Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery

Jesus Carries His Cross

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark (15:20b-22)
Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull).
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

When I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, I tend to incorporate certain other devotions into my meditations on the final two mysteries, namely, the Stations of the Cross and the Seven Last Words of Jesus. When I meditate on the present article's mystery, Jesus carrying His cross, for each Hail Mary, I meditate on the first ten Stations of the Cross. I then continue the Stations in the final Mystery, that of Jesus' Crucifixion, as well as certain other devotions. As such, I've decided to write these next two meditations in that format. The main reason is that they are so full of richness that just giving a blanket essay would either cause me to go on even longer than usual, or else I would feel I just wasn't doing justice to these mysteries. As it is, I'll leave much untouched of the wealth of beauty and grace contained in these Mysteries--but then, as I said at the beginning of our meditations, one could meditate for all eternity on the Mysteries of the Rosary and never plumb their depths.

Without further ado, then, I invite you to join me as we follow Our Lord to Calvary.

Hail Mary...
Jesus is Condemned by Pilate
After Jesus is scourged, and the guards have their derisive fun and crown Him with thorns, He is brought back to Pilate, who brings Him again before the mob, yelling, "Behold the Man!" He had hoped that Jesus' brutalised state might excite some sympathy and human feeling in these people, but instead it fueled their bloodlust, and they cried out "Crucify Him!" Pilate (under pressure from his wife, and rather fearing this Man before him) is reluctant to give in, but he fears a riot and censure from the Emperor more, and so gives in to their demands. In an attempt to absolve himself of his lack of courage and his perversion of justice, Pilate takes a bowl and washes his hands, symbolically proclaiming his aloofness and blamelessness in this affair. But a desire not to have any culpability and symbolic actions will never remove our sins. Pilate's bowl of water could not exonerate him--only the saving waters of baptism have that power, waters to which Pilate would never avail himself, and so for two millenia his condemnation has rung out: "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried."

Hail Mary...
Jesus Takes Up His Cross
Criminals in the Roman Empire were often required to carry their own crosses to their execution, as Jesus Himself was required. The weight of the cross was likely around 200 lbs. Yet rather than shrink from the burden, Jesus fulfilled His own teaching, and led by example, to "take up His Cross." Jesus was never forced, was never compelled, to go to His death. Rather, He embraced the Cross--knowing that by His death and resurrection, it would become for us the Tree of Life.

Hail Mary...
Jesus Falls the First Time
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Jesus willed to take up the cross, but His human flesh, already so abused, stumbled under the tremendous weight of the wood. Yet despite the pain, Jesus struggled to His feet and pressed on out of love for us, and encourages us to get back up when we stumble, and press on for love of Him.

Hail Mary...
Jesus Meets His Mother
As Jesus continues to struggle on the road to Calvary, under the oppressive weight of the Cross, His Mother comes to Him, full of worry and concern. While on the one hand, I am sure that the Son drew comfort and strength to continue from the presence of His mother, I am sure that He likewise gave to His mother the hope and strength to bear the sorrow and suffering with Him that had been prophesied to be her lot by Simeon (Luke 2:35). What words passed between them, if any, we don't know. But I wonder if Jesus didn't remind His mother of the "dry run" He had taken her through as a boy--whether He mightn't have said to Mary in that moment, "Why are you worried? Do you still not know that I must be about My Father's business?" (cf. Luke 2:49). In Luke 2:50, it says that Jesus' parents didn't then understand what He meant. Now His meaning became clear for Mary, and she continued with Him to the foot of the Cross, uniting the sword of sorrow piercing her heart to the lance that would come to pierce His.

Hail Mary...
Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross
Apparently the guards in charge of Jesus' execution felt that this wounded, beaten Man was not progressing fast enough along the road with His immense burden, and so they enlisted Simon of Cyrene. Not much is known about Simon, save that he was from Africa (Cyrene). Was he a Jew of the dispersion? Was he a proselyte? It's likely, from his place of origin, that he was black, and we see again Christ's love and embracing of all people and races in His salvific mission--as Simon would be the first person literally to "take up his cross" and share in the sufferings of Jesus. Likely unwilling at first, Simon nevertheless contributed monumentally to the salvation of the world in helping Our Lord arrive at Calvary--and the experience seems to have had a profound impact on him, as Mark lists his two sons, Alexander and Rufus, as though they were known to his readers.

Hail Mary...
Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
Filled with compassion, a woman breaks from the crowd. What can she do to help the Lord? She feels so inadequate, yet is compelled to do something. She takes her head scarf and gently wipes Jesus' face, clearing it of the blood, allowing some of His human features to be seen again after the beatings. It's a small thing. It's all she can do. Yet Jesus appreciates it, and gives her a gift in return--the gift of His Image, left on her cloth, a relic for the Church to remember that serving God is not accomplished in the grand acts, but in the little actions of love and devotion done with heroic faithfulness--even if no one else notices.

Hail Mary...
Jesus Falls the Second Time
Angered by all the "audience participation", the guards force Jesus on more quickly, and despite the help from Simon, He falls again. The guards lash out again as He lies there on the road, beating His already broken body. Why is it that in our need and our pain, the world seems to conspire to keep us down? And yet, heroically, Jesus got up and took another step forward, keeping His eyes focussed on the goal.

Hail Mary...
Jesus Meets the Holy Women of Jerusalem
Along the road, many women have followed Our Lord. Their tender hearts are broken to see Him so abused, to see justice so lacking. They plead to the guards for mercy for Jesus, but Jesus does not want mercy from His captors. He wants to bestow mercy on the world. And so He speaks to the women, out of concern for them, and for the entire city of Jerusalem. And so He warns them that their tears must not be shed for Him, but for themselves and their families, because the sins of the people will bring their destruction. In failing to recognise their Messiah, they have rejected His forgiveness. In claiming Caesar to be their King, they will bring Caesar's wrath down on them before long. Jesus tells the women to pray and make reparation for the sins of Jerusalem before it is too late. Why is it only women? Where are the men? True sons of their father Adam, they have turned coward when their courage is needed most, and have perverted their strength into cruelty. Yet all through Christ's Passion, the women stayed close by His side.

Hail Mary...
Jesus Falls the Third Time
Just as His journey was nearing completion, Jesus' strength gave out again, and He fell a third time to the earth. Weakened and dehydrated from loss of blood, the very thought of getting up must have been agonising. How often do we ourselves fail to persevere in carrying our own crosses. So often do we fall short that we are tempted to despair of God's mercy, and thus wallow in our sinful state, afraid to return to God, thinking this time, surely, there will be no welcome, no forgiveness. And yet, despite it all, Jesus slowly got back up, and struggled His way to Golgotha. It is there He would die, over the fabled plot of Adam's grave, in order to bury with His own death the guilt of Adam's sin in all who will get up and join Him there, at the foot of the cross. Jesus continued to rise after repeated falls to show us that there is always mercy for us if we rise up, despite repeated failings, and struggle on in Confession, in penance, in the working out of our salvation.

Hail Mary...
Jesus is Stripped of His Garments
Atop the hill, the guards take Christ and forcibly remove His clothing from Him. The blood from His wounds had begun clotting on the long journey to Calvary, and now the scabs tear away with the cloth, reopening His stripes in a shock of new pain. Later, in fulfillment of prophecy, the guards will divide up Jesus' clothes, and, rather than tear His seamless tunic, they cast lots for it. For now, they take the naked Christ and prepare to nail Him to the cross He bore. In stripping Jesus, the guards hope to shame and humiliate Him, but for the perfectly humble, there is no further humiliation. For the One without sin, there can be no shame. When Adam and Eve dwelt in the Garden, they were free of sin, and were naked and knew no shame. When they sinned, they realised their nakedness, felt their shame, and vainly strove to cover their nakedness and their sin. God, in His mercy, provided the first animal sacrifice in order to clothe their nakedness and cover their sin. Now, Christ, the Lamb of God, will by His death fulfil and abolish animal sacrifice in Himself, and as the sinless Lamb, will without shame be stripped of His clothing--the New Adam, crucified on the Tree of Life, reconciling us to God.

Let us then take up our own crosses and follow Jesus to Calvary. May His Mother console us on the way, and the prayers of all the saints strengthen us as Simon and Veronica ministered to Jesus. And may we find the grace and the courage to rise again and return to the Divine Mercy of Christ, no matter how many times we stumble and fall along the way. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Third Sorrowful Mystery

The Crowning with Thorns

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark (15:16-20)
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor's headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Garden of Eden, the first Adam disobeyed God, and lost not only paradise, but the life of grace within him, and consequently, we were born without that grace in us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the second Adam, Jesus Christ, chose to obey God through the coming suffering and death in order to bestow that lost grace on all who would obey Him in faith.

Adam's sin ultimately was one of pride--of doubting God's goodness and thinking that he himself knew better how to live. In the Incarnation, the King of the World came to earth as a man, and humbled Himself even to the point of death.

The punishment for Adam's pride was the loss of Paradise. No longer would life be easy, luscious, or restful, but work would become difficult. The ground itself became cursed by thorns that would prick and sting, and weeds would choke the life out of the good plants making harvest less bountiful. In Jesus' humble Passion, those same weeds and thorns would be woven into a mocking, painful crown in order to ridicule His rightful kingship.

If the Earth was cursed with thorns due to the sin of man, then it is of course necessary that Jesus' Passion would recapitulate that curse as well. The thorns that would prick all of us in our labours would pierce His brow in the Labour for which He purposed to be born. Adam's pride in the end led him to attempt to cover his shame with leaves. Jesus' humility caused belligerent guards to crown His stooped Head with the thorns. When the King of Kings came to earth, the only bed He received was an animal's feeding trough, and the only regalia He was afforded was a sarcastic, violent, and painful coronation.

In the soldiers' attempt to be ironic, the ultimate irony was lost on them. In crowning Jesus with thorns to mock Him, they inadvertently bestowed upon Him the most fitting crown and the highest honour a soldier could hope for: the corona obsidionalis.

Wikipedia describes the crown thus:
The Grass Crown or Blockade Crown (Latin: corona obsidionalis or corona graminea) was the highest and rarest of all military decorations in the Roman Republic and early Roman empire. It was presented only to a general or commander who broke the blockade around a beleaguered Roman army, thus saving a legion or the entire army. The crown was made from plant materials taken from the battlefield, including grasses, flowers, weeds, and various cereals, such as wheat; it was presented to the general by the army he had saved.
At the Fall of Man, Adam turned coward and gave into the temptation to pride that the Serpent presented. In doing so, he gave humanity over to imprisonment to our concupiscence, cut off from God's Grace. Into this spiritual POW camp, this occupied territory, came the Redeemer and Saviour of the world, who through His complete obedience to the Father, through His Passion and Death, defeated the power of sin and Satan, and, setting us free from sin, "He went up to the heights, took captives, / He gave gifts to humanity" (Ephesians 4:8, citing Psalm 68:18).

The world after the Fall--the battlefield for our souls--was cursed by thorns. And it was of those same thorns that the guards wove a corona obsidionalis for our great Commander-in-Chief who has come to rescue us all. Or in the words of one of my favourite hymns:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
--When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
As we meditate on Jesus, crowned with thorns, may we, as the hymn concludes, give Him our souls, our lives, and our all. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Second Sorrowful Mystery

The Scourging at the Pillar

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew (27:11-26)
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!" So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

After having watched The Passion of the Christ, a friend of mine felt great sorrow for her sins, knowing that they were responsible for Christ's suffering. She called me to ask whether, if by not sinning any more, she would lessen the suffering that Jesus had to go through in His scourging. I forget what I told her that night, although I'm sure it must have been quite profound, but I wanted to highlight her question as being just the sort of sentiment that is the most fruitful result of meditating on Christ's Passion, for indeed, it was for our sins that He was suffering--and that love for us that led Him to such agonising torture should inspire in us that true sorrow and contrition for our sins.

It seems a little disproportionate to me that none of the Gospels devote more than one sentence to the actual event of Jesus' scourging, and yet it occupies the place of an entire Mystery in the Rosary. This fact itself seems a part of the mystery. For us, who are so distant from the events, reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus' passion, we can almost skip right over this horrific ordeal--especially since Luke only alludes to it, and John omits it altogether. Perhaps, though, their hurrying past the event of the Scourging was precisely for the same reason those of us who watched Mel Gibson's thorough two-minute-plus depiction wished he had. At least one of the authors had first-hand witness of the event. It's likely that all of them had themselves undergone the same treatment before their lives were over. What to us often reads like an academic footnote was likely a blinding reality for its authors.

And so the Church, in her wisdom, gives us this mystery, to immerse us in this aspect of Christ's suffering--and it is an important aspect. Through it, Christ began to fulfil Messianic prophecy--including perhaps the most famous Messianic prophecy: The Servant Song of Isaiah 53.
Look, My servant will prosper,
will grow great, will rise to great heights.

As many people were aghast at Him
--He was so inhumanly disfigured
that He no longer looked like a man--
so many nations will be astonished
and kings will stay tight-lipped before Him,
seeing what had never been told them,
learning what they had not heard before.

Who has given credence to what we have heard?
And who has seen in it a revelation of Yahweh's arm?
Like a sapling He grew up before Him,
like a root in arid ground.
He had no form or charm to attract us,
no beauty to win our hearts;
He was despised, the lowest of men,
a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering,
one from whom, as it were, we averted our gaze,
despised, for whom we had no regard.
Yet ours were the sufferings He was bearing,
ours the sorrows He was carrying,
while we thought of Him as someone being punished
and struck with affliction by God;
whereas He was being wounded for our rebellions,
crushed because of our guilt;
the punishment reconciling us fell on Him,
and we have been healed by His bruises.
We had all gone away like sheep,
each taking his own way,
and Yahweh brought the acts of rebellion
of all of us to bear on Him.
Ill-treated and afflicted,
He never opened His mouth,
like a lamb led to the slaughter-house,
like a sheep dumb before its shearers
He never opened His mouth.

Forcibly, after sentence, He was taken.
Which of His contemporaries was concerned
at His having been cut off from the land of the living,
at His having been struck dead for His people's rebellion?
He was given a grave with the wicked,
and His tomb is with the rich,
although He had done no violence,
had spoken no deceit.

It was Yahweh's good pleasure to crush Him with pain;
if He gives His life as a sin offering,
He will see His offspring and prolong His life,
and through Him Yahweh's good pleasure will be done.

After the ordeal He has endured,
He will see the light and be content.
By His knowledge, the upright one, My servant will justify many
by taking their guilt on Himself.

Hence I shall give Him a portion with the many,
and He will share the booty with the mighty,
for having exposed Himself to death
and for being counted as one of the rebellious,
whereas He was bearing the sin of many
and interceding for the rebellious. (Is. 52:13-53:12, NJB)
From the Gospel quoted above, we see many fulfilments of Isaiah's prophecy. Jesus remained quiet before His accusers (Matt. 27:12-14; Is. 53:7). He was counted among the rebellious (Matt. 27:15-18; Is. 53:12). Pilate didn't know what to make of Him, or what to do with Him, and so was "tight-lipped before Him" (Matt. 27:24; Is. 52:15). But the main focus of Isaiah is upon the sufferings of Christ. The beatings He endured, making Him hardly recognisable, began with His flagellation. It was these beatings that began to provide our atonement--"by His stripes we are healed." St. Peter remembered Isaiah's words in this context, when he wrote,
You see, there is merit if, in awareness of God, you put up with the pains of undeserved punishment; but what glory is there in putting up with a beating after you have done something wrong? The merit in the sight of God is in putting up with it patiently when you are punished for doing your duty.
This, in fact, is what you were called to do, because Christ suffered for you and left an example for you to follow in His steps. He had done nothing wrong, and 'had spoken no deceit.' He was insulted and did not retaliate with insults; when He was suffering He made no threats, but put His trust in the upright judge. He was 'bearing our sins' in His own body on the cross, so that we might die to our sins and live for uprightness; 'through His bruises you have been healed.' You had 'gone astray like sheep' but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:19-25, citing Isaiah 53:5-9).
But here Peter counters an error that many today make regarding Christ's atoning sacrifice. That is, there are many who look at the passage in Isaiah, saying that Christ had been "wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities," and understanding that to mean that we therefore have nothing left to do--that Christ suffered so that we would not have to. Perhaps the worst culprit for this way of thinking is the so-called "Prosperity Gospel", but it does pop up other places, in less blatant forms, in ideas like the "penal substitution" theory of Christ's atonement--where God looks at Jesus, and puts all our sins on Him, so that when He sees Jesus, He sees not His Son, but our sin, and pours out our due punishment on Him. Now, obviously, Christ's salvation for us is by way of a vicarious atonement--but the penal substitution theory is incomplete. Worse, it makes a legal fiction, and suggests that God could be blind to justice. As Catholic apologist Dr. Scott Hahn writes, "If Christ had merely served as our substitute, we might rightly ask why we still have to bear the punishment for our sins: Why must we still suffer and die? As our substitute, Christ should have eliminated the need for our suffering" (Lord Have Mercy, p. 98-99, emphasis in original). Hahn goes on to criticise the penal substitution theory, saying, "Such preaching--of a blind Father visiting vengeance upon an innocent Son--is unacceptable and borders on blasphemy" (ibid., p. 99). Hahn then tells us the alternative to this egregious theory: "But, according to the logic of the covenant--and the teaching of the Church--He was not our penal substitute. He was, rather, our legal representative; and, since His saving passion was representative, it doesn't exempt us from suffering, but rather endows our suffering with divine power and redemptive value (see Col 1:24)" (ibid.).

People today often ask why we suffer, and why God doesn't simply stop our suffering? The problem of a good God allowing suffering has made a great excuse for many people to reject God altogether. And answers such as the penal substitution theory of atonement, or worse, the message of "health and wealth" through Jesus, only worsen the situation. Dr. Hahn was not exaggerating by equating such notions with blasphemy. In these views God can only really be unjust, on the one hand, or, on the other, when the reality of suffering crashes down on the 'faithful', God can hardly be seen to be real. We are left disillusioned with God, or else, striving to keep faith with God, we find fault in our own lack of faith or goodness, and think He must be smiting us after all.

Again, then, we turn to the words of Saint Peter. We recognise that God does not promise to remove our suffering. Rather, when we follow the example of Jesus and suffer patiently, God uses that suffering toward our final salvation: "He was 'bearing our sins' in His own body on the cross, so that we might die to our sins and live for uprightness" (1 Peter 2:24). We must choose to die to our own sinfulness--uniting that death, that very real and painful death--to Christ's own. As Peter goes on to say, "As Christ has undergone bodily suffering, you too should arm yourselves with the same conviction, that anyone who has undergone bodily suffering has broken with sin, because for the rest of life on earth that person is ruled not by human passions but only by the will of God" (1 Peter 4:1-2). Or, as Saint Paul puts it, "The Spirit Himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided that we share His suffering, so as to share His glory" (Romans 8:16-17, emphasis mine). By suffering patiently--either the sufferings inflicted upon us through accident, disease, or violence, or the sufferings we self-impose, by fasting or other penances--and by uniting that suffering to Christ's own, we learn mastery over the concupiscence of the flesh--we have "broken with sin".

What is more and greater still, our own suffering can have tremendous benefit not only for ourselves, but for the lives and souls of others. Saint Paul tells us, "It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church" (Colossians 1:24). That is, our willing suffering in Christ and for Christ is for the benefit of the rest of His body. Our sufferings are added to our prayers, and all of them are added to Christ's Passion. Just as Lot was saved from Sodom because of Abraham's righteousness (Genesis 19:29), so our penances can be used for the salvation and healing of others!

The world suffers because of our sins. God doesn't prevent suffering because by doing so He would have to violate our free will. But He doesn't abandon us in our suffering. Neither does He give no meaning to it. Rather, through becoming one of us, and then by suffering for us on the Cross, Jesus gave suffering redemptive value. By His stripes we are healed. Through His suffering, our own suffering was made able to heal. When we, as children of God, choose to love God more than anything else--just as Jesus did when He chose the cross and endured the Scourging--then all that we suffer can be just as joyful as it was for Saint Paul--knowing that there is indeed a marvellous purpose!

For love of You, Dear Jesus, I offer my sufferings for the salvation of souls. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)