Saturday, March 31, 2012

Leaving the Crowd and Entering the Heart of Christ



I can remember quite vividly being a young boy on Palm Sunday.  Firstly, I remember it because my older brothers would take me with them to the lower church in the days leading up to Palm Sunday and we would "split the palms."  They came in burlap bags.  We would strike them against the columns in the lower church to loosen them up and then would peal them apart--not too flimsy, but also not so big that there wouldn't be enough for everybody.  I recall that I got bored with the process fairly quickly and wound up spending most of my time playing with the "hard of hearing" telephone that was in the confessional while my brothers did the work.

What I most remember about Palm Sunday--and Good Friday--(other than shifting from foot to foot trying to endure the length of the Gospel), was the intensity with which my mother took up her part in the reading of the Passion.  No, she was not a lector.  She was part of "the crowd."  And from what I could tell, if there were Liturgical Oscars, she merited one.  She got into it.  "Not this one.  We want Barabbas!"  "We have no king but Caesar!"  "Crucify him!  Crucify him!  Take him away!"

Another vivid memory I have is of Holy Thursday.  Since I became an altar boy around 8 or 9 years of age, I presume these memories are from when I was 5-7 years old.  From what I know now, one of the things that most struck me as a little boy is apparently not part of the liturgical norms.  But, it still had a significant effect upon me.  The parish I grew up in usually had four or five priests living there.  Holy Thursday was always "the pastor's Mass, and the pastor was Fr. Cornelius J. Heery.  He's been dead for over fifteen years, but when I think of Sacred Heart, North Quincy, I still think of Fr. Heery as the pastor.  That will likely be true in another fifteen years as well.

In any event, at the end of the Holy Thursday Mass, after the priests and altar boys processed to the chapel of reposition, they would return.  (Yes, I know that the rubrics of the Mass don't allow for this!)  Fr. Heery would go back to his chair and the altar boys and other priests would begin stripping the altars.  Then, two by two, they would bow to the altar and depart into the sacristy.  Then, almost all of the lights would be extinguished.  Fr. Heery would remain in his chair for a few moments and then would get up, bow to the altar (for the tabernacle was now empty) and would leave.  As a boy, I was mesmerized.

The stripping of the altars was an external act that I comprehended internally.  Something life-changing was being signified in that sanctuary.  And while many persons were moving about, extinguishing candles, carrying away missals, altar cloths, and candle sticks, what most dominated the sanctuary was the lone figure of Fr. Heery watching over all of this.  As a boy (although I would not articulate it in this way then), I saw the liturgical representation of Christ.  All was being taken from him.  Having given everything in the Last Supper, he was now handing himself over to others.  The lone figure of Fr. Heery communicated to me something of what must have been the interior experience of Jesus Christ on the night before he died.

Sometimes we think about our Lord's Death and Resurrection simply as members of the crowd.  We observe what is happening and experience it as something extrinsic to us.  We see him and us.  We think and pray about what our reaction is to these events.  We think about how we've denied him like Peter, betrayed him like Judas, or opposed him through our going along with the crowd of the day--being driven more by the political and cultural trends of the day rather than by our commitment to Christ.  All of these are certainly worthwhile points of meditation.  But, being Christian is so much more!

What is truly amazing is that the Christian is made able to enter into these saving mysteries not as a mere member of the crowd or even simply as a companion of Christ.  We are made able to enter into these mysteries in union with Christ.  I think this is why the Reproaches of Good Friday have recently been so moving to me.  They speak about the Passion not from the perspective of an outside observer, but from the perspective of God himself.  He has loved so wholly, so infinitely, so generously, so gratuitously and yet he has been so utterly spurned and rejected. 

"My people, what have I done to you?  Or how have I grieved you?  Answer me!" . . . "What more should I have done for you and have not done?"

The Christian--especially through the Sacred Liturgy--enters into the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord not as a mere observer or as a member of the crowd.  He enters in with Jesus.  To remain at a safe distance with the crowd is certainly a temptation.  From the crowd, we can be moved with pity and with compassion, with sorrow and with remorse.  And then, we can return back to our everyday lives, perhaps somewhat better for having observed these things and having somewhat been affected by them.  To remain in the crowd provides us safety from the risk of losing our life.

"He who would save his life, will lose it and he who lays down his life will save it."  Entering the Passion with Christ will most certainly crush us.  To join him in his interior offering to the Father--to be united in such eternal love--is to be nailed with him to the Cross.  Holy Week is about entering into the very love of God Himself.  No man can enter this Divine Fire of Love and not die.  Entering into the Divine Love is to risk everything.  It is to trespass--albeit by Divine invitation--into a realm far beyond man's natural capacities.  It is to step out from the crowd who observes religious things and to enter into the Divine Mysteries.  This "stepping out from the crowd" is not firstly about morality.  It is firstly an act of Faith, Hope, and Love.  It is to enter beyond the veil, knowing that the cost of admission is death.  It is the death that occurs from encountering the weight of Eternal Love.

The Patristic Church Fathers saw a profound connection between the Annunciation and the Cross.  In fact, there is a tradition that says that Good Friday happened on the same day as the Annunciation.  This is chiefly due to the offering of Christ's body.  In the Annunciation, the Second Person of the Trinity took on a body so that this body could be offered.  And, on Good Friday, this body is offered in totality.  But, there is also a Marian dimension to this connection.  At the Annunciation, Mary offered herself as the instrument through which our salvation would come.  On Good Friday, standing by the Cross, Mary offers herself in total union with Christ.  She is no mere observer.  United with her Son, she enters beyond the veil into the Eternal Love of God.  This is why we are invited to live these days in imitation of the Blessed Virgin.  She shows us how it is possible to enter the saving Mysteries in complete union with Christ.

From the crowd, we can observe things, learn moral lessons, and perhaps try to be better persons.  But that is not why Jesus came.  The Cross is a doorway that we are invited to enter.  It is the entrance to the unimaginable, overwhelming, and indescribable love of God.  To enter this Love surely means death. And this death surely means resurrection and life everlasting.

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