The Passionists celebrate two feasts immediately before Ash Wednesday. Last Friday it was the Solemn Commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden.
My intuition is that both feasts come from our missionary founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who spent lent for many years preaching in the villages and towns of the Tuscan Maremma, announcing the graces the lenten season promises.
It was a challenge. The Tuscan Maremma was a place where grace and good news seemed gone. An area in Central Italy facing the Mediterranean Sea of almost 2,000 square miles– roughly the size of Long Island and New York City together– it was the poorest, most troubled part of Italy in Paul’s day. Only gradually, towards the end of the 1700s, after his death, did it begin inching towards recovery.
The Tuscan Maremma is now a popular tourist destination; then it was an unhealthily mix of hills and swamplands. Malaria was widespread, roads were often impassible, dangerous because of bandits. Farmlands were abandoned; beggars were everywhere. The population in isolated villages and hill towns suspected outsiders.
Paul and his companions preached there for many years. Every year it was the same; it never seemed to change. You need other eyes and another kind of heart to work in a world like that and not get tired.
And so as they packed their bags for their lenten journey into the Tuscan Maremma they had to remind themselves what was there before them: the mystery of the Passion of Christ. They needed to pray so they wouldn’t forget. That’s what Jesus did before the mystery of his Passion.
It’s still so today. These are two feasts for tired missionaries.
The Gospel of Mark, the first of the gospels to appear in written form, presents Jesus going to death in utter desolation, draining the cup of suffering given him by his Father. His enemies viciously reject him; his disciples mostly betray or desert him. Only a few remain as he goes on his way. His cry from the cross is a cry of faith mingled with deep fear and sorrow: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This gospel, taut and fast-paced, brings us into the dark mystery of suffering that Jesus faced. We face it too. The Passion is a book that leads to life, a risen life. Our liturgy tells us that today. Like a “well trained tongue” our readings from Isaiah 50,4-7, Philippians 2, 6-11, Psalm 22 and Mark’s Passion narrative call us to hope before the enemy death.
The desolation Jesus faced took many forms, some quite hidden from our eyes and understanding. Yes, the cross brought physical pain, but the gospels, even the gospel of Mark, the darkest of them, do not describe physical sufferings in great detail, as Mel Gibson does in his The Passion of the Christ. The sufferings Jesus endured were primarily spiritual and psychological, all indicated in the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Paul of the Cross spoke of this to a priest of his community who was experiencing the cross of spiritual desolation. God’s grace would lift him up to bring life to someone else, the saint assured him. The mystery of the cross never ends in death.
“From what you tell me of your soul, I, with the little or no light that God gives me, tell you that the abandonment and desolation, and the rest you mention, are precisely preparing you for greater graces that will help you in the ministry for which his Divine Majesty has destined you either now or at some other time. Of that I have no doubt.” (letter 1217)
Speak to all of us today of joy and gladness,
let the bones you have crushed rejoice…
Restore in us the joy of your salvation. Ps. 51
For today’s homily, please play the video file below:
Interesting old books at Books Online, a wonderful free service. In Routledge’s Christmas Annual from 1872 there’s a Christmas story called “Aidan of the Cows.” What’s that about?
It’s about a young woman named Aidan who has herds of the choice cows producing the best milk and cheese in the village of St.Koatsven in a Distant Land near the shore of a distant sea.
Unfortunately, Aidan falls on bad times because the young man she loves spends her fortune til all her cows are sold to moneylenders.
Christmas morning Aidan wanders sadly down a meadow near the sea and hears a robin singing:
“ She listened with amazement, with fear and trembling, with a fearful joy, because the bird sang in human speech.
“I am Robin Redbreast,” he sang, ” the Bird of Good Hope, I am much endowed among birds. For in ancient times when He was toiling up the heavy hill bearing the bitter Cross, I, moved by Heaven, alighted on His head, and plucked from out His bleeding brow ONE thorn from the cruel crown that bound his temples. One drop of His blood bedewed my throat as I stooped to the blessed task, and the blood-drop dyed my breast in a hue of glorious beauty for ever.”
Aidan listened with all the ears of her heart.
“In remembrance of what I did, a poor foolish bird! this blessing was laid upon me—that once every year, on Christmas-eve, I should be empowered to give a good gift to the first maiden, good but unhappy, who should put her foot upon the herb Marie, as you, Aidan, have done.”
The girl looked down. Her foot was lightly- pressing the pretty little yellow trefoil plantret, which is called the herb Marie. “As you have done, Aidan of the Cows,” the robin repeated with a confident chirrup.
Of course, Aidan got her cows back and even her repentant young man, whom she marries and they live happily ever after.
The author ends the tale remarking that this all took place in a Distant Land. “ In the land that is close by us nothing of the kind takes place.”
But we know that it does. And so, may the Bird of Good Hope, speak to you today.
St. Therese put two titles to her name after she became a Carmelite nun. She’s pictured with those two titles in this photo. One was Therese of the Child Jesus, the other was Therese of the Holy Face. She wished to be known by these two titles: Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
The titles came from religious experiences she had. The first occurred on Christmas day, 1886, when she was 13 years old. I commented on her experience of the Christ Child previously. Immediately afterwards, she writes about her experience of the Passion of Jesus. It took place one Sunday of the next year, when she was 14. Her description of the two experiences is found in chapter 5 of her autobiography.
Remember these are experiences of a young teenage girl, which reminds us God can come with his grace at any time in our lives, to any of us.
“One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt great sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground unnoticed. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls.
The cry of Jesus on the Cross sounded continually in my heart: “I thirst!” These words ignited within me an unknown and very living fire. I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls. As yet, it was not the souls of priests that attracted me, but those of great sinners; I burned with the desire to snatch them from the eternal flames.”
Therese went on to describe the conversion of a notorious murderer, Pranzini, who had just been condemned to death and refused to see a priest. She asked Jesus, “feeling that I myself could do nothing,” to be merciful to him. She had Mass offered for him, she begs God to be merciful.
Then, she reads in the newspaper that Pranzini just before he was beheaded took the crucifix from the priest at his execution and kissed it reverently three times and goes to his death. She knows her prayers are answered “Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance!”
Look at her experience. She looks at the cross of our Lord and sees drops of his blood falling to the ground, like dew, unnoticed. Doesn’t this point to a forgetfulness of the mercy of God? St. Paul of the Cross would say “the world is falling into a forgetfulness of the passion of Jesus.” A forgotten source of strength, trust, hope and grace.
Therese is led to remember the passion of Jesus as a sign of the mercy of God. She hears the Lord’s words “I thirst,” not simply as an expression of Jesus’ physical thirst, but as expressing his desire to show love and mercy to all the world.
She experiences the power of this mystery, “I myself can do nothing.”
I’m preaching at St. Therese’s Church in Johnstown, PA, this week and I hear a good many here saying the same thing. “I myself can do nothing…Nothing about my kids or my grandchildren or myself for that matter. I’ve tried everything. I can do nothing. I’m worried about the world I live in, my country, my church and I can do nothing.”
Can we look at the Lord on his cross and hear his words, “I thirst.” Like Therese, perhaps “an unknown and very living fire” will take hold within us.
In our lenten reading for today Peter’s question about forgiveness (“How many times must I forgive my brother?”) isn’t just his question. It’s a question all of us ask.
Jesus answers that we should forgive as God forgives–beyond measure, and he offers a parable about two servants who owe money (a big reason people fight among themselves). The first of the servants owes his master five thousand talents, a huge sum. In an unexpected display of mercy, his master forgives the entire debt.
After being forgiven so much, however, that servant sends off to debtors prison another servant who owes him a few denarii, a mere pittance compared to his debt of ten thousand talents. He won’t forgive this small thing.
Now, isn’t the reason we don’t forgive others just as small? So many grievances and grudges people have against one another are based on small slights they receive, real or imagined. And the small slights never stop. They’re constant and they need constant forgiveness.
In this holy season, we look at God’s immeasurable forgiveness found in the passion and death of Jesus and learn from him. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Seeing God’s forgiveness, the saints say, helps us to forgive. He’s forgiven us so much. Shouldn’t we forgive too?
We need to keep the example of Jesus always in mind, especially the example he gave from the Cross. The founder of my community always recommended that:
“Always bring to prayer some mystery of the life and passion of Jesus Christ. If then, the Holy Spirit draws you into deeper recollection, follow the breath of the Spirit, but always by means of the Passion. You will thus avoid all illusion.” ( St.Paul of the Cross, Letter 791)
How many times must I forgive today, Lord,
how many times must I be patient, kind, understanding,
willing to carry on even if no one sees or cares?
How many times did you?
Bless me with the graces of your passion and death.