“The Saints, you tell me, would burst into tears at the thought of the Lord’s Passion. Whereas I, on the other hand,…
Perhaps that is because you and I witness the scenes of the Passion, but the Saints ‘lived’ them.”
These words of St Josemaria Escriva perhaps capture how we too feel as we come before the Cross on this holy day. Confronted with such immense love, both human and divine, we too might cringe at the smallness of our response. In the face of the tremendous love of Christ who hands himself over even unto death, death on a cross, we too might lament how little it moves us—how little our hearts respond at all.
Of course, it is not an emotional response we are after. That after all tends to be somewhat superficial and fleeting. And Josemaria is not really after the tears that might flow from our eyes. What he is after is how the Passion of Christ impacts us. How it strikes us to the core. How it transforms our deepest self and, as a result, changes our life.
It’s entirely God’s work, without a doubt, yet how do we consent? How is it that we allow the mystery of the Cross to pierce into the depths of our heart?
The word ‘sympathy’ comes to mind, but ‘sympathy’ in its deepest root, literally meaning ‘to suffer with another’. The way the Cross strikes us to the core is by being in sympathy with Jesus in his sufferings. This means having a deep resonance with Christ, both in our exterior and interior life—being in harmony with his actions, sufferings, and even the inner stirrings of his heart.
However the only reason we can really be in sympathy with Jesus is that he, first and foremost, was in sympathy with us. We heard in the 2nd Reading from Hebrews, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” And a little earlier we read, “Because he himself suffered and was tested, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
The Lord Jesus is not far from our trials and afflictions, whether in ordinary difficulties or in times of tragedy. He is with us and is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” since he was “similarly tested in every way.” He knows our sufferings from the inside; he has tasted them for himself.
But what about the miseries caused by our sinfulness? How can Jesus be with us here since he is sinless? Well an insight of St Thomas Aquinas suggests a response. He gives several reasons why Christ’s Passion entailed the greatest suffering of all in this life. One reason relates to our question. Aquinas says, “Christ grieved over the sins of all others. And this grief in Christ surpassed all grief of every contrite heart, because it flowed from a greater wisdom and charity, by which the pang of contrition is intensified.” And also, “All the sins of the human race, Christ, so to speak, ascribed to himself.”
So Christ, in his profound sympathy, grieved for our sins more than we do ourselves. His is a greater wisdom and charity—a deeper knowledge and love—so he appreciates more keenly how repulsive and destructive our sins are.
Think of it in this way: When a child is sick, who suffers more: The sick child or the child’s mother? (This is the power of the empathy of love.)
So in our case, who suffers more: The sinner or the Lord Jesus? Indeed the case of Christ far exceeds any comparison with the mother. For his depth of knowledge and love far surpasses even the best mother. Moreover sin is even more horrible than illness, especially in the innocent eyes of our all-holy Savior. But the compassion of the mother gives us a little insight into Christ’s terrible anguish.
In Christ’s immense love and empathy, it’s as if he considers our lot as his very own. His is the kind of love that considers the friend as ‘another self,’ to use Aristotle’s phrase, or as a ‘second-self,’ to use Mother Teresa’s. So as we gaze upon the crucifix, we see that it is our sin that is the cause of so much grief for our sweet Lord. We and our sins have put him in this wretched agony.
In the Lord’s vast love and wisdom, he is able to gaze upon all of humanity spread throughout time. Thanks to some divine light, Christ’s human soul takes it all in, in a single intuitive gaze over every time and place. It’s as if he sees each of our whole lives spread out before him, as if he looks upon each one of us personally—he who, as St Paul says, “loved me and gave himself up for me.”
While being a source of intimacy with us, this was also a source of sorrow and pain. For Jesus sees all our resistance to God and lack of love, mine and yours. St Padre Pio describes it in this way, “All our sins with their entire ugliness parade before Him in every detail…And our Savior comes face-to-face with that human cesspool, in which man wallows with contemptible indifference.” (Ok Pio, not flattering, but true)
All this causes in our Lord a dreadful interior anguish. He sees how our sin is not only hideous but also self-destructive of us. What is more: Jesus sees our miseries, not as an outside observer but as if his own, in the empathy of love—as if to a second-self. His sufferings on the Cross include our own, like the mother’s anguish includes those of her child, as she bears them within herself.
So it is said of Jesus, the Suffering Servant, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” “He has borne the sins of many and made intercession for transgressors.” Christ bears them in his heart, in the empathy of love—an expanding sympathy with us that nearly makes his heart burst. “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death,” says the Lord at Gethsemane. So full of pain—so full of our pain—, his compassionate heart is near to us, whatever our trial or misery. As a mother comforts the child at her breast, so does our Savior comfort us at his pierced side.
Yet Christ’s compassion is not the type that says “I’m ok, you’re ok.” Far from it, that’s a false compassion, cruel in fact! If anything, the Lord’s attitude is more like this: “I’m ok, you’re not ok. But I love you anyway, and can make you ok, indeed far better than just ok.” This is the redemption accomplished on the Cross. Christ suffered with us as if we were his second-self. But in doing this, he also attains for us the graces we need to overcome our sinfulness.
Furthermore on the Cross he also attains the graces we need to face our own trials with the same heroic virtues with which he faced his Passion. God makes it so we can face our trials, not alone, but with Christ and his strength.
The eternal God brings this about: As we were present to Jesus in these most sacred hours, so he in his saving Passion is present to us. This is why we can see ourselves in the unfolding drama of the Cross. It’s our own struggles too that are being played out in the scenes of the Passion.
For Christ goes to battle on our behalf and wins the victory for us. He gives us the grace to share in the battle with him so we can come to share in the victory with him. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” The Saints understood that it’s our own struggles that are being played out in the scenes of the Passion. And these mysteries were alive to them! So at the thought of the Passion, they were struck to the heart because they lived the scenes.
In a different context, the word ‘passion’ simply means being acted upon, to be passive or receptive of the action of another. Classical philosophy distinguished between action and passion. For example, a hammer strikes a nail. Action applies to the hammer, passion to the nail.
So in our lives, it’s most often those times when we are acted upon, when things are forced upon us and not of our doing and making, that ‘passion’ applies to us. Indeed much of the most significant parts of our life consist of passion. We are dependent upon the decisions and actions of others. Things happen not of our choosing. We face circumstances over which we have little or no control. This being acted upon, this ‘passion,’ determines much of our concrete existence. Yet these passions of life, whether humdrum or dramatic, are instances where we meet Christ and his Passion. Here, we come into a real spiritual contact with the saving mystery of the Cross.
Our response is not to be completely passive and inert but to receive the action upon us—to accept the circumstances—and to respond to what is given and set before us. Christ has gone ahead of us and draws us to respond as he did. This is how we live the scenes of the Passion:
Forgiving those who have hurt us: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Responding to harsh words with silence, when striking back would be pointless anyways: like a meek and humble lamb he was silent and uttered no threat. Being pressed into service of God and neighbor even to the point of exhaustion: I thirst! Embracing God’s will as made manifest in real-life circumstances, even when we had other plans: Father, not my will, but thy will be done. Entrusting our disappointments to God, in hope of an eventual victory of some kind: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Christ is near and at work within us at these moments, re-creating in our lives the very mysteries of his final hours. He meets us in these times of passion, coming to us with the strength of his own Passion.
To draw everything together, I’d like to turn to one of those Saints who would burst into tears at the thought of the Lord’s Agony, precisely because she lived the mysteries. During Holy Week one year in the early 14th century, Bl Angela of Foligno was meditating on the Passion when she heard the Lord say to her three things. Perhaps we can take these short sayings as directed to us too.
First, while contemplating the Cross, Angela hears these words from Jesus: “My love for you has not been a hoax.” Jesus meant what he did on the Cross, he’s not playing games with us. “Whereas I, on the other hand…” Angela acknowledges that her faltering love always plays games with the Lord. Yet his love is faithful and true. What we see on the Cross, that which is so excessive and even wasteful, is a true expression of how much he loves us. But we tend to disbelieve him. So he insists, “My love for you has not been a hoax.”
Second, Angela hears these words from Jesus in his anguish: “I have not kept myself at a distance, but have always felt you close to me.” Jesus kept us close to his heart with the most profound sympathy. As we were close to him in his Passion, it means that he, in turn, is close to us, even now. If only we’d believe him. So he says, “I have not kept myself at a distance, but have always felt you close to me.”
Third, while pondering Christ’s suffering and death, Angela hears, “I have not served you only in appearance.” Angela notes “how he has given himself wholly and totally for us, in order to serve us.” We see sign after sign of Christ’s desire to serve us. He washes his disciples’ feet, feeds them with his Body and Blood, patiently teaches them, and gives himself up to death that they might share his victory. He too wishes to serve us in the passions of our life—to give us the graces, love, and fortitude we need to win the victory. So he says about his Passion, “I have not served you only in appearance.”
Today, in this Good Friday Liturgy, we draw near to Christ who has first drawn near to us. We keep him company in his Way of the Cross. And we see our own struggles being played out in these saving events. May they become more and more alive to us as we approach them with a greater faith! As we strive to keep him company, we beg Jesus to make us share more deeply in these mysteries. For, he has not served us only in appearance. Christ’s love for us has not been a hoax.