. Instead, I offer some of the words the Church herself gives us for our liturgical celebration both as theological commentary on this image and as a means of entering more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate today.

Tree of the Cross-Jesus detailHe grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance
that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom
people hide their faces, spurned,

and we held him in no esteem.

 

 

Tree of the Cross-pelicanYet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one punished by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement
that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
(Isaiah 53:2-5)

 

Tree of the Cross-saintsWe adore your Cross, O Lord,
we praise and glorify
your holy Resurrection,
for behold, because of the wood of a tree,
joy has come to the whole world.
(Antiphon for the Adoration
of the Holy Cross)

 

 

Tree of the Cross-Adam and EveFor, when Adam first offended,
eating that forbidden fruit,
not all hopes of glory ended,
with the serpent at its root:
broken nature would be mended
by a second tree and shoot. …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-IncarnationSo the Father, out of pity
for our self-inflicted doom,
sent him from the heavenly city
when the holy time had come:
He, the Son and the Almighty,
took our flesh in Mary’s womb. …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-NativityHear a tiny baby crying,
founder of the seas and strands;
See his virgin Mother tying
cloth around his feet and hands;
Find him in a manger lying
tightly wrapped in swaddling bands! …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-mockingSo he came, the long-expected,
not in glory, not to reign;
Only born to be rejected,
choosing hunger, toil, and pain,
Till the scaffold was erected
and the Paschal Lamb was slain. …

 

 

 

 

Tree of the Cross-Death of JesusNo disgrace was too abhorrent:
nailed and mocked and parched he died;
Blood and water, double warrant,
issue from his wounded side,
Washing in a mighty torrent
earth and stars and oceantide. …

 

 

 

 

Noblest tree of all created, richly jeweled and embossed:
Post by Lamb’s blood consecrated; spar that saves the tempest-tossed;
Scaffold-beam which, elevated, carries what the world has cost!

Faithful Cross the saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare!
Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare. …

Sweet the timber, sweet the iron. Sweet the burden that they bear.

(Hymn for Good Friday Adoration of the Holy Cross)

Good Friday: Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross

Infants and young children are quite clear about their needs.  A baby cries, a mother feeds the child, the baby’s tears cease.  A child falls down and cuts his knee, his father hugs him, gives him a kiss, washes out the wound, affixes a Band-Aid, and the child resumes his play.  A young girl approaches a family friend at a party, asking them to read her a story, and the family friend (unless they are a horrible person, incapable of love), of course, does.  There is such confidence in these requests, particularly in a loving family, because the child knows that most of these simple intercessions will be fulfilled.  The need, the petition, and the fulfilled request are virtually simultaneous moments in the life of the child.

Yet, as we grow older, we lose some of this confidence.  Perhaps, it is because we have learned that our parents cannot grant all of our desires.  They cannot take away from us the disappointment of being turned down for a first job, or the sorrow at watching a relationship—once so full of promise—come to an end.  They cannot ensure that we will get into the college of our dreams, or that once we’re there that we’ll succeed.  They, and no creature for that matter, can answer for us those “depth” questions that arise in the human heart as we grow:  “What is the purpose of life?”  “Why is there death in the world?”  “Is moral uprightness really worth it, when injustice seems to be rewarded more often than not?”

A similar dynamic, dear friends, is often at work in our formation into intercessory prayer.  When we are young, we have confidence that God will answer our most simple requests quickly and with ease.  Yet, as we grow older, more attentive to the ways that our prayers seem to be unfulfilled, we may give up intercessory prayer except in the most extreme moments of life.  We have cried out that our friend may not die, and yet we have not been heard.  We have asked God that our poverty might be relieved, and yet we have not been heard.  We have sought God’s voice in helping us choose a path, and yet we have not been heard.  For most of us, the answer to this silence is not giving up faith in God but readjusting our expectations of what God can provide us in the first place.  We ask for less and not more.  We hope God has a plan, but when we’re asked to articulate it, we’re less than clear what such a plan might be.

The General Intercessions on Good Friday are an antidote to this subjugation of intercessory prayer.  Having heard Christ’s passion, we respond in trust with a barrage of intercessions for the salvation of the world:  that God will guide the Church, increase its faith, and make it effective sacrament of love; that the Pope might be strengthened in his role as servant of Christians; that all ministers, all lay people might reveal this faith in the world; that the catechumens might receive an increase in faith and understanding in preparation for their baptism; that Christians everywhere might be one in the fullness of faith; that the Jewish people might participate in the fullness of redemption, perhaps in a way that we cannot yet imagine (see, Paul’s reflection upon this in Romans); that those who do not believe in Christ may walk nonetheless in sincerity of heart, becoming perfect witnesses of God’s love in the world; that those who do not believe in God may perceive in Christians lives of love and mercy, attracting them to God; that God might lead those in public office to work for freedom, security, and peace; and, that the sick, the dying, the traveler, the captive, the oppressed, the hungry, and the diseased might be strengthened by God, and the source of their suffering blotted from the earth.  We pray this while standing and kneeling, taking time to allow the words of the prayers to become our prayer.

Yet, how can we trust that these prayers may be answered?  Indeed, on Good Friday, we are reminded that it is not we as individuals who prayer these prayers; we do not stand as those alone, isolated monads expressing wishes that remain unfulfilled.  Rather, our voice is Christ’s voice.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this quite beautifully:

Jesus also prays for us—in our place and on our behalf.  All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross, and in his Resurrection, heard by the Father.  This is why he never ceases to intercede for us with the Father.  If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing:  the Holy Spirit itself, who contains all gifts (no. 2741).

So, the General Intercessions that we pray on Good Friday are kind of extensive elaborations upon Christ’s own prayer, bestowed at the Last Supper:

that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17:20-23).

It is the gift of love, of unity that seek.  Of course, this does not take away the painfulness of our often unanswered prayers any more than the mystery of the Resurrection erased Christ’s wounds.  His anguish echoes through the ages (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”) (Ps. 22:1).  Thus, when we ask for something that we do not get, including very good things (the health of a loved one, the gift of a child, a job to care for our family), our prayer is not just heard but it becomes Christ’s prayer—his cry upon the cross.  It becomes the prayer of the saints, who have joined their prayers with Christ’s, who know our sorrow yet rejoice God’s glory.  And the sacramental nature of this prayer means that the sorrow that we feel in uttering seemingly unanswered words can be transformed (through the gift of the Holy Spirit) into a longing for divine life, into a sincere hope for perfect salvation.  So, on Good Friday, let us ask God’s intercession as a child does, confident that they will be heard.  And let our hearts be opened to the surprising way that God hears these prayers.  A savior on a cross.  A king made subject.  The Word of God made flesh, becoming a lamb led to the slaughter.  A world transformed by a preacher from Nazareth.  For, it we become used to God’s surprising way of love, his prayer of being “God with us,” then we may begin to hear his voice anew:  in the cries of the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the lonely, those who know Christ’s cross all too well.

 

 

Good Friday: Adoring the Tree of Life, Eating Its Fruits

TimOMalley-211x300

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

 

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Adoring the Tree of Life, Eating its Fruits

Recently, I attended a youth group at a local parish in South Bend, IN, and I asked the students present what their favorite moment of the Triduum is. Despite all the claims that adolescents are religiously hostile, incapable of savoring the liturgical life of the Church, most of them spoke quite movingly of the liturgical rites of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.  In particular, their religious imaginations were stirred by Easter Vigil, by the dancing fire of the candles, by the death to sin and new birth re-presented by the waters of baptism, by the narrative of salvation echoing throughout the Church in the Scriptures, by the clouds of incense ascending into the heavenly places. Yet, as any educator of teens knows, one can rarely ask a question without answering it yourself. Surprisingly, I realized that one of my favorite moments of the Triduum (the first, being the Exsultet, which I’ll deal with later in the series) was the adoration of the cross.

Why, I thought to myself? Part of me has always seen the adoration of the cross as a far more serious version of a game that I play with my godson, Caleb, one that I call, “Name the most absurd thing you can think of.” A baby monkey riding backwards on a pig. A giraffe playing golf. A turkey driving a car to take his turkey children to the zoo.

Behold, the wood of the cross on which was hung our salvation, come let us adore. Those of us raised in Christian homes, in some sense, no longer perceive the absurd nature of the claims of Good Friday. That God became flesh, one of us, and because of his love for us, emptied himself even to the point of death, death on a cross. And this death, rather than a sign of defeat, has become a trophy of divine victory, a sign that goodness and love and self-gift will conquer in the end, even if to our eyes, it looks like an abject failure. An empty cross, the hopes of the disciples buried in a tomb. An empty cross, the hopes of the world awaiting redemption. And when the Son of Man is lifted up, he shall draw all things to himself. Of course, then we kiss the cross, because to us it is a sign of life, not death. It is a sign that the world is ultimately a comedy, not a tragedy.
Yet, if we enter into the fullness of the biblical imagination, we may perceive something else about our adoration of this empty cross. Let us return for a moment to Eden, to Paradise itself.

“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gn. 2:8-9).

Notice that there are two trees, not one. Our forebears, Adam and Eve, ate from the first tree, but what about the second? What fruit grew on that tree? Let us listen to the words of a hymn often sung on Good Friday during the adoration of the cross:

“Faithful Cross!/above all other,/one and only noble Tree!/None in foliage, none in blossom,/none in fruit thy peers may be;/sweetest wood and sweetest iron!/Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!”

The tree of life, dear friends, is the cross of Christ. It is also the tree of knowledge, because by recognizing the sign, we come to perceive the truth of a world made by a God who loves to the end. By approaching it, offering to it our kisses, letting our tears cover its coarse wood, we begin to eat the fruit of the tree of life, to live forever. As Ephrem the Syrian evokes through his poetic hymnody:

Because Adam touched the Tree he had to run to the fig; he became like the fig tree, being clothed in its vesture: Adam, like some tree, blossomed with leaves. Then he came to that glorious tree of the Cross, put on glory from it, acquiring radiance from it, heard from it the truth that he would return to Eden once more (Hymns on Paradise XII.10).

Later, in the same poem,

“Two Trees did God place in Paradise, the Tree of Life and that of Wisdom, a pair of blessed foundations, source of every good; by means of this glorious pair the human person can become the likeness of God, endowed with immortal life and wisdom that does not err” (XII.15).

Yet, where is the fruit of this tree? Again, let us return to the hymn of Fortunatus, “Lofty tree, bend down thy branches, to embrace thy sacred load; oh, relax the native tension of that all too rigid wood; gently, gently bear the members of thy dying King and God.” The fruit is the body of the Lord, yet it is now absent, invisible to human sight. Or is it? This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. Each time, dear friends, we eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord, we consume the fruit of the tree of life. We come to adore the cross, because we desire its fruit—to become what we receive in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the body of Christ poured out for the life of the world. This is the transformation, which takes place at every Mass, in every corner of the globe, everywhere the fruit of the tree of life is adored and consumed. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal one, have mercy on us!
So, the adoration of the cross is one of my favorite moments, not because I’m sadistic, or enjoy being confronted with visible signs of my own sinfulness. Rather, on Good Friday, the cross turns my mind to the promise of Paradise itself. Enthroned in the Church, I begin to see ever so faintly:

the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:3-5).

In the adoration of the cross, let us taste this fruit. In our holy communion, let the body of Christ become our body. Through the Eucharistic gift of the cross, let us practice the Paradise of self-gift, of love come down in service of those most in need.

Sing, my tongue,
the Savior’s glory;
tell His triumph far and wide;
tell aloud the famous story
of His body crucified;
how upon the cross a victim,
vanquishing in death, He died (Fortunatus).

 

Good Friday: The Priesthood of the Suffering Servant

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

When I was nine years old, my family and I discovered a small white cat wandering around our neighborhood in south Florida.  Snowball, as she came to be called by us (clichéd, yes; appropriate to the limited capacities of a nine year old, also yes) quickly became one of my favorite creatures in the world.  Yet one evening, as I was drifting toward sleep, I had the sort of revelation that means you’re either a theologian, a serial killer, or an existentialist (the latter two are not mutually exclusive):  Snowball would die.  Perhaps, not tomorrow.  Nor the next day.  But, eventually, I would wake up and have to reside in a world in which Snowball existed only in memory.  Quickly, I woke my grandmother up from a sound sleep (such a realization necessitated a drastic action) to inform her of my concern.  I told her we could not keep Snowball, because if we did, I’d end up loving her, and then she’d die.  My grandmother, offering the sort of wisdom that typifies “being a grandparent,” told me that if I cut off my still burgeoning relationship with Snowball because I was afraid of the pain that might come from death, then I’d miss the joys too.

Being human (these are my words, not hers), means opening oneself up to other creatures, and thus making oneself vulnerable to pain, to suffering, to disappointment.  And that the most authentic human life is not one closed in upon itself, afraid to love because of the limitations of life, but ready to love unto the end—for that’s the great adventure in the first place.  Human love, then, is a kind of sacrifice, a giving of oneself that could be received or rejected.  And it takes place within the vulnerability of a world in which each of us enters into relationship with other human beings and creatures who either may reject our love. Or, if they accept it, will one day die.

Dear friends, this level of vulnerability, of total human love, is the mystery signified by the Scriptures of Good Friday.  It is easy for us who have become attached to a fear of vulnerability, of complete self-gift to see it differently.  Indeed, we may perceive Christ’s gift of himself upon the cross as an act of divine retribution, an angry Father who drips every last drop of blood from the body of his Son as payment for the sins of humankind.  But, this would not be an authentic act of love.  It would be the way that one would love if you were afraid of vulnerability, of true servanthood.  We could hear such a paltry God saying, This will get you attention.  I didn’t spare even my Son—think for a moment what I could do to you!  Now, you’ll finally love me right.  This is the inhuman love of a tyrant, not the humane love of the Trinity.

The readings of this feast (yes, Good Friday is a feast!) draw us away from such an interpretation.  The mystery of Good Friday is the priesthood of the suffering servant.  The prophet Isaiah, describing this servant writes:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  By a perversion of justice he was taken away.  Who could have imagined his future?  For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.  They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Is. 53:7-9).

Christ was oppressed on the cross.  Christ was afflicted on the cross.  Injustice did him in.  A love so deep, so true that it went down in search of tax-collectors, of those on the margin, of those of ill repute, led him to be taken away.  But, he did open his mouth.  He answered Pilate, “You say that I am king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (Jn. 18:37).    On the cross, he says to the good thief, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43).  On the cross, he tells the guards, I am thirsty (Jn. 19:28).  On the cross he reveals, It is finished (Jn. 19:30). On the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46).

You see, Christ is like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.  But, only like a lamb.  Christ was led to the cross, became our high priest, because he loved unto the end.  Lambs do not love unto the end.  They go where they are led.  But Christ is a lamb like us:  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He knew the cost of love.  He knew that total love, total vulnerability, total self-gift even to the point of death, death on a cross, would be costly.  It always is in a world that rejects truth, which is hostile toward love.  In a world in which those in power desperately try to remain invulnerable.  In a world in which justice is not necessary but is always a gift, an act of obedient love offered to a God with a more robust imagination than our own.  But, Christ did not close himself up in hatred but continued to open his mouth offering words of love, deeds of love, signs of love.  Christ’s super-abundant gift of love, made all the more “loving” by his identity (fully God and fully human), upsets the logic of a non-sacrificial love; that is, of frantic attempts to remain invulnerable no matter the cost to self or society.  In other words, Christ’s gift is expiation for sin—it is the priestly sacrifice of the suffering servant, who loves unto the end.

So we too are called to love unto the end.  Our God knows how hard this is in a fallen world.  You see, that’s why it’s so important to have a high priest, who knows our weaknesses, the temptations to be less than vulnerable, to sin.  Yet, the cross is also a sign of possibility.  For, Christ rose from the dead.  Love, even when it seems to have failed, “wins.”  Every act of love is an offering to the Father, an offering made possible by his Son, an offering “inspired” by the Spirit.  So on this Good Friday, let us gaze upon the sign of the suffering servant, let us adore the cross of Christ.  Let our hearts be moved to see the truth of this mystery:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he first loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God first loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (Jn. 4:7-12).

Before such love, how else may we respond but joining our voices with the choir of angels, Holy God, Holy mighty one, Holy immortal one, have mercy on us.