This week marks the beginning of the last two weeks of Lent, or Passiontide. The liturgy, already different for the time of Septuagesima and Lent, is marked by further changes: the Gloria is suppressed in the responsaries, and the beautiful antiphon In Pace is no longer chanted in Compline. The statues and the crucifixes are veiled, for Our Lord hides Himself; we are deprived even of the consoling vision of His sufferings on the Cross for our Redemption.
But there is the sad and plaintive chant of the Vexilla Regis, and the triumphant cry of O Rex as we close night prayers during the Nunc Dimittis. The liturgy is full of allusion to the Precious Blood of our Saviour, shed for us upon the Cross of suffering, poured out for sinners as He drains the chalice of bitterness to its very dregs. For truly, Christ, “in the days of His flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to Him that was able to save Him from death, was heard for His reverence” (Heb 5:7).
This is what we do in the Divine Office of Passiontide, crying out with the voice of Our Saviour at each hour: De ore leonis libera me, Domine… Eripe me de inimicis meis, Deus meus… Ne perdas cum impiis Deus, animam meam… Christ, our High Priest, “by a greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation:.. but by his own blood, has entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11) for us.
Fortis est ut mors dilectio – “love is strong as death.” Christ’s love for us unites both the deepest tenderness with heroic strength in suffering and death: fortiter et suaviter. His love is stronger than death, stronger than sin, stronger than the spirit of evil. It led Our Lord to offer Himself as a perfect holocaust, a Victim in our stead, to redeem us, to satisfy for us, by giving God an infinite reparation.
Cor Jesu, fornax ardens caritatis – the Heart of the Saviour is a pure mirror of mercy and justice…
And each of us should participate in His life more and more so as to become like unto Him. The sacred humanity of Our Saviour communicates to us progressively the graces it merited for us on the cross. Christ is the Head of the Mystical Body, Who pours out His riches upon us, His members. He desires to assimilate us more and more to Himself, from the day of our Baptism, the absolutions, Communions, crosses or purifications necessary for our advancement, at the last by Extreme Unction and up to our entrance into Heaven.
Grace makes the same demands on the souls of those predestined to share eternal glory; our lives must be a sort of reproduction of the mysteries of Christ’s life – from His childhood and hidden life, His apostolic life, and then, His sorrowful life or Passion.
But to carry our crosses well, we are in need of grace, of patience, of subordination of every sentiment and desire to the love of God, and of souls in God, a love that must grow by the actual influence of Christ.
We must accept the Cross in order to follow our Master; this is what He has bidden us to do. Let us then accept the cross with patience, otherwise our burden increases but bears no fruit; with thankfulness, for it is a hidden grace, a “hidden manna…which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it“(Apoc 2:17); with love, for in any cross, our crucified Saviour comes to us, to reproduce in us His own traits.
Love like this brings abandonment and peace, and offers us true wisdom – divine contemplation.
The following is taken from a sermon by Pope St Gregory the Great, on the patience of Christ, preached on Passion Sunday:
Dearest Brethren, it is a thing that greatly arouses our wonder: why the Lord should turn away from His persecutors by hiding Himself; He Who had He willed to use His divine power could have frozen them in their assault by the silent command of His mind, or overwhelmed them for ever by the sudden chastisement of death? But since He came to suffer, He willed not to exercise judgement.
And in the hour of His passion He had truly shown what He could do, yet suffered that which He came to endure. For when He said to His persecutors who came seeking Him: “I am He” (Jn xviii:6), with His voice alone He struck down their pride, and laid them all prostrate upon the earth. He then Who on this occasion could have escaped the hands of those who stoned Him without hiding Himself, why does He hide Himself if not that our Redeemer, being made a man among men, tells us some things by His words, and yet others by His example? What does He here tell us by His example but that we should humbly turn aside from those who, “in their anger worketh pride” (Prov xxi:24); even when we are able to resist them. And for this same reason St Paul also tells us: “Give not place unto wrath” (Rom xii:19).
Let man then carefully consider with what great humility he should fly from the anger of his neighbour, when God, hiding Himself, turned away from the fury of those who raged against Him. Let no one then rise in anger against the injuries he receives; let no one give back injury for injury. For in imitating God, it is more glorious to turn away in silence from insult, than to triumph over it by answering in kind.
As Our Lord goes forth these days of Passiontide, let these strophes of the Vespers hymn resound in our hearts:
Hail, O Cross! our only hope! During these days of the Passion,
increase to the good their grace, and cleanse sinners from their guilt.
For if we imitate Him in His sufferings – we too will have that vision of eternal glory promised to us. Then we shall be able to say “with a loud voice: The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction” (Apoc 5:12).
Prayer of Pope St Gregory the Great
I beseech you, Lord Jesus Christ, that your Passion may be a strength for me, by which I may be fortified, protected, and defended. May your wounds be food and drink for me, by which I may be fed, inebriated, and delighted. May the sprinkling of your Blood be an ablution of all my sins. May your death be eternal glory for me. In these may refreshment, health, zeal, joy, delight, and desire of my body and soul be mine, now and forever. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, place your Passion, Cross, and Death between your judgment and my soul, now and in the hour of my death.
Deign to grant grace and mercy to me, pardon to the living, rest to the dead, peace to your Church, and life and eternal glory to all sinners. You who live and reign forever and ever. Amen.