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Things are not always what they seem. But in this world of what-you-see-is-hardly-ever-what-you-get, it is good to know that there is at least one thing in which we get far more than we think, expect, or could even hope for. That thing is the Passion of Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about anyone else, but something happens inside me when I read the congregational part of the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday. Saying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!,” “We have no king but Caesar,” and especially, “His Blood be on us and on our children!” really shakes me to the core. It is jarring to admit to myself that if I had been there 2,000 years ago, there isn’t the slightest guarantee that I would have been on the right side of the Via Dolorosa, that I would have defended Jesus -- or wanted to -- at all. The truth is that on that day of preparation in the streets of Jerusalem, I may have done what most others did, mind my own business-as-usual.
The violence of what Jesus suffered is as inescapable as it is extreme. Sometimes I think that tends to make the story of the Passion and death of Christ more startling, but less accessible to us. Largely because of the Christian faith, we no longer live in a world where public executions are common enough to be ignored, or where the kind of complete humiliation and abuse Jesus suffered is tolerated as part of the way things are. Whips, spitting, taunting, crowns of thorns and the hammer and nails of crucifixion can make it difficult for us to relate to the Gospel accounts of Good Friday. After all, we modern and enlightened people live -- at least on the outside -- a world away from that kind of degradation and violence.
Many of our traditional Catholic devotions that center on the Passion seem to focus a great deal of attention on the external and physical instruments of suffering. We meditate on the scourging of Jesus, his falling beneath the weight of the cross. We imagine Roman soldiers pressing a crown of thorns down upon Christ’s head. We wince at the wounds of crucifixion, the extreme thirst, the pain, humiliation, and death. It is hard to avoid turning our heads away. When we do, we encounter the faces of those who followed and loved him. We see Mary, his mother, overwhelmed by grief. We see John, the Beloved, numbed by the unreality of it all, yet attentive to every detail. We hear the sobbing of women, and the whispered disbelief of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
As a child, I remember seeing El Greco’s, “Christ on the Cross” at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Every time I visited that museum, I ran to the room where that painting hung. The contrast of the dark clouds surrounding the cross made the white body of Christ hanging there look bloodlessly pale. It was a portrait of death grasping onto life, pulling it down. For years, I had a postcard of that painting tucked away in a Bible I’ve long since lost. For me, it was a view into the abandonment, rejection, and loneliness Jesus must have experienced.
Like most Christians, I used to place a lot of emphasis on the more graphic aspects of the crucifixion in my own spiritual life. The Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries: for me, the bloodier it was, the better I liked it. But recently, I’ve turned my attention more towards the inner Passion of Jesus. Beyond the whips and nails, beneath the beaten and bloodied body of our Lord, is the anguish of his soul. These we see revealed in the lesser known traditions of The Last Words, and the ancient Tenebrae prayer service of darkness.
This year, St. Maria Goretti Parish will offer Tenebrae on Palm Sunday evening. It will be our way of ushering in the full depth of what Christ Jesus did for each one of us on the cross. Tenebrae is rich with symbolism and drama. The church is darkened, the psalms expressive and emotional, and the readings are drawn from Jeremiah, the Letter to the Hebrews, and St. Augustine’s commentary on the psalms. We close each section with the haunting music of Taize, sung a capella. Throughout the service, 13 candles, symbolizing Jesus’ Twelve Disciples, are extinguished one by one as a visual image of how they abandoned him. A single candle representing the Light of Christ will be removed. The “strepitus” -- a loud crash -- ensues, as the world order is shattered by the cross of Christ.
We began adding Tenebrae to our parish Holy Week observances four years ago. For me, Tenebrae has become the primary meditation on the Passion for the year. Taken from the Liturgy of the Hours for Holy Week, Tenebrae reveals the unseen depths of Jesus’ suffering and death. Instead of whips and nails, its draws us into the terror, abandonment, rejection, and grief Jesus bore, and ultimately offered to the Father on our behalf.
We may be drawn to or repulsed by the story of what Jesus suffered. But whatever spirituality one may follow, whatever shape one’s faith in Christ takes, one thing is clear: it is not possible to be a Christian and escape the cross. The Crucifixion of Jesus is the central event of all human history. It is the hinge on which hangs any door to heaven we may one day enter. At the center of every spiritual practice, seen or unseen, is the Passion of Jesus Christ, not only revealed in what can be seen with the eyes, but what must be seen only with the heart. All Christian faith is Passion-ate. For all our faith flows from the one who hangs as fruit on Calvary’s tree of life.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.