Over the past several weeks the Church’s public prayer has guided us ever closer to the events of the passion, death, and resurrection of our blessed Lord. On Septuagesima Sunday we began (as it were) our gradual breathing-in; preparing ourselves for the holy Lenten fast which, beginning on Ash Wednesday, has acted as a discipline both in the external stripping-back and simplification of the liturgical rites, and in our personal piety, through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Last Sunday, Lætare Sunday, we took a moment to lift ourselves from this rigour and prepare for the final push. Today, with the beginning of Passiontide, we enter the final moments before the events of Holy Week and the sacred triduum itself. Even more than the rest of Lent, Passiontide is marked by a character of restraint in the liturgy: the prayers at the foot of the altar are abbreviated, the Gloria Patri is not said, and the altar cross and images of the church are veiled, in order to help to us focus on the reality of the mystery which, for the rest of the year, those sacred objects assist us to understand.
In a certain sense, hearing the words of Psalm 42 sung in the introit—words that we know well from those opening moments of the Mass (“Give sentence with me, O God and defend my cause against the ungodly people”)—we begin now something of an extended liturgical celebration in which the events of Maundy Thursday, of Good Friday, and of Easter itself, form the consummation of all that comes before. From now until the solemn Paschal Vigil the Church does not simply prepare for the sacred re-presentation of the events of Christ’s sacrifice, but begins to live them as a reality marked by her very own mourning and grief. Even the heavens acknowledge that this is now a time of more intense focus on the paschal mystery. The full Easter moon, by which the date of Easter is determined, has now begun her appearance once more. This is the very glow which will keep watch with us in the garden of Gethsemane, which will shed its half-light on the dark night of Good Friday, and which will disappear against the radiance of the Easter fire and brightness of the flame which will ignite the paschal candle.
Our knowledge of all this gives us a sense of urgency. “The days are coming” we read in the prophecy of Jeremiah, when the Lord will put a new law with us: “I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people”, says the Lord (Jer. 31: 31-33). That new law of course is Christ, by whose coming sacrifice on the cross a new covenant is sealed in his blood; a covenant into which we have been initiated by the action of the sacred font; an action which finds its fullest expression in the baptism in the holy night of Easter of those who have been prepared for this new life in the crucible of the lenten fast. As the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, having “learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he [that is, Christ] became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5: 8-9).
And this is really the entire point of the measured preparation we have undertaken from Septuagesima to of our immersion in the rites and ceremonies of the triduum itself. By this our lives and actions are so disciplined by our holy mother, the Church, that we are brought to that source of eternal salvation by our obedience; an obedience which is perfectly shown us in Christ’s own submission to the Father: “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt. 26: 39). Only by this interior preparation, marked by exterior signs, can we say with any sincerity those words from today’s gospel: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12: 21). And only by seeing him in the suffering and passion he will undergo before our very eyes, and then imitating him by putting our selves to death, might we come to see him in his fullness in the kingdom of heaven, the place which he has won for us by that selfsame sacrifice.
In the coming days, then, and most especially in the events of Holy Week, we are presented with this re-presentation not simply as a re-enactment—we will not become actors in a show—but so that by a profound interior participation in the actual passion, death, and resurrection of Christ we may come to “see Jesus” so intimately that others, in the end, see in us only him.
To aid us in this task the Church encourages us to once more deepen our devotions. Our spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation, of allotting some time each day to be in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord, particularly in the Mass, and of the honest and integral confession of our sins; these should be intensified as we now approach the gates of Jerusalem. And our mortification—that thing we gave up for Lent, that book we said we’d read, or that extra work we promised to undertake—should now take on an even more serious and concerted focus, as we seek to humble ourselves more perfectly, and so be united to the perfect humility shown us by Christ on his way to the cross.
We can only achieve this with the grace that is offered to us by the sacramental life of the Church. Most especially, here in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in the worthy reception of Holy Communion we are emboldened in our efforts and strengthened so that we might combat and defeat the temptation to lukewarmness that so easily overcome us. In this and every offering of the Mass, then, may we “see Jesus”, who comes to us clad in signs of bread and wine, and seeing him may we be transformed into icons of his glory and his love, that by our mystical union with his Most Sacred Heart we may be one with him in this life and in the life to come.
PASSIONTIDE MEDITATION – tonight (Sunday 22 March, 2015) at 7.30 p.m. at Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C. (8th and N St NW) the Personal Parish of Saint Luke, part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, will hold an evening meditation for Passion Sunday. Short meditations on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary will be given, accompanied by Tenebræ responsories by Victoria and Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater for ten voices. Further details here.