Good Friday Respite

Good Friday evening is an oasis of peace for this monastic sacristan. It is grey outside, steadily and consistently drizzling, and drab. Even the lambs were subdued (oh yes, we have seven so far – you will meet them soon). Nature has on her mourning cloths

This respite from the recent hurly-burly and hubbub allows a moment to share a thought that came during the proclamation of the Passion according to St John this afternoon. For no apparent reason, what was striking today was the conclusion of the narrative, the denoument after the death of our Lord. The Twelve have disappeared totally from view, they have fled and melted away, though we can take it as implied that John was faithful enough at the end and went off with Mary, now his mother too.

Continue reading “Good Friday Respite”

Synodalia: What is Love?

Anthony Fisher OP, Archbishop-Elect of my hometown, Sydney, has penned an article posted on the website of his new diocese. Its context is the Synod, and he addresses some very topical issues. But it is his opening lines that arrested this reader’s attention:

I think the biggest challenge to the family today is that people have forgotten how to love. That sounds odd, I know, but what I’m getting at is the cross-shaped Easter sort of loving rather than the heart-shaped Valentine’s sort of loving. We are less and less willing to commit, for the long haul, to another person or a small community of persons, come what may, even when the loving is hard. We are less and less willing to engage in the self-sacrifice that requires, the compromising of our willfulness, even unto death.

One of my homiletic preoccupations (obsessions?), as the boys at this morning’s Mass at Winchester College will attest, is to replace the concept of love that is rammed down our throats by amusing but vacuous romantic comedies, sitcoms, light literature and substance-less magazines – of emotional intoxication with another: “falling in love” – with the Christian concept of love. The Christian concept of love – Christian because perfectly modelled in the person of Jesus Christ – has less to do with transient emotions and more to do with selflessness and self-sacrifice. This is not love as a state of being or an emotional state; but love as a state of doing, a way of living.

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                   OR

 

 

 

This love is pithily and effectively summed up by Archbishop Fisher: it is Cross-shaped, not valentine-shaped. for when the emotional buzz of what is often mistakenly called love (instead of infatuation or even, sometimes, lust) has passed, what are we left with? All too often today the result is broken marriages, or broken relationships since so many do not make that permanent commitment which is the basis of marital love. When “love” is defined by what I feel rather than what I give, we are dealing with a chimera at best, a counterfeit at worst.

This is not to deny that love has an emotional element. Christ does not advocate a soul-less, robotic form of loving. Rather, it is that the emotional element – the “buzz”, the high, the pleasure, the sweetness, the joy – is meant to come after, or at least concurrently with, the doing of love, the self-giving, the self-sacrifice. Emotions come and go, so they can be no real test of love. Commitment, self-denial, self-sacrifice, self-giving: these are the marks of authentic love.

“Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for a friend; you are my friends if you do as I command you”. And what did Christ command: to love God and to love our neighbour. Christ laid down his life for us, and we prove ourselves at least partly worthy by doing as he did. “I have left you an example”. “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross, and follow me”. God’s love, Christ’s love, is cross-shaped.

It is this commitment to self-less self-giving that is the best, yea the only, human foundation of marital love. So if the Church’s, which is to say Christ’s, teaching on love – its duties and its limits and its measure – leaves some people feeling exposed or judged, the problem lies not with the teaching but with people’s faulty living, imperfect choices, unwise decisions. Shooting the messenger will help no one. Denying the message will do even worse damage. If Christ has taught us the truth about love, the love that brings us to life eternal, though vales of tears and dales of joy, then there is only one message the Church can teach, and only one choice we can legitimately make for our own good.

The Christian teaching of two millenia on love have the guarantee of Christ and the validation of experience in the lives of those who all too often do not make the news, the women’s magazine or the lad-mag, or popular music. But these do not reflect the reality of most people’s lives. Most people’s lives are too mundane to make for arresting music or literature or cinema. They set up an ideal impossible to attain; indeed it is no ideal at all. It is a snare, trapping the unwary in the vicious circle of self-obsession.

Perhaps the greatest need today in popular theology, and certainly in the homiletics of our parishes and chaplaincies, is to recover and promote the truth about love and expose the toxic sham that modern secular culture substitutes for it. Love is, as the archbishop said, cross-shaped not valentine-shaped, and our loving will be vain until we fully comprehend this.

The Crux of the Matter: the Essence of the Mass

The recent news that the Vatican’s medical commission has confirmed a miracle to the intercession of the Venerable Fulton Sheen is something to should give us great joy, and more, great hope. His beatification could be very near indeed. If ever there was a natural patron saint for the new media, it would be him. The first televangelist, he taught millions across the world the truths of the faith and of Christian living in a style that was accessible and engaging. He used the new media of television and (earlier) radio to reach an audience far greater than any Catholic preacher or teacher had reached before in such a relatively immediate way. He also raised millions of dollars for the missions.

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Of course he presents challenges to some modern Catholics, who might object to his unashamed wearing of his episcopal vesture on television, or suspect him of enjoying his celebrity (of which some in fact did accuse him). Perhaps there was a dash of vanity in him. But canonization does not recognize perfection, for none such is possible for any of us. It does recognize heroic struggle in the quest for holiness. For Archbishop Sheen this involved using his considerable gifts for the benefit of the missions and of the wider Church. He deployed his gifts to maximum effect, and did not pretend that he did not have such gifts, nor did he downplay them. He offered them unreservedly in service of the Body of Christ. In this he comes closer to authentic humility than some might allow him. Humility is to know the truth about oneself and to live by it. Sheen spent an hour every day alone before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer. Here he heard from the Master the truth about himself, and the call to act on that truth.

We have moved far beyond television now, with a whole world of communication beyond Sheen’s conception able to fit into our pockets. Nevertheless if were active today he would have embraced the new media with gusto. Sheen showed how progress could serve Tradition and Truth in any age.

So to talk about the liturgy of the Mass, the highs and lows of its post-conciliar reform and the urgent need for its re-invigoration today, it is necessary that we return to basics. What happens at Mass? What is it for? What is its essential nature? Only with accurate answers to these questions can we approach the problem of liturgical reform.

As a contribution to this project, let me offer you some words of wisdom from the Venerable Fulton Sheen. In particular, it is the Prologue to his too-short but wonderful book, Calvary and the Mass (1936). It may seem a little long on a webpage like this, but it is so readable that you will fly through it. Indeed, try not to fly through it but absorb it. Consider it is an exercise in lectio divina, or meditative reading. To aid this some pregnant phrases or passages will be highlighted in bold, as an invitation to drink more deeply of them in particular. Truly there is full-blown book condensed into this Prologue. Dear Reader, tolle, lege.

And after reading it ask yourself these two questions with a view to liturgical reform: which is more crucial to the Mass – meal or sacrifice?; and, what is it then to participate authentically in the Mass?

calvary and mass

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THERE are certain things in life which are too beautiful to be forgotten, such as the love of a mother. Hence we treasure her picture. The love of soldiers who sacrificed themselves for their country is likewise too beautiful to be forgotten, hence we revere their memory on Memorial Day. But the greatest blessing which ever came to this earth was the visitation of the Son of God in the form and habit of man. His life, above all lives, is too beautiful to be forgotten, hence we treasure the divinity of His Words in Sacred Scripture, and the charity of His Deeds in our daily actions. Unfortunately this is all some souls remember, namely His Words and His Deeds; important as these are, they are not the greatest characteristic of the Divine Saviour.

The most sublime act in the history of Christ was His Death. Death is always important for it seals a destiny. Any dying man is a scene. Any dying scene is a sacred place. That is why the great literature of the past which has touched on the emotions surrounding death has never passed out of date. But of all deaths in the record of man, none was more important than the Death of Christ. Everyone else who was ever born into the world, came into it to live; our Lord came into it to die. Death was a stumbling block to the life of Socrates, but it was the crown to the life of Christ. He Himself told us that He came “to give his life a redemption for many”; that no one could take away His Life; but He would lay it down of Himself.

If then Death was the supreme moment for which Christ lived, it was therefore the one thing He wished to have remembered. He did not ask that men should write down His Words into a Scripture; He did not ask that His kindness to the poor should be recorded in history; but He did ask that men remember His Death. And in order that its memory might not be any haphazard narrative on the part of men, He Himself instituted the precise way it should be recalled.

The memorial was instituted the night before He died, at what has since been called “The Last Supper.” Taking bread into His Hands, He said: “This is my body, which shall be delivered for you,” i.e., delivered unto death. Then over the chalice of wine, He said, “This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.” Thus in an unbloody symbol of the parting of the Blood from the Body, by the separate consecration of Bread and Wine, did Christ pledge Himself to death in the sight of God and men, and represent His death which was to come the next afternoon at three. He was offering Himself as a Victim to be immolated, and that men might never forget that “greater love than this no man hash, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” He gave the divine command to the Church: “Do this for a commemoration of me.”

The following day that which He had prefigured and foreshadowed, He realized in its completeness, as He was crucified between two thieves and His Blood drained from His Body for the redemption of the world.

The Church which Christ founded has not only preserved the Word He spoke, and the wonders He wrought; it has also taken Him seriously when He said: “Do this for a commemoration of me.” And that action whereby we re-enact His Death on the Cross is the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which we do as a memorial what He did at the Last Supper as the prefiguration of His Passion.

Hence the Mass is to us the crowning act of Christian worship. A pulpit in which the words of our Lord are repeated does not unite us to Him; a choir in which sweet sentiments are sung brings us no closer to His Cross than to His garments. A temple without an altar of sacrifice is non-existent among primitive peoples, and is meaningless among Christians. And so in the Catholic Church the altar, and not the pulpit or the choir or the organ, is the center of worship, for there is re-enacted the memorial of His Passion. Its value does not depend on him who says it, or on him who hears it; it depends on Him who is the One High Priest and Victim, Jesus Christ our Lord. With Him we are united, in spite of our nothingness; in a certain sense, we lose our individuality for the time being; we unite our intellect and our will, our heart and our soul, our body and our blood, so intimately with Christ, that the Heavenly Father sees not so much us with our imperfection, but rather sees us in Him, the Beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. The Mass is for that reason the greatest event in the history of mankind; the only Holy Act which keeps the wrath of God from a sinful world, because it holds the Cross between heaven and earth, thus renewing that decisive moment when our sad and tragic humanity journeyed suddenly forth to the fullness of supernatural life.

What is important at this point is that we take the proper mental attitude toward the Mass, and remember this important fact, that the Sacrifice of the Cross is not something which happened nineteen hundred years ago. It is still happening. It is not something past like the signing of the Declaration of Independence; it is an abiding drama on which the curtain has not yet rung down. Let it not be believed that it happened a long time ago, and therefore no more concerns us than anything else in the past. Calvary belongs to all times and to all places. That is why, when our Blessed Lord ascended the heights of Calvary, He was fittingly stripped of His garments: He would save the world without the trappings of a passing world. His garments belonged to time, for they localized Him, and fixed Him as a dweller in Galilee. Now that He was shorn of them and utterly dispossessed of earthly things, He belonged not to Galilee, not to a Roman province, but to the world. He became the universal poor man of the world, belonging to no one people, but to all men.

To express further the universality of the Redemption, the cross was erected at the crossroads of civilization, at a central point between the three great cultures of Jerusalem, Rome, and Athens, in whose names He was crucified. The cross was thus placarded before the eyes of men, to arrest the careless, to appeal to the thoughtless, to arouse the worldly. It was the one inescapable fact that the cultures and civilizations of His day could not resist. It is also the one inescapable fact of our day which we cannot resist.

The figures at the Cross were symbols of all who crucify. We were there in our representatives. What we are doing now to the Mystical Christ, they were doing in our names to the historical Christ. If we are envious of the good, we were there in the Scribes and Pharisees. If we are fearful of losing some temporal advantage by embracing Divine Truth and Love, we were there in Pilate. If we trust in material forces and seek to conquer through the world instead of through the spirit, we were there in Herod. And so the story goes on for the typical sins of the world. They all blind us to the fact that He is God. There was therefore a kind of inevitability about the Crucifixion. Men who were free to sin were also free to crucify.

As long as there is sin in the world the Crucifixion is a reality. As the poet has put it:

“I saw the son of man go by,
Crowned with a crown of thorns.
‘Was it not finished Lord,’ said I,
‘And all the anguish borne?’

“He turned on me His awful eyes;
‘Hast Thou not understood?
So every soul is a Calvary
And every sin a rood.'”

We were there then during that Crucifixion. The drama was already completed as far as the vision of Christ was concerned, but it had not yet been unfolded to all men and all places and all times. If a motion picture reel, for example, were conscious of itself, it would know the drama from beginning to end, but the spectators in the theater would not know it until they had seen it unrolled upon the screen.

In like manner, our Lord on the Cross saw His eternal mind, the whole drama of history, the story of each individual soul, and how later on it would react to His Crucifixion; but though He saw all, we could not know how we would react to the Cross until we were unrolled upon the screen of time. We were not conscious of being present there on Calvary that day, but He was conscious of our presence. Today we know the role we played in the theater of Calvary, by the way we live and act now in the theater of the twentieth century.

That is why Calvary is actual; why the Cross is the Crisis; why in a certain sense the scars are still open; why Pain still stands deified, and why blood like falling stars is still dropping upon our souls. There is no escaping the Cross not even by denying it as the Pharisees did; not even by selling Christ as Judas did; not even by crucifying Him as the executioners did. We all see it, either to embrace it in salvation, or to fly from it into misery.

But how is it made visible? Where shall we find Calvary perpetuated? We shall find Calvary renewed, re-enacted, re-presented, as we have seen, in the Mass. Calvary is one with the Mass, and the Mass is one with Calvary, for in both there is the same Priest and Victim. The Seven Last Words are like the seven parts of the Mass. And just as there are seven notes in music admitting an infinite variety of harmonies and combinations, so too on the Cross there are seven divine notes, which the dying Christ rang down the centuries, all of which combine to form the beautiful harmony of the world’s redemption.

Each word is a part of the Mass. The First Word, “Forgive,” is the Confiteor; the Second Word, “This Day in Paradise,” is the Offertory; the Third Word, “Behold Thy Mother,” is the Sanctus; the Fourth Word, “Why hast Thou abandoned Me,” is the Consecration; the Fifth Word, “I thirst,” is the Communion; the Sixth Word, “It is finished,” is the Ite, Missa Est; the Seventh Word, “Father, into Thy Hands,” is the Last Gospel.

Picture then the High Priest Christ leaving the sacristy of heaven for the altar of Calvary. He has already put on the vestment of our human nature, the maniple of our suffering, the stole of priesthood, the chasuble of the Cross. Calvary is his cathedral; the rock of Calvary is the altar stone; the sun turning to red is the sanctuary lamp; Mary and John are the living side altars; the Host is His Body; the wine is His Blood. He is upright as Priest, yet He is prostrate as Victim. His Mass is about to begin.

Re-visiting “One does not get down from the cross”

Now that Benedict’s abdication has taken effect, and as the cardinals gather to prepare for the conclave, the murmuring of those critical of Benedict’s decision are getting a little louder. Cardinal Pell voiced the fears of many that an abdication might place future popes under unprecedented pressure to abdicate in the face of loud secular or even curial opposition. There is more from the rumour mill that the cardinals are resolving to insist that the new pope undertake never to resign. Cardinal Dziwisz’s comments on Bl John Paul II’s reigning till death even when illness had made him a mere shell of the man he had been – “One does not come down from the Cross” – have been mischievously construed by the press as an attack on Benedict.

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Benedict XVI seems himself to have been conscious of Dziwisz’s words and of Bl John Paul II’s example. In his final audience last Wednesday he said,

 I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord.

Bl John Paul II was a unique man, and Benedict XVI knows this better than anyone else. Benedict knows he cannot be another JP II. Benedict XVI is himself a unique man. He recognizes his own gifts and weaknesses and acts accordingly. Part of the reason why JP II was able to carry the Church and the world with him in those anguished last years if his pontificate was that he had been pope for the best part of a generation. His extrovert, warm personality and his gift for commanding the world stage as a personality to be reckoned with, meant that we could only feel sympathy for him as he battled on valiantly. Our sympathy was not dimmed by the knowledge of many of us that aspects of the governance of the Church were suffering even as JP II gave wonderful witness of the value of human life and human suffering as a sharing in the Cross of Christ.

What Benedict is teaching us is that there are many ways of sharing the Cross of Christ, of keeping it at the centre of our Christian lives. We are called to carry the Cross at some stage(s) of our lives. JP II felt himself to be called to be on the Cross himself, as it were. But not all of us are called to that way of anchoring the Cross in our lives. JP II’s witness was a very particular and special identification with Christ.

Benedict proposes another rich identification we can make with regard to the Cross. He sees his life now not as being on the Cross with Christ, but standing by the Cross, at the feet of Christ. In this he seems to identify with Mary and the Beloved Disciple. who stood by the Cross after most had abandoned him.

 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:26-27

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Here one fruit of the Cross is highlighted: from the Cross Christ gives us a home, with his mother, a motherhood that is exercised by the Church. Benedict’s teaching to us is that by being in the Church we have begun to make the Cross the cornerstone (to mix images) of our lives. Benedict feels himself too old and unfit to the immense task of guiding the Church in such demanding times, which is itself a sharing in the Cross. Instead he is embracing the Cross in a more contemplative, less active way, standing by it and gazing upon it, attentive to its message.

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Benedict XVI has chosen to be cloistered with the Cross for the rest of his days. He reminds us that whether we feel ourselves to be in the Cross with Christ, or simply standing in its shadow, always the Cross is central to the life of a Christian. In fact, without the Cross there is no Christianity, and there is no Church. We are all called to shoulder the Cross, like Simon of Cyrene, at some stage of our lives. We are also all called to keep our gaze firmly fixed on the Cross, as we stand in its shadow.

To be in the Church is to abide in the shadow of the Cross. Benedict XVI has not strength enough now to carry the Cross as he formerly did. It is enough for him to remain in its shadow, his eyes undistractedly fixed on the Cross in the cloister of Golgotha. That too is a gift to the Church. Maybe, just maybe, as one has suggested to me, Benedict’s example might inspire more young men and women to embrace the contemplation of the Cross in the cloisters of the Church’s monasteries. What rich fruit that would be indeed.

 

Fathoming the Cross: the Reason for the Season

Have we greatly sinned?

In the series here of Missal Moments on the new Missal now in place for Roman-Rite (Ordinary Form) Catholics, so far the revised Confiteor has not been dealt with separately. At some of the talks I have given on it, and also at other times, some people have objected to the new version, with its “I have greatly sinned… through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. Of course, the new translation is merely reflecting the Latin original, which was lost in the previous Missal. These people, of course, then say they object to the Latin original. “My sins are no worse than most others, I am no Hitler. And while I may sometimes be at fault, it is hardly ‘most grievous’. This renewed emphasis on sin will just bring back the old, bad Catholic guilt complex”. This is a pretty accurate summary of what I have heard. So it was refreshing to see someone else notice this trend, see its subtle but dangerous error, and address it. Rather than repeat what John Jalsevac says, do go and read his article here. In sum, he talks about the self-description of the objectors as something akin to ‘I am basically a decent chap, not a grievous sinner. I am nowhere near as bad as the Hitlers of this world’. But Jalsevac spots the error in this thinking quite clearly:

The problem, of course, is that we are usually measuring ourselves against the wrong standard. Mostly we are measuring ourselves against the standard of our neighbour, which, in practice, mostly means that we are carefully analyzing and archiving our neighbour’s every fault and foible, and, with any time left, busily thinking up compelling excuses for all of our own. However, not only is any sense of superiority engendered by such a comparison almost universally wrong and based upon deceptive appearances, it is of practically no value. If the goal is for our souls become white, is there much point in saying, “Well, thank God my soul is marginally less black than that of the next fellow”? It may or may not be true that our soul is less black, but it is still black, and a long way from the white that it is supposed to be. If we want to be white, then, we need to compare ourselves against a standard of absolute white. In the moral life, this means that we must compare ourselves to a standard of perfect love. Most of us find this an extremely disturbing thought. Deep down most of us sincerely believe that the goal of life is just to be a little better than our neighbour, and to slip into heaven on the strength of a sort of divine Bell Curve. But we aren’t called simply to be better than our neighbour, we are called to become Godlike. We are called to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The Pharisee and the Publican

Ouch! He hits the nail square on the head. Many of us can easily fall into the mode of the pharisee who said to himself having spied the despised publican “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). But we are all too much like other people, and too little like God in whose image we are made and whose likeness we are called to manifest. Instead, Jalsevac argues, we need to recover both a proper sense of sin and a proper sense of the holiness to which we are called in our Baptism. We need to compare ourselves to Christ, not our neighbour, for Christ is the measure of true humanity. Jalsevac concludes by recalling the …

“… persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence” that Lewis speaks of. This is something that, if you’re honest with yourself, you will find weaves its way in and out of your every thought and every action, continually perverting your every effort at living authentic love un-poisoned by the dross of self-serving. More often than not it reveals itself not in the thoughts we have or the things we do, but in the thoughts we don’t have, and the things we don’t do. Particularly in the fact that, despite being offered a million chances, we still haven’t begun to take God and his demands seriously, instead relegating God to the periphery of our lives, giving him a token nod from time to time, repeatedly rejecting His invitation to holiness for a fleeting and adulterous affair with his lesser creations. It seems to me that until we come to this realization – that we are, indeed, “grievous” sinners – we cannot even begin to live the spiritual life and make progress towards holiness.  And thus I am grateful for the new Mass translation for providing the regular reminder that, indeed, I am a wretch, and in enormous need of the gratuitous mercy of God.

And this brings us to the point that needs to be made regarding this sacred time of the Triduum, wherein the Paschal Mystery is commemorated, and wherein the Church becomes a witness to that divine drama which, though concluded in time, abides forever in eternity. [For it is only in the Church’s liturgy that God enables us to look on in Gethsamene’s garden, sit at table in the upper room, walk the Via Dolorosa behind Christ, stand silenced at Golgotha and dumbfounded at the empty tomb.] So as we make this liturgical journey we might ask, as has been asked before, why? Why this way to redeem us? Indeed, why redemption at all?

Why Redemption?

Taking the latter question first, the short answer is sin. It started with the sin of Adam and Eve, who initiated in humanity its persistent choice of self before God, self-will before God’s will. And so, ever after, “all have sinned and fall(en) short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Humanity was powerless to extricate itself from its predicament, namely a slavery to self and so to sin, which could only end in death. Having forsaken God’s gifts, only God could restore them. As St Paul says:

Therefore, … sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… [yet] if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [Romans 5:12,15]

The grace of God is that supreme gift of God to which we know have access through Christ. Grace is the gift of God’s own life, a gift which does not remove death from human destiny, but transforms it into something far greater than the life humanity enjoyed in its original paradise.

Crucifix, Douai Abbey Church

Why Redemption by the Cross?

Which brings us to God’s choice of this particular way to redeem us – sending his Son to die our death so that we might have His life. God, theoretically, could have waved his hand and made it “all right”. Yet to do so would have destroyed one of his greatest gifts to us, something that is essential to human nature: our free will. God has not made us to be his playthings; he has made us in his image in order to bear his likeness, and share in his life. Love overflows beyond itself to another; love shares itself with another; love gives itself to another. Love is a moving from self to another, for the sake of the other. Love requires freedom.

That does not mean that God needed us, of course. In His Trinity God is the perfect community of love, a love so perfect, pure and unsullied that the three Persons who share it are so intimately united as to be one. The Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father, and their mutual love is so perfect that it becomes a Person, the Holy Spirit. God does not need anyone else in order to love.

Which makes our creation all the more breathtaking. God created us not because he needed to, but because he wanted to. Humanity having chosen itself before him (how could we have done so!?), God did not abandon us to ourselves but seized the opportunity to show us the richness of the love we turned away from. In the Son, God empties Himself to the point of living our life, though he had no need to. That is self-sacrifice. In response the Son, being truly human though ever a divine person, offered his human life in our place to the Father, to pay the dues of death once and for all. That is self-sacrifice; that is love.

What Christ did in his human nature has changed all human nature forever. For he has made it capable of sharing the life of God, by sharing in his life, becoming one with him. This was something Adam and Eve were never offered. We share in Christ’s life and become like him in two ways, both of which are essential to the Paschal Mystery, and explain its purpose.

First, we share in Christ’s death, so that our human death might end in life. How? Through Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. [Romans 6:3-11]

Sharing Christ’s death is the means for our sharing God’s life, and Baptism in faith is the means by which we are enabled to share in both. Baptism unites us to Christ in his Body, the Church, the community of faith.

Secondly, we share Christ’s life and become one with Christ in the Church, by using his gift of grace to do as he did. The disciple is not greater than the Master; as he has done, so must we. Christ in the suffering of his self-sacrifice left us an example, as St Peter says – “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). All of Christ’s life has meaning for us, as it is the expression of the same self-sacrifice that we see at its zenith in the Paschal Mystery, the Passion and the Cross. In his forgiveness of others, and his turning the other cheek, he sacrificed his divine prerogative of justice and instead granted mercy. In his washing of the disciples’ feet, a slave’s work, he sacrificed his status as God’s Son that we might share in it ourselves. He treats humankind as we should treat Him! Finally, He laid down his life for us, that we might be his friends. But there is a catch, a necessary step in becoming his friends – we must do as He did:

Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:13)

You are if you do. We are one with Him if we do as He did. The self-sacrifice of the Cross is both our example, and the means by which we can follow that example. By living that love we become one with Love. That is why God chose the Incarnation, and the Cross which is its crown. The Paschal Mystery enables us to choose love, and so choose God, in freedom.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal SonSo perhaps we do better not to minimise sin, which is the abuse of our freedom, the choice of self first. Every day we make a myriad of small choices for self and against others, and against God. Each time we do so we drift further away from Christ, who is the true measure of what it is to be human and to be a friend of God. We have greatly sinned, even if we do not feel it; especially Christians, who know better and whose guilt therefore is the greater. Let us empty ourselves of pride and acknowledge our sin, for the measure by which we repent is the measure by which we shall be forgiven. A niggardly repentance will bring the reward it deserves, in fact, the reward it asks for. Let us not minimise the redemption Christ has won for us.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:4-6)

A blessed Triduum to all!

Another Salesian gem

St Francis de Sales is one of the soundest teachers of practical spirituality. His insights are so beautifully expressed that they can abide in your mind for those times, good and bad, when they are of most help. Here is another of his more famous meditations, apt for times of trial:

The everlasting God has, in His wisdom, foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you.

He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.

To be a Christian always requires obedience at certain times to Christ’s teaching, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). For all that the cross is inevitable in the life of a Christian who truly seeks God, nevertheless God never allows us to be tried beyond our strength. If we do feel a particular cross to heavy to bear, a trial too overwhelming to endure, we must remind ourselves of St Francis de Sales’ words. When we experience a particular cross we can be sure that we can bear it whatever we might feel, otherwise God would not have allowed it to come upon us. This is what it is to deny oneself when it comes to the crunch: to move beyond our feelings and trust in God’s promises.

Our trust can be expressed in even the smallest cry for help. It is that small cry that God might be waiting to hear, so that He knows we are ready to receive his grace fruitfully and not in vain. And always when we have carried our small crosses, which share in the great Cross of Christ, we can be sure that we are that little bit stronger, and that little bit closer to Christ. We should never fail to offer our crosses with Christ offered on his Cross at Mass, for then truly we are becoming one with Christ. Being one with Christ is the heart of life in the Church and the essence of life in heaven. All of which means that when we are carrying our little crosses, Christ still carries his Cross in us, for us and our salvation. After the Cross comes the resurrection.

So let’s never be afraid of that old rugged Cross. It is indeed “an alms from the all-merciful love of God”.