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.