Category Archives: Passion of Christ

Reading the Fine Print

Sentimentality, as was mentioned in a recent post, is a great enemy to the spiritual life.  The solution proposed was to read Scripture with an absolute literalism.  In particular, when St. Paul tells the Romans that we are God’s children now and have a right to an inheritance as sons, we should understand the magnitude of such a high calling and live accordingly.  We would, however, fail in our quest for living in the truth if we did not also realize that, while this gift is free, it is not cheap.  If we are to live like sons, then we will act like the Son.  All too often we interpret this to mean “being nice to other people,” “love your neighbor”, “defend the teachings of the Church” or any other one of a variety of (usually)comfortable outward manifestations of the Christian life.  But we should read the fine print of St. Paul’s great promise: “if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17, emphasis added).

When reading fine print, it is always the preposition that matters.  We might be tempted to read the contingency as suffering for Christ, but St. Paul says we must suffer with Him.  That one word, with instead of for makes all the difference.  It makes all the difference because it forces us to move from the abstract to the real.  This move may feel like a gut punch from reality, but in reality, it is a liberation from fear.  Fear, as we talked about in a recent podcast, is always future- directed and thus fertile ground for anxiety or avoidance.  Suffering for Christ has an abstract quality about it in that causes our minds to wander, sometimes to the great sufferings of the martyrs or losing our jobs because of our faith or any other number of ways we might have to painfully witness to our faith.  We begin to wonder whether we will have what it takes when the moment comes or whether it is really all worth that. This causes on to hold back from God, but based only a hypothetical way, because, in truth, He isn’t asking for that thing.

Suffering with Christ has a now quality about it.  To suffer with someone implies that they are suffering currently and that what is required of me is to engage.  There may be fear of engagement, but I have come to a decision point.  There is nothing abstract about it, because it is real in the here and now.

An illustration might help make this clear.  When I consider the sufferings of someone close to me, I would do almost anything, endure almost anything, in order to participate in that suffering.  Tell me, as a parent, that I will have to suffer with my children, my mind goes everywhere.  Well not exactly, it usually goes to the “worst” thing I can possibly imagine.  In short, fear carves out its space and there is really no way to deal with it because there is always a chance that thing might happen.  It begins to affect how I act—I might be overly protective or draw back—but in order to manage the fear of the abstract, I must change my behavior.

Now tell me that my son has autism and no longer am I handcuffed by fear.  There is sorrow for sure, but once the decision is made to suffer with him the fear of suffering for him is gone.  In other words, once I am suffering with him, I am now willing to suffer for him as well.  His suffering becomes mine and I am on the constant quest to alleviate it.

Just as the both the duty and love of a father drives him to be willing to suffer with his son, St. Paul is really telling us that we must be willing to suffer with Christ in the same way.  Just as I feared suffering in the abstract for a loved one (and acted upon it), so too will I fear suffering for Christ in the abstract.  But give me a specific scenario and I will enter in.

Suffering With Christ

We should rightly question how is it that we can suffer with Christ, right here and now.  The days of His Passion are over.  He is both God and glorified man, incapable of suffering.  Sure, He can suffer in His Mystical Body, but that is to change the mode of St. Paul’s address.  He is speaking from our perspective not from Christ’s.  He is speaking about the sufferings of His Passion that we must enter into.  The key is to rightly see His Passion, not as some abstract event in the past, but as concrete and specific in the here and now.  To do this we will need to turn to the “abstract” St. Thomas Aquinas in order to lay the groundwork for this key spiritual practice.

When St. Thomas examines the sufferings of Our Lord during His Passion, he asks what at first seems to be a stupid question, that turns out to have great practical import.  He asks whether Christ endured all suffering during the Passion.  It is a relevant question because in order for Our Lord to give suffering redemptive value, He must first experience it.  And he must experience not in the abstract, but in the particular.  So how, for example, if Our Lord did not suffer burning, could burning have redemptive value?

St. Thomas points out that it would be impossible to experience all possible sufferings, especially since some are contraries.  One cannot both suffer having his ears removed and the cries of his loved ones for example.  Instead Our Lord suffered all classes of suffering.  First, He suffered at the hands of all kinds of people; men and women, rulers and commoners, His fellow Jews and seculars, His friends and His enemies.  Second, He suffered “from friends abandoning Him; in His reputation, from the blasphemies hurled at Him; in His honor and glory, from the mockeries and the insults heaped upon Him; in things, for He was despoiled of His garments; in His soul, from sadness, weariness, and fear; in His body, from wounds and scourgings.”  Finally, “ in His head He suffered from the crown of piercing thorns; in His hands and feet, from the fastening of the nails; on His face from the blows and spittle; and from the lashes over His entire body. Moreover, He suffered in all His bodily senses: in touch, by being scourged and nailed; in taste, by being given vinegar and gall to drink; in smell, by being fastened to the gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses, ‘which is called Calvary’; in hearing, by being tormented with the cries of blasphemers and scorners; in sight, by beholding the tears of His Mother and of the disciple whom He loved” (ST III, q. 46, art. 5).

Why the Details Matter

This level of detail is important for two reasons.  First, because it should move us to love, realizing that Our Lord planned out His sufferings in a very specific manner.  There was no mere chance in even the slightest of His sufferings.  He knew each one of our very specific sufferings and sought to redeem them.  Secondly, and more relevant to the discussion at hand, is that by enumerating the categories we see how exactly we enter into Our Lord’s Passion right here and now.

Look at St. Thomas’ list again and think about your own personal sufferings in the past or presently.  Are there any that don’t fall into one of those categories?  This means that each of these is a personal gateway into His Passion here and now.  When we willingly embrace them as such, we are suffering with Christ.  He anticipated what you are going through and sanctified it and all that remains is to enter fully into it to receive the fruit of the Passion—sonship.  Big sufferings, little annoyances, all belong as long as we lovingly accept them as Christ did His Passion.   Where there is a will, there is the Way.

Do this enough and you know what happens?  The fear of suffering for Christ goes away.  We become like the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross.  We have endured so much with Him, realized so much of the fruit of suffering that we trust His plan, grown to love Him so deeply, that we will suffer whatever comes.  He does not ask us to be masochists, but we will habitually choose those things which have more of the Cross in them because we know it brings us closer to Him.  Think of Simon of Cyrene and how close he was to Christ when he helped Him carry the cross.  That is us.

Now the wisdom of all the saints and their habit of meditating deeply on the Passion comes to light.  Each time we enter into the Passion in our prayer, we are in a very real sense anticipating our own role in it.  This Lent then let us resolve to meditate upon the Passion as one of our spiritual practices.  If the witness of the saints is any indication, then it will be a most fruitful Lent.

Praying with the Dead

In a previous post, the supreme importance of avoiding personally canonizing those who have died was highlighted.  The “holy souls” in Purgatory depend greatly upon our prayers in order that they may be loosed from the lingering effects of their sins after their death.  Many of us grasp this and, out of charity, regularly offer prayers for the dead.  But there is a flip side to this coin—nearly every saint who has been canonized in the last two centuries was recognized because people began asking for their intercession.  In other words, rather than primarily praying for them, people began praying to them.  It seems that we must then exercise judgment as to whether the person is in Purgatory or in Heaven, the very thing I said not to do.  Stuck in a spiritual no-man’s land, we tend towards neither praying for them or to them.  The problem becomes theological rather than governed by the logic of love.  The rich relationship of the Communion of Saints becomes a sterile doctrine and our personal faith falters with it.  All of this seems unavoidable unless we can find a way around this spiritual dilemma.

A single paragraph in the Catechism, quoting an indulged prayer from Pope Leo XIII, helps part the clouds of obscurity.  The Catechism says:

“In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 959, emphasis added).

In summary, it is our prayers for the dead that not only help them, but also make their intercession for us effective.  What this tells us is that the holy souls in Purgatory, as members of the Church, have the power to intercede for the members of the Church Militant.  But this power comes in some way through our prayers for them.  How this works is obviously a mystery, but that it works is immediately relevant to the discussion at hand.  It gives us an immediate plan of action that will enable us to do both—pray for them and pray for their intercession.

Covering Our Bases

For some of us, this still has a Russian roulette type feel to it—like we are simply trying to cover our bases.  This only serves to make it more mechanical and less personal, the very antithesis of what prayer should be.  But this stems from a certain anxiety that our prayers may actually be wasted.  After all, if the person is in heaven and you are praying for their release from Purgatory, then your prayers have been wasted.

All of our prayer draws its power from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  In other words, our prayer is caught up in the Eternal Now of Our Lord’s act of redemption where time and eternity met.  This means our prayer, although uttered in time, enters into the timelessness of God.  God knows “when” you will pray and He can apply the merits of those prayers as He sees fit.  More to the point, even if the soul of our departed loved one is in heaven, it is still your prayer here and now that got them there.  They may have even received the graces you interceded for just now while they were still on the earth.  Just as there are many natural causes that God uses to guide His providential plan, prayer too is a cause.  But because of its supernatural power, it operates outside of the natural constraints of time.

The Power of Prayer Over Time

Once we grasp this hidden power of prayer, we can see that our prayer, even if the soul has left Purgatory, is never wasted.  But it is still necessary because it is a power by which they have been or will be released.  It is also empowers them to intercede for the members of the Church Militant so that we should confidently ask for their intercession in our needs as well.  So our prayers for and to the dead are no different than they were while they were still living—praying both for them and asking them to pray for us.  Because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail” (James 5:16), we should go to them with confidence for our needs.  This also carries with it a rich experience of the true nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.  It is a supernatural reality that spans Heaven and Earth and in between (Purgatory).

As long as we are speaking of covering our bases, how do we explain the prayers for the dead who are actually in hell?  Aren’t these wasted?  By now the answer ought to be clear that God wastes none of our prayers.  Our prayers obviously cannot lift them out of hell, but they could be applied to the person prior to their death.  They may lead the person towards conversion prior to their death (there is a beautiful account of the conversion of a despairing soul on the door of death who receives a final grace in St. Faustina’s Dairy #1486).  Or, perhaps it “only” kept them from further sin and, in a sense, lightened their suffering in hell.  Not knowing anyone’s destiny, we should confidently pray based on the overwhelming power of God’s mercy.  By praying, we become instruments of that same mercy.

The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

Holy Saturday and the Descent into Hell

Among the days of the Sacred Triduum, Holy Saturday remains the least significant.  For most Christians, it is simply a placeholder—a day of waiting for Easter.  Good Friday is done and now we await the celebration of Easter.  To live this sacred season to the fullest, we need to see it for what it is liturgically—the day of the death of God.  This is especially true given the practical  experience of our age; an age when many forces in our culture have succeeded in implementing  Nietzsche’s plan; “God is dead and we have killed Him.”

This experience of God’s silence is, as Pope Benedict once said, “part of Christian revelation…Only when we have experienced Him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence.”  This truth is so foundational to the Christian life, that it is was presupposed by an article in the Apostles’ Creed marked by the tenet that “He descended into Hell.”  Holy Saturday, then, offers us a unique opportunity to meditate upon this article of the Creed.

Part of the Christian Myth?

This particular article of the Creed, according to Pope Benedict, has become a victim of the demythologizing of Christianity, rendering it incomprehensible to many of us.  Some of this stems from a certain amount of ambiguity attached to the word Hell.  In English, we usually associate this word with the hell of the damned, but the Catechism of the Concil of Trent makes the distinction between three different abodes called Hell.  The first is the dark prison where the damned are tormented is called Gehenna and is hell strictly speaking.  The second consists of the fires of purgatory where the just men are cleansed from temporal punishment.  The third is Sheol which is the abode into which the souls of the just before the coming of Christ the Lord were received and remained, without experiencing any sort of pain and sustained by the blessed hope of redemption, in peaceful repose.

When we speak of Christ’s Decent into Hell we are referring to the place called Sheol in  Hebrew (Greek Hades and Latin infernus).  Christ did not visit the hell of the damned, a place that by definition, God does not go.   Instead He visited the place where the souls of the just men went, commonly referred to as Abraham’s bosom.

It was first of all fitting that He did this.  As punishment for Original Sin, the souls of all the just were sent to Sheol.  Because He was like unto us in all things but sin, Christ the preeminently just man, upon the separation of His body and soul at death descended to the abode of the dead and remained there until it was reunited to His body in the Resurrection.  As St. Peter tells the crowds at Pentecost Christ was “released from the pangs of Hades; for it was impossible for Him to be held by its power” (Acts 2:24).

What did He do while He was there?  As he did on the earth, He did under the earth—“proclaimed liberty to the captives.”  Who were these captives?  The righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, who, like Abraham had faith in the fulfillment of God’s promises were the captives freed.  This faith was credited to them in righteousness as St. Paul tells the Romans.  They are among the great clouds of witnesses listed in the Book of Hebrews; the Fathers like Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham; Jews like Moses and David; non-Jews like Rahab; and those who passed during Jesus’ life like His precursor John the Baptist, and foremost in great joy, St. Joseph.

St. Peter, in writing of Christ’s descent, says that “He preached to the souls in prison” (1 Pt 3:19).  This was an act of proclamation that what they had believed in and waited for during their lives, had taken place.  It was not as if He told them about Himself and they could decide whether to believe or not.  These men and women already believed and died in faith and charity.  Jesus did not “convert” unbelievers during His time in Sheol.  They had their period of trial during their lives.  It is appointed that all men die once and then judgement.  There is no test after death nor is there a second chance.  However, as St. Thomas says, Christ’s descent was virtually into the Hell of the Damned because its effects were felt in order to put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness.

Christ’s Victory Dance

Christ’s Descent into Hell is a descent of victory.  The righteous who were held within the confines of Abraham’s Bosom would have been a virtual trophy case for the devil.  Although just, they were still kept from God in death.  The devil would have looked upon the death of Christ initially as one more victory.  That is until His actual descent when He conquers death by His death.  This truth is one that is beautifully captured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ when the devil screams with the realization that God has used his weapon, death, against him.

The Descent into Hell is no mere collection of theological facts, but are charged with meaning.  As I alluded to at the beginning, this article of the Creed is so relevant today because God is seen by many to be silent.  But just as when Christ appeared to be silenced by death, God is always at work bringing about redemption.  Just when things seem darkest, God is at work turning evil on its ear. Those who remained in Abraham’s bosom are the saints of hope and patrons for all of us.  Despite all appearances to the contrary they knew that when God does speak, He always keeps His promises.  Often all they had were His promises.  They had to wait for Him to come to save them and wait they did.  Christ’s Descent into Hell reminds us that God always keeps His promises.  Through their intercession, may we spend this Holy Saturday, waiting in joyful hope.