Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Extensiveness of Evil and Seriousness of Sin is only Answerable by the Power of the Passion

Father John J. Lombardi

Palm Sunday and the Lord's Passion
“When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet Him, and cried out: “Hosanna!” “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel.” (Jn. 12:12-16)

This week is the holiest of weeks. The Church is “spiritually signaling” to us in the modern world that we have one last week to prepare for the most solemn Feast of the Liturgical year, Easter. Make this week holy and sacred by fashioning each day different (more time for prayer and reading of the Passion accounts, for instance), and progressing thru each day more simply (avoid excess media, entertainment, eating and drinking—embrace what is essential, unseen). Be more attuned to the Passion of our Lord Jesus—the “Fugitive Prince”--as He wanders the streets Jerusalem and prepares to give Himself to sinners…Celebration of the Sacred Events in ritual is an external and necessary part of Holy week; this should lead to Meditation—imprinting the Love of the Divine Passion within our souls; and this inspires Communication of the fruits received in giving to others. This is the story of the saints.

We begin this Holy Week on Palm, or Passion Sunday, by receiving blessed palms. Mother Church is indicating to us by “sacramentalizing” (spiritually continuing) a sacred event, when we Catholics can welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and our hearts, though two-thousand years away from the Original event: “Don’t be so distant,” the Church seems to be saying—“get involved!”… Thursday is Holy Thursday, the Commemoration to the Lord’s Supper, and of His washing of the Apostles’ feet, showing us the irreplaceable and charitable virtue of service. At the Last Supper, Jesus said: “Take this, all of you, and eat it, this is My Body” (Lk. 22:19 ). Jesus says elsewhere: “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood will abide in Me and I in Him” (Jn. 6:56).

Then we come to the most austere celebration, Good Friday. A pilgrim recently asked this Chaplain, “Why it is called ‘Good’ if the Lord died on this day?” Answer: Because He opened the gates of Heaven; He exemplified total surrender to the Father and the love of sinners, and shed His precious blood to save us from evil, sin and despair: “No greater love hath any man than to lay down His life for another (Jn. 15:13 )

Holy Saturday comes next, when one of the largest number of conversions will occur in the world, as thousands fully enter the Holy Catholic Church by being baptized, confirmed, or receive Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil: “Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ, our King, is risen! Sound the Trumpet of salvation!”

Q. Why, then, is Holy Week and the Lord’s Passion so important and dramatic? A. Because, life is. For instance: Perhaps you saw pictures from downtown Baghdad this past week, when a huge statue of the infamous dictator was pulled off its pedestal, and a crowd of jubilant Iraqis cathartically stomped on it. Amidst the ecstatic mayhem, an American marine who was embraced by a joyous Iraqi civilian near all the hoopla, seemingly implied: evil was gone and liberation had come. Later I heard a commentator say, “The long nightmare is over.” Systematic torture, rape, dictatorial governance wielding a tenacious terror upon the poor and any protestor, is now becoming evident thru pictures and reports. Perhaps we now know there is a type of Hell on Earth. We’ve seen it in the past Nazi concentration camps and the Killing fields of Cambodia, but now in Iraq

Closer to home, I recently read where one of the “Washington area snipers”—barely eighteen years old—said he murdered innocent people because he wanted to wield power, and experience decimation and destruction. In his interrogations he exhibited no remorse—he would do it again if able. These recent comments and pictures—limited as they may be, are dramatic and convincing portrayals of the extensiveness of evil and seriousness of sin in our world. Pausing, we ask Catholics and Bible believers: What is the answer and response to all this? St. Paul, in Galatians, says, simply: “Jesus Christ…gave Himself for our sins that He might rescue us from the present evil age…” (1:4). We usually don’t think we need rescuing, nor that this is an evil age—after all, we’re Americans. However, we all need a Savior to liberate us from the “dictatorship of sin” (see Jn ch.8, where Jesus describes sinners “being slaves of sin”)—whether the sins be our coarse feelings, selfishness, or lack of charity.

The answer to mankind’s sins is matched by God and recounted in the Mysteries of Holy Week: Jesus undergoes a mock trial, is found guilty and is beaten, then forced to carry a Cross and is hung on it and dies a torturous death by asphyxiation, and then descends to Hell (after His death on Good Friday), and waits three days to rise. God’s response to the trials of life and evil of the world is equally passionate—a Divine Passion. Now, let’s more deeply meditate on just why Catholics cultivate a Devotion to the Passion of Christ.

  1. First, because the Bible tells us so. Jesus says—“If anyone wants to be my follower let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Lk.9:23). St Paul exclaims: “God forbid I exult in anything but the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14), and : “The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing but to those of us being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor.1: 18)
  2. As Catholics we believe God gave us a “sacramental
    imagination” and devotions, holy customs to stir up affections and engender greater love of God. This spiritual love is promoted thru sustained ways (ongoing practices vs. fleeting feelings), to show us, in this case, Christ’s costly love for us poor sinners…Think: we devote time and talent to hobbies, family, friends, why don’t we devote time and talent to the Passion of Jesus?... Are you embracing it? Just like taking a photograph, certain elements are needed: The external image (Jesus’ Passion ritualized thru the “camera of our liturgies”) leads to the internal reception and inner embrace” (the “film within our souls”), leading to the fraternal showing of the picture to others (God’s love given to others in joy). The lives of the saints and history of spirituality show us that the devotion to the Passion of Christ is one of the most important of devotions. Great saints (like Alphonsus Liguori and Teresa of Avila) recommend it. Now, will you embrace it more this week?
  3. Why is this hard for Catholics and Christians today?
    1. Because we hold a “false duality” between seeming opposites of Faith—the Cross and Resurrection. I.e., we may think Christ overcame all thru the Resurrection so we don’t have to “bother” with the Cross; or, the Resurrection is less central to the Lord’s death on the Cross… (Corrective: Resurrection theology stresses “the Crown,” and overcoming darkness… Good Friday theology emphasizes “the Cross” and coming-thru darkness. Catholicism stresses both.)
    2. As modernist Americans, we want to gain things without pain; “unnecessary suffering” is seen as anti-American
    3. Worldliness—today’s “sterilization of our Religion by money,” is powerful and pervasive. Religion is sometimes seen as “feel-good-ism,” and overly worldly (as an Americanist Faith), kowtowing to people’s sentiments and securities, rather than their eternal salvation, thus ‘bleeding out the drama’ of the Faith and its expressions.
    4. Heresy: Gnostics (a heresy which taught the material world was inherently evil, and that special knowledge was given to a few elitist initiates), and docetists (who denied the fleshly existence of Jesus ) are still effective today: they imply Christ really didn’t incarnate and therefore didn’t, or wouldn’t undergo passion.
    5. Thru popular culture, the media and materialism’s many guises, a cult of youth-worship and cosmetic-make-overism plasticizes Religion’s overtly spiritual aspects, producing a facile culture, antithetical to suffering and trials: blood and crucifixions obviously don’t fit here.
    6. Compassion fatigue: with all the issues, needs and worthy causes in our busy orbits these days, Americans don‘t exactly want to look at a Man dragging a Cross…All this unfortunately amounts to an anti-via doloris attitude. But, it can be overcome if we recognize, as the great convert, G. K Chesterton called it, “the democracy of the dead”- the voice of the past dynamically speaking to today’s world thru Holy Mother Church giving us a grounded and solid wisdom for the pilgrimage.

The Stations of the Cross, along with Good Friday spirituality begin formally in medieval Jerusalem Piety: Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, or, if they could not, would make “imitation pilgrimages” at home-Churches. Thus the flowering of these devotions and liturgies, began and inspired a love of the Crucified Savior in “mass marketed and democratized fashion” long before global capitalism! St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Francis of Assisi were big influences. In the recent past we may have seen Pope John Paul II carry a Cross around the Roman Coliseum leading the Stations of the Cross, inspiring youth and elderly to ever deepen the love of the Lord and His Passion, thus renewing the past with a contemporary approach.

Today, in our own parishes on Fridays in Lent, we may have practiced the devotion in some form. Point: the “stations” are fourteen meditations on the heights of Love. We can think about love and get dreamy eyed—but Jesus showed us The Way. The Passion of Jesus shows how radically God descends into suffering and embraces our human condition, and teaches life’s true meaning. Jesus says: “Whoever loves his life loses it, but whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25). St Francis of Assisi said it this way: “It is in dying we awaken to eternal life.”

The Lord, and saints in imitation of Him, show the need of gradual death of self, its eventual “disappearance”--at least as we know it, so God “will appear” within the virginal space surrendered, paving way for a Resurrection of new life. An overview of the Stations shows us the extreme love of Jesus and the radical dying we must undergo: The Third Station – Jesus Falls, depicts the dramatic descent of God to our level and the needed submissiveness we need to surrender to the will of God. We can do this by bending our wills to God and other people’s needs—especially when we don’t want to.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was allured to God because of His humility, and became a Catholic because of the Church’s ability to capture and teach this truth in doctrine and ritual. Because of this conversion of truth about God and herself, she eventually became a martyr . How will you more fully accept and follow Christ’s humbling call?…The Station when Jesus is stripped of His garments portrays the humiliation of Jesus and the divesting of our “outer self” needed to liberate the soul—even when it hurts us. St Paul of the Cross called it the “inner festival of cross” when we share our sufferings with Him- “It is very good and holy to consider the passion of Our Lord and to meditate on it, for by this sacred path we reach union with God.

In this most holy school we learn true wisdom, for it was there that all the saints learned it. Indeed when the cross of our dear Jesus has planted its roots more deeply in your hearts, then will you rejoice? Love is a unifying virtue which takes upon itself the torments of the beloved Lord. It transforms the lover into the one loved.”

Ask: How can I love the Cross more knowing Jesus accepted it and that it can free me—changing me into Him? Lastly, the Fourteenth Station-- the closing of the tomb--represents the hiddeness and rejection of the Divine, and our like requirement to hide away and bury the false, selfish self, in total annihilation: as “cold, “emptying” and frightening as this might seem, it is a necessary step to spiritual freedom and Resurrection- it must be total. Like a dangerous, burning building that must be evacuated, we must “evacuate our selfish-selves” to embrace salvation (“healing”) and safety. St John of the Cross emphasized the abandonment everything short of God so we may love and “hold” Him totally within.

“Forgetfulness of all creation/Remembrance of the Creator/ Attuned to what is within/ and being loved by the Beloved.” A pilgrim recently described the frustration with a permeating and indulgent “selfishness,” (manifesting as “I,” “me,” “mine” ever too frequently) and so decided to pray more—asking God purify this sticky and prickly residue which is impure. God will clean us within when we cannot). This pilgrim also decided to practice abandoning further, in a more active way, by serving others who without love and friendship. Love God, love neighbor—this is the story of the Passion lived in one person’s daily life…Life’s Essential Lessons—God’s dying for us and we dying to ourselves—are not merely told to us; no, Jesus shows us the way of spiritual salvation which leads to resurrection.

Conclusions: Enter into His Passion thru the celebrations of Mass and Penance and Prayer Services—love Him for the depth of His suffering… Ask: How will I love Him more?...Embrace His Passion—meditate within, on His Passion and Sacred Death for you…Purify your life by confessing your sins and simplifying your life…Ask: How can I die to self? Extend His Passion to others—as Christ serves you, may you serve others—selflessly and joyously. Other things to do:
Carry a cross, crucifix, or rosary (a sacramental) in your pocket, frequently touch it to remind you of Jesus’ love for you. Put a crucifix in a prominent place in your home or room. Pray the Stations of the Cross.

”We adore You O Christ, and we praise You-Because by your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.”

Briefly Noted

Meditation: “Knowing that all things were now accomplished and that the Scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’ (Jn. 19: 8). Beg earnestly for a real appreciation of Christ’s love for souls.

Fulton J. Sheen on the Cross: “Do not the game fish swim upstream? Must not the alabaster box be broken to fill the house with ointment? Must not the chisel cut away the marble to bring out the form? Must not the seed falling to the ground die before it can spring forth into life? Must not the little streams speed into the ocean to escape their stagnant self? Must not grapes be crushed that there may be wine to drink, and wheat ground that there may be bread to eat? Why then cannot pain be made redemption? Why under the alchemy of Divine Love cannot crosses be turned into crucifixes? Why cannot chastisements be regarded as penances? Why cannot we use a cross to become God-like?”

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi