The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
Volume 6 – Passiontide and Holy Week
Chapter III – Practices During Passiontide and Holy Week
The past four weeks seems to have been but a preparation for the intense grief of the Church during these two. She knows that men are in search of her Jesus, and that they are bent on His death. Before twelve days are over, she will see them lay their sacrilegious hands upon Him. She will have to follow Him up the hill of Calvary; she will have to receive His last breath; she must witness the stone placed against the sepulchre where His lifeless Body is laid. We cannot, therefore, be surprised at her inviting all her children to contemplate, during these weeks, Him who is the object of all her love and all her sadness.
But our mother asks something more of us than compassion and tears; she would have us profit by the lessons we are to be taught by the Passion and Death of our Redeemer. He himself, when going up to Calvary, said to the holy women who had the courage to show their compassion even before His very executioners: ‘Weep not over Me; but weep for yourselves and for your children’ [St. Luke xxiii. 28]. It was not that He refused the tribute of their tears, for He was pleased with this proof of their affection; but it was His love for them that made him speak thus. He desired, above all, to see them appreciate the importance of what they were witnessing, and learn from it how in exorable is God’s justice against sin.
During the four weeks that have preceded, the Church has been leading the sinner to his conversion; so far, however, this conversion has been but begun: now she would perfect it. It is no longer our Jesus fasting and praying in the desert, that she offers to our consideration; it is this same Jesus, as the great Victim immolated for the world’s salvation. The fatal hour is at hand; the power of darkness is preparing to make use of the time that is still left; the greatest of crimes is about to be perpetrated. A few days hence the Son of God is to be in the hands of sinners, and they will put Him to death. The Church no longer needs to urge her children to repentance; they know too well, now, what sin must be, when it could require such expiation as this. She is all absorbed in the thought of the terrible event, which is to close the life of the God-Man on earth; and by expressing her thoughts through the holy liturgy, she teaches us what our own sentiments should be.
The pervading character of the prayers and rites of these two weeks, is a profound grief at seeing the just One persecuted by His enemies even to death, and an energetic indignation against the deicides. The formulas, expressive of these two feelings are, for the most part, taken from David and the Prophets. Here, it is our Saviour Himself, disclosing to us the anguish of His soul; there, it is the Church pronouncing the most terrible anathemas upon the executioners of Jesus. The chastisement that is to befall the Jewish nation is prophesied in all its frightful details; and on the last three days, we shall hear the prophet Jeremias uttering his lamentations over the faithless city. The Church does not aim at exciting idle sentiment; what she principally seeks, is to impress the hearts of her children with a salutary fear. If Jerusalem’s crime strike them with horror, and if they feel that they have partaken in her sin, their tears will flow in abundance.
Let us, therefore, do our utmost to receive these strong impressions, too little known, alas! by the superficial piety of these times. Let us reflect upon the love and affection of the Son of God, who has treated His creatures with such unlimited confidence, lived their own life, spent His three and thirty years amidst them, not only humbly and peaceably, but in going about doing good [Acts i. 38]. And now this life of kindness, condescension, and humility, is to be cut short by the disgraceful death, which none but slaves endured: the death of the cross. Let us consider, on the one side, this sinful people, who, having no crimes to lay to Jesus’ charge, accuse Him of his benefits, and carry their detestable ingratitude to such a pitch as to shed the Blood of this innocent and divine Lamb; and then, let us turn to this Jesus, the Just by excellence, and see Him become a prey to every bitterest suffering: His Soul sorrowful even unto death [St. Matt. xxvi. 38]; weighed down by the malediction of our sins; drinking even to the very dregs the chalice He so humbly asks His Father to take from Him; and lastly, let us listen to His dying words: ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ [Ibid. xxvii. 46]. This it is that fills the Church with her immense grief; this it is that she proposes to our consideration; for she knows that, if we once rightly understood the sufferings of her Jesus, our attachments to sin must needs be broken, for, by sin, we make our selves guilty of the crime we detest in these Jews.
But the Church knows, too, how hard is the heart of man, and how, to make him resolve on a thorough Conversion, he must be made to fear. For this reason, she puts before us those awful imprecations, which the prophets, speaking in Jesus’ person, pronounced against them that put our Lord to death. These prophetic anathemas were literally fulfilled against the obdurate Jews. They teach us what the Christian, also, must expect, if, as the apostle so forcibly expresses it, we again crucify the Son of God [Heb. vi. 6]. In listening to what the Church now speaks to us, we cannot but tremble as we recall to mind those other words of the same apostle: How much more, think ye, doth he deserve worse punishment, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath esteemed the Blood of the testament unclean, (as though it were some vile thing), by which he was sanctified, and hath offered an affront to the Spirit of grace? For we know Him that hath said: ‘Vengeance belongeth to Me, and I will repay.’ And again: ‘The Lord shall judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God [Ibid. x. 29-31].
Fearful indeed it is! Oh! what a lesson God gives us of His inexorable justice, during these days of the Passion! He that spared not even his own Son [Rom. viii. 32], His beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased [St. Matt. iii. 17], will He spare us, if, after all the graces He has bestowed upon us, He should find us in sin, which He so unpitifully chastised even in Jesus, when He took it upon himself, that He might atone for it? Considerations such as these – the justice of God towards the most innocent and august of victims, and the punishments that befell the impenitent Jews – must surely destroy within us every affection to sin, for they will create within us that salutary fear which is the solid foundation of firm hope and tender love.
For if, by our sins, we have made ourselves guilty of the death of the Son of God, it is equally true that the Blood which flowed from His sacred wounds has the power to cleanse us from the guilt of our crime. The justice of our heavenly Father cannot be appeased, save by the shedding of this precious Blood; and the mercy of this same Father wills that it be spent for our ransom. The cruelty of Jesus’ executioners has made five wounds in His sacred Body; and from these, there flow five sources of salvation, which purify the world, and restore within each one of us the image of God which sin had destroyed. Let us, then, approach with confidence to this redeeming Blood, which throws open to the sinner the gates of heaven, and whose worth is such that it could redeem a million worlds, were they even more guilty than ours. We are close upon the anniversary of the day when it was shed; long ages have passed away since it flowed down the wounded Body of our Jesus, and fell in streams from the cross upon this ungrateful earth; and yet its power is as great as ever.
Let us go, then, and draw from the Saviour’s fountains [Is. xii. 3]; our souls will come forth full of life, all pure, and dazzling with heavenly beauty; not one spot of their old defilements will be left; and the Father will love us with the love wherewith He loves His own Son. Why did He deliver up unto death this His tenderly beloved Son? Was it not that He might regain us, the children whom He had lost? We had become, by our sins, the possession of satan; hell had undoubted claims upon us; and, lo! we have been suddenly snatched from both, and all our primitive rights have been restored to us. Yet God used no violence in order to deliver us from our enemy; how comes it, then, that we are now free? Listen to the apostle: ‘Ye are bought at a great price.’ [1 Cor. vi. 20]. And what is this price? The prince of the apostles explains it: ‘Know ye,’ says he, ‘that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as gold or silver, but with the precious Blood of Christ as of a Lamb unspotted and undefiled.’[ 1 Peter i. 18,19]. This divine Blood was placed in the scales of God’s justice, and so far did it outweigh our iniquities, as to make the bias in our favour. The power of this Blood has broken the very gates of hell, severed our chains, and made peace both as to the things on earth, and the things that are in heaven [Coloss. i. 20]. Let us receive upon us, therefore, this precious Blood, wash our wounds in it, and sign our foreheads with it as with an indelible mark, which may protect us, on the day of wrath, from the sword of vengeance.
There is another object most dear to the Church, which she, during these two weeks, recommends to our deepest veneration; it is the cross, the altar upon which our incomparable Victim is immolated. Twice during the course of the year, that is, on the feasts of its Invention and Exaltation, this sacred Wood will be offered to us that we may honour it as the trophy of our Jesus’ victory; but now, it speaks to us but of His sufferings, it brings with it no other idea but that of His humiliation. God had said in the ancient Covenant: ‘Accursed is he that hangeth on a tree’ [Deut. xxi. 23]. The Lamb, that saved us, disdained not to suffer this curse; but, for that very cause, this tree, this wood of infamy, has become dear to us beyond measure. It is the instrument of our salvation, it is the sublime pledge of Jesus’ love for us. On this account, the Church is about to lavish her veneration and love upon it; and we intend to imitate her, and join her in this, as in all else she does. An adoring gratitude towards the Blood that has redeemed us, and a loving veneration of the holy cross – these are the two sentiments which are to be uppermost in our hearts during these two weeks.
But for the Lamb Himself – for Him that gave us this Blood, and so generously embraced the cross that saved us – what shall we do? Is it not just that we should keep close to Him, and that, more faithful than the apostles who abandoned Him during His Passion, we should follow Him day by day, nay, hour by hour, in the way of the cross that He treads for us? Yes, we will be His faithful companions during these last days of His mortal life, when He submits to the humiliation of having to hide Himself from His enemies. We will envy the lot of those devoted few, who shelter Him in their houses, and expose themselves, by this courageous hospitality, to the rage of His enemies. We will compassionate His Mother, who suffered an anguish that no other heart could feel, because no other creature could love Him as she did. We will go, in spirit, into that most hated Sanhedrim, where they are laying the impious plot against the life of the just One. Suddenly, we shall see a bright speck gleaming on the dark horizon; the streets and squares of Jerusalem will re-echo with the cry of Hosanna to the Son of David. That unexpected homage paid to our Jesus, those palm branches, those shrill voices of admiring Hebrew children, will give a momentary truce to our sad forebodings. Our love shall make us take part in the loyal tribute thus paid to the King of Israel, who comes so meekly to visit the daughter of Sion, as the prophet had foretold He would: but alas! this joy will be short-lived, and we must speedily relapse into our deep sorrow of soul!
The traitorous disciple will soon strike his bargain with the high priests; the last Pasch will be kept, and we shall see the figurative lamb give place to the true one, whose Flesh will become our food, and His Blood our drink. It will be our Lord’s Supper. Clad in the nuptial robe, we will take our place there, together with the disciples; for that day is the day of reconciliation, which brings together, to the same holy Table, both the penitent sinner, and the just that has been ever faithful. Then, we shall have to turn our steps towards the fatal garden, where we shall learn what sin is, for we shall behold our Jesus agonizing beneath its weight, and asking some respite from His eternal Father. Then, in the dark hour of midnight, the servants of the high priests and the soldiers, led on by the vile Iscariot, will lay their impious hands on the Son of God; and yet the legions of angels, who adore Him, will be withheld from punishing the awful sacrilege! After this, we shall have to repair to the various tribunals, whither Jesus is led, and witness the triumph of injustice. The time that elapses between his being seized in the garden and His having to carry His cross up the hill of Calvary, will be filled up with the incidents of His mock trial – lies, calumnies, the wretched cowardice of the Roman governor, the insults of the by-standers, and the cries of the ungrateful populace thirsting for innocent Blood! We shall be present at all these things; our love will not permit us to separate ourselves from that dear Redeemer, who is to suffer them for our sake, for our salvation.
Finally, after seeing Him struck and spit upon, and after the cruel scourging and the frightful insult of the crown of thorns, we will follow our Jesus up Mount Calvary; we shall know where His sacred feet have trod by the Blood that marks the road. We shall have to make our way through the crowd, and, as we pass, we shall hear terrible imprecations uttered against our divine Master. Having reached the place of execution, we shall behold this august Victim stripped of His garment, nailed to the cross, hoisted into the air, as if the better to expose Him to insult! We will draw near to the free of life, that we may lose neither one drop of that Blood which flows for the cleansing of the world, nor one single word spoken, for its instruction, by our dying Jesus. We will compassionate His Mother, whose heart is pierced through with a sword of sorrow; we will stand close to her, when her Son, a few moments before His death, shall consign us to her fond care. After His three hours’ agony, we will reverently watch His sacred Head bow down, and receive, with adoring love, His last breath.
A bruised and mangled corpse, stiffened by the cold of death – this is all that remains to us of that Son of Man, whose first coming into the world caused us such joy! The Son of the eternal Father was not satisfied with emptying Himself and taking the form of a servant [Phil. ii. 7]; this His being born in the flesh was but the beginning of His sacrifice; His love was to lead Him even unto death, even to the death of the cross. He foresaw that He would not win our love save at the price of such a generous immolation, and His heart hesitated not to make it. ‘Let us, therefore, love God,’ says St. John, ‘because God first loved us.’ [1 St. John iv. 19]. This is the end the Church proposes to herself by the celebration of these solemn anniversaries. After humbling our pride and our resistance to grace by showing us how divine justice treats sin, she leads our hearts to love Jesus, who delivered Himself up, in our stead, to the rigours of that justice. Woe to us, if this great week fail to produce in our souls a just return towards Him who loved us more than Himself, though we were, and had made ourselves, His enemies. Let us say with the apostle: ‘The charity of Christ presseth us; that they who live, may not now live to themselves, but unto Him who died for them.’ [2 Cor.v. 14,15]. We owe this return to Him who made Himself a Victim for our sake, and who, up to the very last moment, instead of pronouncing against us the curse we so justly deserved, prayed and obtained for us mercy and grace. He is, one day, to reappear on the clouds of heaven, and as the prophet says, men shall look upon Him whom they have pierced [Zach. iii. 10]. God grant that we may be of the number of those who, having made amends by their love for the crimes they have committed against the divine Lamb, will then find confidence at the sight of those wounds!
Let us hope that, by God’s mercy, the holy time we are now entering upon will work such a happy change in us, that, on the day of judgment, we may confidently fix our eyes on Him we are now about to contemplate crucified by the hands of sinners. The death of Jesus puts the whole of nature in commotion; the midday sun is darkened, the earth is shaken to its very foundations, the rocks are split: may it be that our hearts, too, be moved, and pass from indifference to fear, from fear to hope, and, at length, from hope to love; so that, having gone down, with our Crucified, to the very depths of sorrow, we may deserve to rise again with Him unto light and joy, beaming with the brightness of His Resurrection, and having within ourselves the pledge of a new life, which shall then die no more!