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Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges has an excellent message on the topic of suffering and death in the perspective of the Resurrection.
“All that is written about us, will be fulfilled by you in these days”. Thus the opening verse of a song that Willem Barnard wrote for the start of Holy Week. Much is said in those few words. That He shared our existence to the very end. That nothing human is unknown to Him. The final days, the days of His passing. These are also the days that refer to what is impossible, but what the Church counts as her deepest conviction: that He is risen. The final days: they are the days of ‘pascha’, the passing from death to life. And in these days He fulfilled all that was written about us.
What is striking is that that also includes His death. You would think that the Resurrection makes everything in order again and that we would better forget this dying and that death. Especially considering how scandalous that dying was: condemned and executed. But that dying and death does belong to what He fulfilled in those final days. No Easter without Good Friday. Death is also part of the Pascal mystery.
The Church has never been tempted to hide or trivialise that death, let alone suppress it. Paul says with emphasis: “We are preaching a crucified Christ” (1 Cor.1 :23). And when Holy Week begins with the introit of Maundy Thursday, we sing: “Let our glory be in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we have salvation, life and resurrection, through Him we are rescued and set free.”
Glory in the Cross, that is a strange and alienating thing to say. Isn’t suffering being cherished here? Isn’t it explained as something positive? That is something that the Church and Christianity is sometimes accused of. A sort of mystification of suffering. When, a few weeks, the expansion of the euthanasia bill for minors was voted on, we were confronted again with that criticism. Are faithful not aware of the suffering of people? Shouldn’t people be freed from that suffering? Is that not the ultimate at of compassion? Or is it perhaps meaningful and good that people suffer?
Suffering is something we should pursue. That would be absurd. Pain must be relieved and that is possible today. Therapeutic stubbornness can’t be justified. Christianity does not cherish suffering. Not even that of Jesus. Jesus did not seek out suffering. The Gospel informs us that Jesus, when things did indeed get dangerous for Him, retreated more and more. Now and then we read that He did not show Himself in public. In the end He even prayed that that cup could pass Him by. He tried to avoid danger as much as possible. But not at the expense of His mission. He would complete that mission to the end. And if the Cross was part of it, He would accept it. He said so to His disciples: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
But there is one question that remains. Why did God not answer the prayer of Jesus? Why couldn’t He change the minds of those who wanted to kill Jesus? Why couldn’t God arrange this differently, without that suffering and without that Cross? For faithful people the Resurrection is the ultimate answer to that question. Here, God breaks through all barriers. Indeed, what awaits is neither more nor less than a new creation. But not without that detour of suffering an death. Like the People of God once, when it left Egypt and tried to escape from a life of slavery, had to make a detour through the desert, a place of testing and suffering. Why no direct route to the promised land? Why that detour? Why Jesus’ death? There is only one answer to that question: because that detour, because suffering and death are a part of the human condition. We are not gods but human beings. About Jesus it is also said: “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. [...] and being in every way like a human being” (Phil. 2:6-7).
In the media debate about the expansion of the euthanasia I gradually started to ask myself this question: doesn’t all this also have to do with the fact that death is loosing its place in our secular society? That life is being arranged in such a way that it doesn’t really exist? It is being banned as much as possible from life. And when it comes and can’t be avoided, let it strike as quickly as possible. The euthanasia file is no longer about the physically unbearable suffering. It is increasingly about psychological suffering. And while the danger of a slippery slope as denied at first, the transition seems fairly obvious. Psychological suffering is real suffering, so why exclude it? And why not go further? Existential suffering also exists. Suffering because the meaning of life itself has been affected. It is striking that suicide is no longer a taboo today. Of course it is shocking in the case of young people. And that is the focus is rightfully on prevention. But the elderly? These are people that are “done” with life and so “step out of it”. That language says much. Suicide becomes a lucid and courageous act. Death is being made harmless from the start because it is no longer recognised for what it really is: a sign of radical finality. A sign that I did not decide or want my existence but was given it. A sign that I am not my own origin.
In a column in De Standaard rector Torfs rightfully notes, “life must be beautiful, and if it is not, death is an option. Suicide is today not just an escape for people who are deeply unhappy. It is equally there for someone who, after careful deliberation, decides that his happiness is not enough”. Where one no longer realises that finality and mortality, and so also death, are an essential part of what it means to be “a human being on earth”, life itself in its deepest sense becomes trivialised. Life in itself has then no meaning or value. Meaning and value depend on a presupposed quality to which it has to answer. But what is quality? The lightness with which “stepping out of life” is being discussed ultimately refers to the lightness with which life itself is being discussed.
The Christian faith in the Resurrection does not trivialise death. It belongs to our finite and mortal existence. And it is that finite existence that Christ wanted to share with us. Everything that is written about us, is fulfilled by Him. Including our death. Even if our culture tries to keep death as much as possible out of sight, death is and remains a mystery that we will never fully comprehend, let alone solve. Christian is no mysticism of suffering. But it does not deny death. But – and this is the heart of our faith – it is taken up in the even greater mystery of God’s love defeating death. That is what Christ fulfilled for us.”
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp considers the Christian faith’s authenticity and the physicality of the Resurrection.
How do you know if someone is sincere? How do you feel if someone is genuine? There is a simple measure: when the body confirms, or even transcends, the language of words. What use do I have for someone who says a lot about solidarity, but never shakes my hand? What use do I have for someone who has good views about the family, but is never home? What use do I have for someone who speaks about human rights, but always eats at the most expensive tables? The proof of the pudding is not in thoughts or words, but in the body. Where you go, from whom you make an effort, with whom your body wears or ages: that is the measure of authenticity. Ordinary people know this all too well.
Christians believe that God’s Word became “man” in Jesus. In the Greek and Latin it actually says that God Word became “flesh”, or took on bodily form, in Jesus. God did not limit Himself to words and promises. He did not get stuck in conversations with His people. Undoubtedly some wished He did: the continuation of a fiery discussion with God, with arguments for and against. God did not walk into that trap. He became man in Jesus, a man of flesh and blood, who embodied what He said. People looked at Jesus and saw that He was sincere: towards them and towards God.
Jesus paid a great price for that. When people could no longer stand His words, He had to go. It wasn’t so much His message that had to be fought or denied. It was God’s “becoming man” in flesh and blood that had to be blocked, if need be with brutal violence. That which made Jesus bodily present, that had to end. Silence fell around Jesus on Good Friday. Nothing had to be said any longer. His dead body on the cross surpassed the words He could have said. By the way, there was no one who wanted to hear them anymore. His body was laid in the tomb.
At Easter we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In the Creed we will solemnly sing that we believe in “the Resurrection of the body”. That is indeed what Easter is about: about our faith in the resurrection of the body. Jesus is risen completely and forever. Everything in Him has been brought to completion and glory by the Father. Nothing was left behind, least of all the body with which He had confirmed His words and completed His sacrifice. After Easter Jesus carried in His hands and sides the scars from the Cross. Thomas could put his fingers in them. That completed the wonder and joy of the disciples. In Jesus, the Father most certainly made a man of flesh and blood rise from death!
The power of the Resurrection does not hover like cloud above the earth. It enters this world and our loves, into the core of our humanity. And especially: it enters the language of the body. Places where the Resurrection breaks through have everything to do with the proof of the pudding, which has to come from the body. Where strangers shake hands, where a volunteer pushes a wheelchair, where a child is born, where an ill person struggles with pain, where partners remain loyal, where the gun is put down, where a kiss is genuine, where food aid is being distributed, where gossip falls silent, where solidarity can come from gut feeling: that is where the power of the Resurrection breaks through. Where the body can put the signature of God, that is where the world has a future.
I wholeheartedly wish you a happy Easter!”
Exsultet, Alleluiah! Christ has risen!
I don’t know about anyone else, but my Easter has been a rollercoaster ride, both personally and in how I experienced the Triduum this year. It’s not a given, but this time around I was really struck by how the celebrations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday form one organic whole. On Maundy Thursday Mass began in the usual way, but it did not end. There was no final blessing, no closing hymn, but a silent procession out, followed by the altar and the entire sanctuary being cleared of all decorations – candles, altar cloths, crucifix – while the Lord under the appearance of bread was removed to the altar of repose. The next day, Good Friday, we returned to the empty church – not empty of people, but lacking what makes the building come alive, the Lord Jesus Christ – to medidate on the Stations of the Cross and, later that day, mark the salvation that His death on the cross brough us. On Saturday then, there was silence. No Mass, a sense of loss. But then, late in the evening, in a darkened church, a fire burns and lights the new paschal candle. From that candle the candles held by the faithful ware lit and as light floods the church, the priest sang the Exsultet. We sing the Gloria again, the church bells ring throughout. Easter, and Christ was risen. What began on Maundy Thursday is now completed.
The symbolism is strong in these days, and it should be. Mere words can not adequately convey what happened, and nor can actions do so completely. But together they can help in lifting our hearts and minds to understand in some sense the resurrection of the Lord, after so much suffering and pain. The hope in our hearts was kindled anew. And when it is, it becomes visible to those around us.
Easter is not the end of Lent, but the beginning of something new. Let it be a new beginning for all of us.
Various bishops have written messages to their faithful on the occasion of Lent. In this post I want to go over six of them, written by bishops in and around the Netherlands. I have been scanning the various diocesan websites for them, and an interesting conclusion from that is that there aren’t a lot. I have found one in the Netherlands, and a few in Belgium and the Nordic countries. Oh, and one from Luxembourg. None from Germany, oddly enough.
Anyway, let’s see what the bishops who did write a message found important to share.
From Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk speaks about charity. He writes:
“For many of us [Lent] is a time of abstinence, a period in which we deny ourselves “the pleasures of life” or at least limit ourselves. Lent is a journey through the darkness to the Light of Easter, a journey through the desert to the Source. And we take the time for that: this is not ‘merely’ a Four-Day March, but one of forty days. We do not fast with an eye on losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle – although these can certainly be positive side effects… [...] During Lent we place not ourselves but God and also our neighbours at the centre. It is the we have in mind when we downsize our consumption pattern.”
But the cardinal warns, Lent is not just about saving money to give to some charity. He quotes Pope Francis, who said that if we do not have Christ and the Cross, we are a enthusiastic NGO, but not a Church. In other words, we can’t lose sight of our faith when doing good. In addition to fighting material poverty, we must also fight spiritual poverty.
“[Lent] is after all a time in which we make room to enrich our heart and our spirit, through prayer and reading Scripture, by directing these on what the should be the heart of our existence: our personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We remove the frills and side issues from our life to experience that our wellbeing does not depend on them.”
In essence, Cardinal Eijk explains, our charitable actions can not be seen separate from the Eucharist.
“In the sacrament of the Eucharist we come closest to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In receiving the Eucharist we are conformed to Him. This creates obligations and holds an assignment: from now on, try to act in His Spirit.”
He concludes with pointing out several “desert experiences” that deserve our attention: the loneliness of people around us, and the loneliness that we as faithful can sometimes experience.
“We live in a time in which faith has long since ceased to be a matter of course, in which not belonging to a religion is increasingly becoming normative. Going to Church on Sunday has almost become “socially maladjusted behaviour” now that this day is beginning to look more and more like every other day of the week. And then there is the unavoidable fact that several churches will have to be closed in the coming period, churches in which parishioners have often had decades worth of precious experiences and memories. It is clear: a person of faith in the year 2014 must stand firm to continue following Jesus faithfully.
But the person of faith and his faith can also be shaken from within. Every faith life has fruitful and barren periods. Barren periods during which we are locked up in ourselves, imprisoned by doubt and sorrow. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one or the disappearance of what was once familiar. In those dark nights of abandonment it may seems as it of our prayer do not reach beyond that barrier of sorrow, as if they return to us like a boomerang.”
Countering that is the realisation that Christ is with us, even in times of sorrow and suffering, even of sin.
Brussels’ Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard sheds a light on the three constituent elements of Lent – fasting, almsgiving and prayer – and asks his audience some direct questions. About fasting, he writes:
“Properly understood, fasting is an act of love for God. Is it not right to happily deny ourselves something for the people we love the most? [...] The way in which our Muslim brother and sisters practice Ramadan can inspire us in an exemplary manner to be at our most generous in this field.”
About almsgiving, the archbishop explains:
“This is an important aspect of Lent. Brotherly sharing starts at home. With that I mean the sharing of friendship, respect, patience and service.”
Lastly, there is prayer. Archbishop Léonard remind sus that the most important prayer is the Eucharist. About personal prayer, he asks us a question:
“We all know, at least in theory, the importance of prayer. But reality shows that a solid reminder sometimes does wonders! I ask you again: “How much time did we spend on prayer over the past month? Where were we?” Lent is an excellent opportunity to make a new start or, who knows, finally get started. Spending a few minutes a day with the Lord is not to much to ask, is it?”
And prayer is not hard:
“We must at least realise that every one of us can pray, even a longer prayer. Prayer is not reserved to priests and religious. It does not require a diploma or any special talent. The desire for prayer and asking Jesus, like His Apostles did, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1), is enough. Let su listen to the voice of the Lord, who asks us, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev. 3:20).”
Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg uses his message to urge the his faithful to devote themselves even more to the practices of Lent and Easter. In order the hear the voice of God, we must be ready to do so, he writes.
“I [...] propose we fast and do abstinence every Friday during this time of preparation for Easter. A simple meal can help us break down barriers in our daily routine and to open ourselves to Christ’s call. It is also a gesture of solidarity with the poor. And it would be good to not do it alone, but to do so in our various communities. Fasting and abstinence open our hearts and make us better able to pray. Would this not be an opportunity to pray more, to maintain dialogue and contact with the living God? Without personal prayer these things elude us!”
Archbishop Hollerich also speaks about almsgiving, about giving something up for the other. And this is also good for ourselves:
“Let’s shake ourselves up during this Lent! Let’s open our hearts to the distress of the world, which also exists in Luxembourg. Only someone who opens their hands to share can receive this gift: the freedom of the children of God.”
The archbishop urges us to celebrate all of Lent, not just Easter, but also Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to encounter Christ fully in our hearts.
Despite the problems the Church faces, and we as individual faithful also, Lent is ultimately a season of hope, and that hope grows the closer we come to the Living Lord.
Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm takes a slightly different approach to his message for Lent, as he does not explicitly discuss what we can and should do during this season. Instead, he begins with the image of a forgotten God, opening his letter with these blunt lines:
“We forget God. We live in age where God has become the forgotten God. Even the one who says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14) has in fact himself forgotten God.”
But God does not forget us, he continues. We can’t imagine how close God is to is, and how much he loves us. It is up to us to remind others that, while they may forget Him, He never forgets them. And that is hard to communicate, but we must remain hopeful.
Forgetting God contains an enormous risk for us, the bishop explains:
“When we forget God, there is a great risk that we also forget man and fail to see him in his dignity of being created in the image of God. When God is forgotten, creation itself is diminished and so are all created beings. In a time and environment where consumerism is paramount, everything – and everybody – is easily reduced to things that can be consumed. When God is out of sight, so is humanity – indeed all of creation is brought down and diminished.”
But God is knowable in His creation, Bishop Arborelius states. “His presence permeates everything”. And when we get to know God, our respect for His creation grows. In Lent, that respect is shown by our refraining from making unnecessary use of created things.
“We eat less. We disengage ourselves from our covetousness. We try to help our neighbour. We meet God in the poor and naked. We forget ourselves so that we can set God in the centre. We serve those who need us. We praise Go for His goodness. We deepen our faith. Lent helps us to seek God with greater eagerness. We are more receptive to God’s will for us.” St. Birgitta likens God to a washerwoman, who constantly washes us clean of our sins and guilt. During Lent we are serious about our conversion. We prepare ourselves for the triumph and joy of Easter through contrition and penance, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation and by participating in the Eucharist more often. We unite ourselves to the suffering and crucified Christ so that we can meet Him as the Risen and glorified Lord. The cross always leads us to the joy and peace of Easter.”
During Lent we must make a choice, the bishop insists.
“We must choose sides. We cannot limp on both sides. Mediocrity and half-heartedness must give way to devotion and commitment. We must begin each day anew in the new life of grace. We must seek the face of God each day by praying to Him and serving Him in our neighbour.”
But we need not stand alone in this radical choice. We are part of the community of the Church, which strengthens us, and the saints in heaven support us by their prayer. This is an antidote against selfishness and forgetting God.
Bishop Arborelius concludes his letter by presenting the Blessed Virgin, to whom the bishops of the Nordic countries will consecrate their nations on 22 March in Lund, Sweden, as our great help in heaven. She helps us be more evangelising and a better witness of Christ.
Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny devotes a major part of his message to the Belgian bill which allows euthanasia on minors. He quotes part of the bishops’ response to that immoral piece of legislation, which was sadly signed into law by King Philippe only days ago.
“The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.”
Following this reminder of the Church’s opposition to the laws of death, Bishop Bonny writes about the two complementary topics of freedom and solidarity.
“From where does our freedom come, and what does it consist of? Where does our solidarity consist of and what does it consist of? In the Christian view of humanity and the world freedom and solidarity are inseparable. They are like twins who belong together and strengthen each other.”
Using the example of St. Damian, Bishop Bonny then asks what connection we still make between freedom and solidarity. Lent leads us to the answer to that question.
“What was Good Friday but the ultimate unity of those two: freedom and solidarity. Why did Jesus end up on a cross? On the one hand because He wanted to be free: free to witness to the truth free to say and do what the Spirit of God inspired Him to do, free to give His life for His friends. On the other hand because He wanted to remain solidary: solidary with poor and broken people, solidary with the martyrs of all times, solidary with a weak and sinful humanity. He did not make a success story out of His life. He lost His trial. He was carried off through the backdoor of society.”
And so we come full circle, as the bishop seems to want to imply a link between the victims of draconian laws and Jesus Christ.
Reykjavík’s Bishop Pétur Bürcher writes about the Year for Consecrated Life that Pope Francis has announced for 2015, and uses the opportunity the address the religious communities in Iceland which, he says, “are a sign of hope for our Church!” The bishop goes on to relate the contributions that the religious communities have made to Catholic Iceland and announces a plan for the future:
“I would like to establish a male monastery, if possible with the Benedictines or Augustinians who in the Middle Ages possessed several monasteries in Iceland. We have already found a large piece of land with houses and a heated church in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community! I have undertaken a lot to find it and hope soon for a fulfillment of my dream which has become one of many people in Iceland and abroad!”
Lastly, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt opens his message by acknowledging that our environment does not make it easy for us to have the right attitude to start Lent.
“There is very little around us which calls us to it. The chocolate Easter eggs are already in the supermarket and commercials and media have always spoken with more easy about carnival, dieting and the Ramadan than about Christian fasting. Lent is apparently considered to be a private matter which we had better not discuss too much.”
But Lent is a precious time of conversion, the bishop says, drawing parallels with Christ’s time in the desert and the forty years that the people of Israel spent in the desert. It is a time of conversion from worldly things, in preparation for the future. And that conversion begins with the person of Jesus. Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Hoogmartens says we must understand Christ’s deepest ‘being’.
“Jesus reveals Himself, not with worldly power and wealth, both more so in weakness and poverty. He came to us with a love which does not hesitate to sacrifice itself. He became like us in every way, except in sin. He carried our suffering and died on the Cross. It is He who we must open our hearts and lives much more to during Lent. From out of the love of Jesus, out of His mercy as the Christ, we can, as it were, ‘practice’ our witnessing, in honest love for the other, during Lent.”
The bishop emphasises the two sorts of poverty we must address, material and moral. About the latter he says:
“The extreme emphasis on human autonomy, for example, which became to shockingly visible in the recent amendments in Belgium regarding euthanasia, must urge us Christians to even more support care and nearness to suffering people according to the Gospel.”
In the first place, the bishops concludes, we must first make a conversion ourselves, before we can address the various sorts of poverty we see around us, for it is in Jesus that we find the means to fight it.
As many styles as there are bishops. Some offer deep theology, others outline plans for the future, but all offer points that we can keep in mind during Lent.
It’s almost Lent. Snuck up on you, didn’t it? But it’s true, Less than a week away the great time of fasting and penitence will begin and prepare us for Easter.
Time to plan ahead.
For this Lent and Holy Week I want to take the Gospel readings of every day and do some lectio divina with them, a spiritual reading. I’ll be posting the relevant passage every day (well, that’s the plan) and reflect on it. These reflections will be short, as lectio divina is by definition a personal exercise: we prayerfully read a Bible text for ourselves and are open to learn from it. The reflections are therefore what I take from the text: your experience may be a different one, but I hope that comparing what others learn with what you have learned can set you off on new avenues of thought, prayer and discovery.
For those who want to read and reflect in their own time, or if I am unable to post every day, here is a list of the Gospel reading of every day:
Wednesday 5 March (Ash Wednesday): Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
- Thursday 6 March: Luke 9: 22-25
- Friday 7 March: Matthew 9:14-15
- Saturday 8 March: Luke 5:27-32
- Sunday 9 March (First Sunday of Lent): Matthew 4:1-11
- Monday 10 March: Matthew 25:31-46
- Tuesday 11 March: Matthew 6:7-15
- Wednesday 12 March: Luke 11:29-32
- Thursday 13 March: Matthew 7:7-12
- Friday 14 March: Matthew 5:20-26
- Saturday 15 March: Matthew 5:43-48
- Sunday 16 March (Second Sunday of Lent): Matthew 17:1-9
- Monday 17 March: Luke 6:36-38
- Tuesday 18 March: Matthew 23:1-12
- Wednesday 19 March (Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary): Matthew 116, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2: 41-51a
- Thursday 20 March: Luke 16:19-31
- Friday 21 March: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
- Saturday 22 March: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
- Sunday 23 March (Third Sunday of Lent): John 4:5-42 or John 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42
- Monday 24 March: Luke 4:24-30
- Tuesday 25 March (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord): Luke 1:26-38
- Wednesday 26 March: Matthew 5:17-19
- Thursday 27 March: Luke 11:14-23
- Friday 28 March: Mark 12:28-34
- Saturday 29 March: Luke 18:9-14
- Sunday 30 March (Fourth Sunday of Lent): John 9:1-41 or John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
- Monday 31 March: John 4:43-54
- Tuesday 1 April: John 5:1-16
- Wednesday 2 April: John 5:17-30
- Thursday 3 April: John 5:31-47
- Friday 4 April: John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
- Saturday 5 April: John 7:40-53
- Sunday 6 April (Fifth Sunday of Lent): John 11:1-45 or John 11:3-7, 20-27, 33b-45
- Monday 7 April: John 8:1-11
- Tuesday 8 April: John 8:21-30
- Wednesday 9 April: John 8:31-42
- Thursday 10 April: John 8:51-59
- Friday 11 April: John 10:31-42
- Saturday 12 April: John 11:45-56
- Sunday 13 April (Palm Sunday): Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
- Monday 14 April: John 12:1-11
- Tuesday 15 April: John 13:21-33, 36-38
- Wednesday 16 April: Matthew 26:14-25
- Thursday 17 April: John 13:1-15
- Friday 18 April (Good Friday): John 18:1-19:42
- Saturday 19 April (Holy Saturday): Matthew 28:1-10
- Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday): John 20:1-9
It’s much, to be sure, but it is an investment that’s worth the effort. Lent is especially a time to return to the basis, to the Word, and allow the Lord to join us on our way.
“One thing above all appears different, seen with the eyes of faith: death! Christ entered death as we enter a dark prison; but he came out of it from the opposite wall. He did not return from whence he came, as Lazarus did who returned to life to die again. He has opened a breach towards life that no one can ever close, and through which everyone can follow him. Death is no longer a wall against which every human hope is shattered; it has become a bridge to eternity. A “bridge of sighs”, perhaps because no one likes to die, but a bridge, no longer a bottomless pit that swallows everything. “Love is strong as death”, says the song of songs (Sgs 8:6). In Christ it was stronger than death!”
It was the Day of Preparation, about the sixth hour. ‘Here is your king,’ said Pilate to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him.’ Pilate said, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king except Caesar.’
So at that Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. They then took charge of Jesus, and carrying his own cross he went out to the Place of the Skull or, as it is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified him with two others, one on either side, Jesus being in the middle.
Pilate wrote out a notice and had it fixed to the cross; it ran: ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’. This notice was read by many of the Jews, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the writing was in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. So the Jewish chief priests said to Pilate, ‘You should not write “King of the Jews”, but that the man said, “I am King of the Jews”. ‘
Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’
When the soldiers had finished crucifying Jesus they took his clothing and divided it into four shares, one for each soldier. His undergarment was seamless, woven in one piece from neck to hem; so they said to one another, ‘Instead of tearing it, let’s throw dice to decide who is to have it.’ In this way the words of scripture were fulfilled: They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothes. That is what the soldiers did.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed and, so that the scripture should be completely fulfilled, he said: I am thirsty. A jar full of sour wine stood there; so, putting a sponge soaked in the wine on a hyssop stick, they held it up to his mouth. After Jesus had taken the wine he said, ‘It is fulfilled’; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit.
Today all the affairs of our daily life, important or trivial, come to a stop. It is Good Friday, the day on which we return to the very heart of everything, our entire life and all the things that concern us.
We’ve all heard it before, the story of the agony in the garden, the arrest, the innocence and the death closing off this day. But it never gets old, and we must not pretend it does, even when it is sometimes hard.
In our lives there are good times and bad times. For all those experiencing difficulties of some sort, know that Christ is there with us, especially today. His agony, his pain is elevated by His intention to do what is right for us. Not for Him, but for us. Part of his pain and suffering are the problems we experience, whether they exist because of our own mistakes or because we are innocent victims of circumstance. The Lord is concerned with our plight, not with questions of guilt. Taking our pain on His shoulders, He merely looks us in the eye and tells us to sin no more (cf. John 8:11).
Today, in the Stations of the Cross and in the Service of the Passion of the Lord, our suffering becomes joy, even as we contemplate the death of Our Lord and Saviour. “Go, and sin no more” becomes a commandment that elevates His shameful death from pointless cruelty to saving grace. With Jesus, our old self dies, the self who suffered, who made mistakes, who caused others grief or who simply could not take things anymore. The Cross becomes the sign of this fundamental change: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world”, we hear the priest chant today.
Our faith is not a depressing faith, or one which reminds us of all the things we do wrong, or how unworthy of everything we are. As Pope Francis reminded us recently, ours is a joyful faith. And even the events we remember and experience anew today move us further along the road to joy.
“Go and sin no more”.
Christ took the first steps. Let us follow.
Freedom of expression and religion is apparently a flexible concept. At least as far as the city council of the town of Alaca in Spain is concerned. Apparently, the aforementioned freedoms are rights which only apply if you say things that the popular majority agrees with. That is what the Catholics of the Diocese of Alcalá de Henares recently discovered as the aforementioned city council called for the removal of Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Plá, following statements which were deemed homophobic.
Following Bishop Reig Plá’s Good Friday homily, in which he formulated the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are inherently disordered and criticised sexual behaviour in modern society, several leftist organisations, together with Spain’s Socialist Party, tabled a motion to have the bishop transferred to another diocese, as well as banning him from all official functions in the city.
The diocese’s response rightly called this “a sad and intolerable violation of human rights and of the principle of the separation of Church and state”. Bishop Reig Plá has the support of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, his own priests, the International Federation of Associations of Catholic Doctors, and, strikingly, some 20 individuals with same-sex attraction from his diocese.
Reading all this, I have to wonder why people continue to be surprised when a bishop supports Catholic teaching? Is it because they somehow assume that the Church is in favour of current sexual morality and the behaviour of some homosexual people? Do they think that a bishop who says something that is difficult and challenging is out of touch with the Church? Bishop Reig Plá’s words are nothing new. Sexual behaviour in modern society is a source of serious concern, and certain examples of homosexualist behaviour, such as gay pride marches, do nothing but sexualising the human person under the banner of tolerance. Well, it should be clear that exactly these groups, as well as many on the left side of the political spectrum, are the ones who are intolerant. It is they who do not allow different opinions and apparently consider basic human rights and freedoms to be selectively applicable.
The modern response to some undesired statements is the call for the banishment of everyone and everything that is not in full agreement with the opinion of the popular majority (or what some people think the popular majority should think and want). That is not freedom or tolerance. It is intolerance and the dictatorship of relativism.
Everyone enjoys the right to freely express themselves and to live according to their faith. These are basic human rights. No one has to agree with what a person says, but that person still has every right to say it, without suffering criminal prosecution or political harassment. Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Plá is a shepherd and teacher of his people. On Good Friday he taught about sexual morality. He has every right and duty to do so, and no one has a right to force him from performing the duties he was consecrated for.
The cold Roman eye, hand on seal.
Vale. Take the thief away.
‘You carry your own tree, Jimmy…’
Another gallowsbird behind.
One ahead, burdened, a bruised brightness.
I’ve carried millstones, wine-vats, a mast.
That one was a carpenter.
His knees buckle under the heavy baulk.
My mother, poor woman, is dead.
His mother is here. Poor woman. Poor woman.
Look, Simon’s come into town
With an ox to sell.
They’ve laid another yoke on Simon.
Veronica, seamstress. No napkin ever
Soaked up such blood and sweat.
I stagger but I don’t fall.
The sneak-thief plods like a mule.
The bright one, he’s down again.
Those women! Miriam, Judith, Esther
Go home, sing over your cradles.
Sing among looms and pots.
Below, cornfields and vineyards.
A third time, fallen.
He tastes golden dust.
The soldiers won’t bother, I think,
Haggling over my coat.
No scarecrow would wear a rag like that.
Silence – curses – from cross and cross.
From the mid-ark
A dove wings out into the blackest storm.
Thrust of lance into heart-root.
The soldiers are coming with mallets
To break the legs of the thieves.
The eyes of the mother
Drown all the world in pity and love.
The hammer beats on my knee.
That the hands of such a woman
Fold me gravewards.
Bear me and all men in her folds of light.
- George Mackay Brown