Suppose someone asked you, “What’s the worst thing that ever happened in all of history?” There’s no shortage of potential answers. You might say, “the Holocaust“ or “World War II.“ If you consider the question from the Christian perspective, you’d probably agree, right away, that the worst thing that ever happened was the Passion and death of Jesus. The all good, all loving God, came down to Earth for our redemption, and His own people killed him. He died in the most brutal, horrible way. It’s said that no sin, no matter how minor, can ever be redeemed, since it is done against an infinitely good God. So to put that very God to death is unimaginably evil. The Passion and death of Our Lord is the worst thing that ever happened.
Suppose someone then asked you, “What’s the best thing that ever happened?“ At that point, with your thoughts on Jesus’ crucifixion, you might say, “the Resurrection.“ There is a certain natural progression there. But I have a different answer. The best thing that ever happened is also Jesus’ Passion and death.
How can this be so?
We know, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, that “Jesus’ violent death was not the result of chance in an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances, but is part of the mystery of God’s plan.” para 599. He came in fulfillment of ancient prophecies, to atone for the sins that separate us from God.
But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.
Is. 53:5. We pray, in the Litany of the Most Precious Blood–
Blood of Christ, price of our salvation, save us
Blood of Christ, without which there is no forgiveness, save us
Reflecting on the sufferings of the Savior should always awaken profound gratitude. He redeemed us, beyond any possible merit of our own that could have merited such a redemption.
But consider: when I go to the dentist, and he deals with and resolves a painful condition, I leave with gratitude. I’m thankful that the dentist did his healing work, but I’m just as thankful that it’s over. When I consider the Cross, and dutifully pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary every Tuesday and Friday, I can easily find myself secretly desiring to hurry up and complete my devotions. The Passion can seem just too painful to contemplate.
I believe it is profoundly important, especially for us Catholics, to turn away from a certain tendency to look on the Crucifixion as a time only of darkness and sorrow. It was more than that. It was, in a profound sense, the moment of victory. The brutality and humility that preceded the Crucifixion, and the physical suffering of the Cross, are unimaginable. They would have broken anyone, no matter how strong. But Jesus endured, faithful, until the last. When He gave up His spirit, in that very moment, the Universe changed forever. It truly was the triumph of the Cross.
The writings of some of the saints are rich with references to the wounds Jesus suffered as He hung dying. Saint Angela of Foligno invites us to consider how Christ’s wounds reflect the sins we commit–for sins of the eyes, consider “the eyes of Christ bleared by the blood which ran over them from his head, so cruelly pierced with thorns”; for “illicit embraces … consider how Christ did penance by embracing the Cross.” Instructions, Instr. 5. Blessed Henry de Suso offers the words of Jesus to him: “When you are tired and worn out from any kind of work, give thanks and bear it with patience. … And so you will answer to the violence and weariness that my legs suffered.”
St. Thomas a Kempis writes, “If you do not know how to meditate on heavenly things, direct your thoughts to Christ’s passion, and willingly behold his sacred wounds. If you turn devoutly to the wounds and precious stigmata of Christ, you will find great comfort in suffering.” The Imitation of Christ, Bk. II, Ch. 1.
The courage to draw near to these wounds comes from deep insight into their spiritual significance, and deep trust in their power. The Anima Christi prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola contains lines that should startle us:
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
The renowned lay Carmelite Bl. Marie of the Incarnation (Madame Acarie), who was instrumental in bringing the Teresian reform into France, instructs us to pray, “I take, O sweet Jesus, all the sin that is in me, and plunge it into your very dear wounds, to be lost and annihilated.” Exercises For All Souls Who Desire To Follow Our Lord’s Life. We are not to merely contemplate the wounds but to touch them, even enter into them. When the apostle Thomas touched Jesus’ wounds, he encountered not only the truth of the Resurrection, but the true identity of the man he had followed. Jn 20:28.
The Passion cannot really be separated from the Last Supper and the Resurrection. Together, they express the Paschal Mystery at the center of our faith. However, we must not rush past Good Friday, in a hurry to get to Easter Sunday. We must not turn all our crucifixes into crosses. Let us linger at the feet of Redeemer, even as he bled and died.
These reflections are not meant only to inspire remorse. True, we ought to weep for Jesus’ suffering, and for our own part in that suffering. He felt the blows of the scourge, and the hammer, and also the blows of our every act of betrayal–and all the sins and betrayals of all time. So weep.
But also glory. He willingly did this for you. Within His heart there was not one single atom of recrimination or blame. He knew, He knows, what burdens we have to carry. When we have the courage to lift up our attention from our shame, and touch His wounded hands, His cut and bleeding face, we touch a vast ocean of mercy and peace. There is nothing else there.
In a recent talk, Bishop Andrew Cozzens spoke of “the transforming power of the Cross.” Suffering is part of every life, and we must bring that to the crucified Jesus. “If we can allow our suffering to be transformed,” he said, “we can learn to love the Cross.”
We do not celebrate what was done in the Passion. We celebrate the One who did it. All praise to the triumph of the Cross! All praise to our triumphant Lord, now and forever.
Image: Anthony van Dyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons