As Holy Week is drawing close, I have been asked by a certain number of people to break again the normal sequences of our talks and to say something about Passion Week. And this is what I am going to do now.
Passion week begins with the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. Usually we are aware only of the feast, of the crowds gathering to meet the Lord, of the entry of the King of kings into His City, and very often we miss the profound tragedy which is attached, to the day. Everything is built on a misunderstanding and from that day onward the Lord Jesus Christ will be surrounded all the time, until the last moment, indeed until His Resurrection by loneliness, by a complete loneliness through which nothing can break. The disciples of the Lord have prepared everything for this entry, because they expected the Lord, to come into His City and to begin to reign. In one way or the other, even those who probably did not imagine what the victory of the Lord would be, saw, in this coming, the beginning of His victory, and indeed it was, but it was not the kind of victory which they had anticipated; nothing like it, in spite of the fact that all the way from Cesaree to Jerusalem they must have walked under the sign, in the shadow of the Cross; because immediately after Peter’s confession “Thou art the Messiah, the Son of the living God” Christ had begun to teach his disciples about the oncoming days of suffering, of his crucifixion, of his death. And yet it was all in a spirit of victory and glory that they were accompanying their Master and their Lord; the crowds that was meeting the Lord Jesus Christ had also gathered, for the wrong reasons, namely because He had raised Lazarus and because the resurrection of Lazarus was now known to every one, because He was spoken of by everyone and was a sign of contradiction. They had come to meet Him again under the sign of victory, but they did not know that the victory was the Cross. And what they expected probably, most of them, was a speedy victory over all the evils they were aware of: foreign domination, national humiliation, they expected the revelation of the glory of Israel. And this explains why this crowd that had met the Lord Jesus Christ with such enthusiasm, a few days later turned so violently against Him. Because people never forgive those who have betrayed them; and they felt betrayed. They had set all their hopes on Him and these hopes were not being fulfilled; all the conversations which go on in the temple before the fatal days, the fatal night of his betrayal, all these conversations are a disappointment for the crowd because they do not witness to what they expected. And so here we find the first step of His utter dereliction which surrounds the Lord Jesus Christ throughout this Passion week. On the one hand, He is met with enthusiasm, surrounded by people who expect everything from Him, and on the other hand we see now that they were expecting everything except the one He had come to give. They were prepared for every thing except for the one thing Christ had come to do; to deliver Himself into the hands of man and this is a second feature in this Holy week which I would like to bring to your attention. Already in the Incarnation we find the same revelation of God, we discover about God something which only He could reveal to us, because no human imagination could ever have invented God as we see Him in the mystery of our salvation. The human mind, the human heart, individually, collectively might have invented and did indeed invented many gods, all of them were powerful, blissful, wise, but none of them was weak, vulnerable, none of them faced the tragic situation of this orphaned world of us in a way in which this God, as He revealed Himself, was facing it, by entering into the situation, by becoming part and parcel of it, by becoming part and parcel to the last characteristic of it.
He became a man among men and in this act of becoming man delivered Himself into the hands of men. On the one hand Christ says that no one takes his life from Him; He Himself gives it up, lays it down (Jn X; 15 “and I lay down my life for the sheep”). And we could add fulfilling and revealing what He had said Himself ‘that greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John XV; 13). And even, that is surprising to the mind of Paul, who says ‘Yes, one would perhaps give one’s life for one’s friend, but who would give it for his enemies?’ And on the other hand the Lord says that the Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, that they may act upon Him as they choose. He is completely delivered into their hands, completely vulnerable. He appears as the one whom Isaiah spoke of in his prophecies ‘as a man of sorrows’ (Isaiah 53-3) bruised for the iniquities of the world. This is the God who reveals Himself in this Holy Week, a God who has chosen never to remain an outsider to the human condition; to enter into it to the core and to bear all the consequences of this human condition; and if you prefer perhaps all the consequences of His act of creation. This we see throughout the Holy Week, this increasing identification of the destiny of the Son of man, of the Son of God become man, with his fallen creatures. In the beginning, in the course of his life and of his short ministry we see Him as a man among other men, but now we will see Him identified with the greatest misery of man, first of all with complete loneliness, then with the [various] degree of human sin, of human criminality; because the Cross is a penal suffering. He falls under the law of the criminals and in falling under the curse of the law we find that He shares all the most tragic moments of human Godlessness. In the Garden He is faced with loneliness again, He is abandoned, He is abandoned by his disciples who fall asleep, because they are depressed, because they are tired, because they are despondent and therefore cannot watch an hour with Him. It is the condition of so many men and women who instead of being able to face an ordeal with those, whom they love are crushed by this ordeal and leave the beloved one to face it in complete loneliness; because they are involved in their own rights as it were, themselves in their own ordeal; in the frightened expectation of what will happen to the one they loved. And what is going on in them, prevent them from being free, vacant, in order to help and to be present in the suffering of the other.
In the same night He will face the betrayal of one of his disciples, a complete betrayal, the turning away of one who has been with Him since the beginning and who has in the end, chosen against Him. He will have to face the fear of all his disciples, again this tragic awareness of our own danger, of our own self that makes us act at times in a way that afterwards causes us to burn with shame. They run, they disappeared in the night, one of them caught by one of the soldiers abandoned his coat and runs away naked, the fear of suffering, of danger; and then two of them who probably were protected by the night, by the turmoil, follow from a far off; do they follow as followers of Christ? — No; the one is John, the disciple whom Christ loves; he obtains admission into the court of the high priest because he is known, because he is a friend of the house in spite of the fact that he was with Christ; again, as it happens in times of revolutions or of national tragedies: his crime of being a Christian is overlooked for personal reasons and he stands in the court in spite of the fact that he was with Christ. And the other one who is allowed with him, because John is known to the doorkeeper, is Peter, and he also stands there tired, afraid, because he is not protected against possible danger by his friendship with the master of the house; and when he is faced with a straight question, he escapes, he renounces, he denies Christ. And Christ turns his gaze on him He looks at him, and Peter walks out in tears. But in the same night Christ had been faced with death, left alone by his disciples in the dark night, He has prayed that this Cup might pass Him by — and this Cup has not passed Him by — of all the prayers which are recorded in the New Testament this is I think the only one which not only meets with a refusal, but meets with a completely compact silence. A silence which can be pierced by nothing, a silence as dense as complete as the darkness of the surrounding night. We are told by Scripture that if we pray with as much faith as a seed of mustard, our prayer will be fulfilled. And yet, here was the prayer of the Son of God and it was not fulfilled. In our lives, well, very often the fact that our prayers are not heard or and not fulfilled, lead us to think that God does not pay attention to them or else that our faith is too weak; but here who could say that the faith of the Son of God was too weak?
And who could say that the Father was indifferent to the prayer of the only begotten Son? And yet not only does He not answer this prayer by saving the Son, but He lives Him again in complete loneliness. And here again the Son of God faces something which is of the destiny of man, but to a degree which is beyond our experience; because between us and God there is the fact that we are created beings, that we are fallen beings, that we are personally so often in a state of wavering faith, of sin, that we call to God and yet have no intention of answering His call, if He calls back. Here there is something more tragic than this. And then there is the expectation of death. Death, as every human being expects as the unknown, however much we know about it, however often we may have observed it in the lives of others, death ultimately remains unknown until it is gone through. And as everything unknown it holds for us a dread; it is mysterious and we can enter into it with faith, we can enter into it with joy, and yet with tremor. But death for us is the normal outcome of our life. On the one hand, belonging to a world that goes to dust, we also in the course of our life gradually decay and return to dust, but on the other hand, in the course of this life of ours we are called to become already on earth, partakers of eternity; of eternal life which is God’s own Life, partakers of the divine nature as St. Peter puts it. And the experience of death for one who believes, for one who follows, is a gradual experience of a total life, of a life ever fuller, ever deeper that in the end can no longer be held within the boundaries of our body and of our earth; the limitation which is set on us we perceive so often when we pray: we pray deeper and deeper and then we feel that our body is tired, our mind is tired, we can pray no longer. It seems to us that we are so close to the moment that our prayer would break through and we would now soar and we would now be alive and yet our efforts brakes down and we return to earth. This happens in every deep feeling of ours, in every deep experience human or spiritual: it comes to a climax and then our strength brakes (breaks?) down and gradually we come to understand that the only way in which we could reach out into the plenitude of prayer and of life and of love and of truth and of beauty, would be, as St. Paul puts it, to be freed of this body of corruption.. We live, and we are limited on every side; when St. Paul thought of death, he thought not of laying down this life which we possess, but of having it fulfilled by the life which we do not yet possess, he thought that death would vest him, cloth him with the life of immortality. For us dying is natural and at the same time dying is the way in which we can outgrow the very conditions that make death inevitable. Death is both a tragedy because it is linked with our fall away from God, and at the same time it is the door that leads us into eternal life, and it is welcome. But for Christ, life and death were different. He had entered into this life of limitation, into our human condition from the plenitude of His Godhead. For Him to be born in Bethlehem was not the beginning of being, it was a limitation, a shrinking of being and there was no intrinsic reason or need why He should dye, except that in His act of compassion that is of suffering together, and of mercy and of love that knows how to identify itself with the beloved, He had taken upon Himself all the human conditions and He was confronted with a death that was impossible and yet, that was to be. One of our Holy week hymns says “O Life eternal how is it that Thou art brought to the grave — O Light how is it that Thou art quenched …” Yet it is life eternal who undergoes something which we call death, it is life eternal, the light that knows of no evening that seems to be quenched. This is the beginning of what later will be fulfilled on Calvary, and on Calvary again something else happens, the last communion with the destiny of man. The ultimate tragedy of man is not his human loneliness, is not this kind of dereliction the ultimate tragedy of man is to be cut of from God, to be unable to perceive Him, to be unable to reach Godwards, to have lost God and to have lost Him at the moment when there can be no return, at the moment when this loss is irreparable, at the hour of death. And we find, also in the death of Christ upon the Cross, apart from the tragedy of His death (of which I spoke last time when we spoke of the Incarnation and its meaning) the final, ultimate loss of God ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me ?’…. In all these actions, in all these events the Lord Jesus Christ takes upon Himself the total human condition, at its worth, if I may put it that way; not that of the good pagan or the righteous Jew, but of the last derelict sinner, of the one who has lost everything, including God. And between these two moments, the beginning of the tragedy and the fulfillment of it, one after the other, a series of events: the Garden of Gethsemane, the crowd come to fetch Him the iniquitous trial where every law is broken down in order to make it possible to condemn Him; then the trial at Pilate’s, then the night with the soldiers and then the ascent to Calvary. And then when we think of the people who take part in these events, how often do we say or would say the same words the Jews said to Christ: “If we had been there, we would not have killed the prophet”. It is untrue, the tragedy of it is that it is not people who were particularly cruel or sinful, sort of monsters who killed or condemned Christ; it is people who were acted upon by the same kind of reasons which we have every day to behave in a Godless and inhuman way; the crowd turns sharply against Christ because it had been betrayed, it expected one thing and it was not given it. It could not forgive its disappointment and it could not forgive that the one who could save them from political oppression and national humiliation chose not to do so. This happens every day of our life in one way or the other. We are merciless to those who have disappointed us, and we are merciless far beyond the measure of their crime. Pilate was a weak man, afraid of loosing his job, afraid of the responsibility it would entail; he did not really think that a man’s life was so important and he washes his hand of Christ’s death. Indeed, do we often realise that a man’s life is important ? We do not kill people, but we rule them out; we left them fall into the dark, we push them out of our way, with greater or lesser ruthlessness. But when it comes to be afraid, really frightened, then we can be extremely ruthless and cruel. And the priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, they all stood for their ideas and the ideas were more important than the man; they had no time for discussion, for understanding, for arguments the one who was endangering their ideals or their ideas, was to be crucified, was to go at once. And when we think of the soldiers who blindfolded Christ, hit Him on the face and asked Him who had hit Him, don’t we recognise ourselves? How often do we try to blindfold God? We want to do something which is certainly part of our betraying of Christ, or part of our murdering Christ, we cannot blindfold Him, but we turn our faces away and we hit. We do not ask who has done that, we hit and we run. And so often we would think in the depth of our soul, if only God did not see, if only I could blindfold Him, if only He could be blind, then I could act freely; but what is this action which I want to commit while God is blinfolded? It is always one of the actions which begin with the outset of Passion Week and ends with the last breath of Christ, one of the many ways in which Christ was brought to His last hour. And then if we turn to Calvary, and if you imagine what was going on there, you will see perhaps more than what you see in so many painting in which, we see a hill, three Crosses and a few people standing about. It was a place of execution, outside the walls, not only did the victims and the executioners go there, the friends and relatives of the victims were there; also those who had caused the event to happen, the High priest, the Pharisees, the Sadducee, also a vast crowd of people who had come to watch. One could see that 40 years ago or so in Paris: where execution were public, people would go there just for the thrill of it to see how a man dies. And there in Jerusalem probably many went to see, a vast motley noisy eastern crowd; the one had come for the thrill, for curiosity the others had come to see how all that would end because they had been told that He is a miracle-worker, or a sorcerer or some such thing. Others came there with mix-feelings: some people had probably been confronted with Christ’s preaching and had felt that the Gospel, the Good Spell, the Good News He was bringing would really be a new life for the world, and yet they knew also, from what had happened that from the very beginning, that this new life offered to the world had been endangered by those people who held for the old world, and they did not want to risk everything they had. What if the new life was defeated, what if the Prophet was broken, what if the old world triumphed? And so they had come, and when the High priest said, “Well, if Thou art the Son of God, come down now from the Cross, and we shall believe”, they probably listened intently, because this would be the answer: if He did come down from the Cross, then they would join Him with security, then there was no danger attached to it anymore; one could accept and opt for the new life, for eternal life, for God life on earth and yet not perish. Then they would become the disciples, and they hoped He would come down, because the Gospel was true, but the Gospel was too dangerous to take risks without guarantees. And others probably had been wounded by the words of Christ, they also had seen what it merit, but they also had perceived probably that this good news was news of death, death of their own selfishness, death for their own cruelty; death for everything that was incompatible with this terrifying totalitarian love which was the law of the Kingdom, and they probably stood there, hoping that He would not come down from the Cross, and that this would be evidence that He was defeated, that the nightmare of the totalitarian love would come to an end, that one could go back to one’s every day’s life, to one’s littleness, to one’s inhumanity, having already had evidence that this was the way of the world, and that the other way, the way spoken of by the prophet of Galilee, was an illusion; a heartless, a dangerous a cruel illusion. And in the midst of all that, in the turmoil of this crowd, that was milling around, noisy, divided, surrounded with the hatred of the ones, with the curiosity and the expectation of the others, the Son of God was dying.
And next to his Cross, stood his Mother, stood his disciple John, stood a few women, those who loved simply wholeheartedly to the point of forgetting danger and everything else, and there was no melodrama around the Cross, no fainting Mother, no cries, there was silence. Silence above and silence below; the silence of Christ interrupted only a few times by a few decisive words and at the foot of the Cross, silence, the silence of real communion; no pity: compassion. No pity that is aware of otherness, but compassion which allows one to grow into complete oneness with the other, so that there is no one and the other, there is only one life and one death. The Mother going through her own death, not one word of protest because there was oneness of purpose. The Mother was fulfilling now what She had begun on the day of the presentation of Christ to the Temple. She had given Him, but alone of all the children of Israel. He had been accepted as a sacrifice of blood; and She who had brought Him then, was now accenting the consequences of her ritual gesture which was finding fulfillment in reality. Oneness, death, love, the three things that made then into a unit, into oneness, and then the two thieves, the two men who had also been condemned. And here we see for the first tine the Cross of Christ as a line of discrimination; two men condemned as Christ had been, also by men unworthy, often iniquitous and both were confronted with the death of one who was not a criminal. The one saw in this death one more proof that human judgement is iniquitous and that his own condemnation was such; the other saw that if the blameless lamb was accenting his death from the hands of men, these hands of men were doing the work of God and he accepted his own condemnation as God’s verdict, in spite of the fact that it had been pronounced by men as unworthy perhaps as himself. A line, a sword that cuts between two realities; the beginning of the judgement, because the Cross of Christ appears to us at the same time both as salvation and judgement. It belongs to the mystery of divine love and therefore is there from all eternity, before the creation of the world, it is therein time and history as the divine act of salvation and it is there as the final eschatological event of discrimination and judgement. It stands as the crisis of the world, the judgement of the world unto salvation or other.
Answers to questions:
…What unites us to Christ is not the degree of our perfection, it is our directedness, the degree to which we long to be His, the degree to which we intend to be His, the degree to which we are prepared to pay the cost of being His own. And we can have make the decision while we were extremely far from having achieved anything, and yet in a way, we are His; while we may not have made any move towards Him, and be much better, but more indifferent. And what separates us from God basically is not sin as such, it is our attitude to it and to ourselves and to God so that we can make bold and come, if we come begging for help, for salvation, for mercy. We can make bold, not because we are worthy, but because we are in such tragic need and we recognise that need. When we come with empty hands, but with a living heart and with brokenness, God is close.
…..The last cry of Christ on the Cross: it belongs to the same impossible events as His death. It is not God who forgot Him, it is He who lost the contact. It is the same thing as his dying. He could not die; death is the result of man being separated from God and so Christ have (life?) had to undergo that feeling of being separated. As St. Maxim puts it, in the Incarnation Christ become immortal according to the flesh, to his humanity, and we cannot imagine Him in whom inseparably are united God and man to die; it is nonsense, it is a sort of intrinsic impossibility, and yet again according to Maxim, He takes upon Himself death, but the difference between His and ours consists in the fact that for Him dying is a tearing apart of two immortal halves as it were, a body which remains incorruptible which means beyond what we call death and a soul of which we say that He descends into Hell in the glory of His Godhead to overcome the kingdom of death. So that His death is profoundly different from ours, but it is a more tragic tearing apart even than ours; it is something which is contrary to nature to a greater degree if one may speak in degrees, than our own death, and along the same line of things, impossible, yet real. There is this loss of consciousness if you want. I have no words out of our experience, there is this loss of awareness of the Father. One who is nailed on the Cross has no time to think of perfection, One who is dying is not thinking of self and analysing what He is or not; what is lost at that tragic moment is the consciousness that the Father is there. He dies as a Godless man, that is one deprived of God, entering into the experience of anyone deprived of God. It is a subjective situation.
…In an unaccountable way God has gone through Godlessness.
About Bernanos ‘Le dialogue des Carmelites’
..It happens as if someone was dying someone’s else’s death. Someone had a death too heavy to carry and was granted an easier death because someone else was capable of dying another one’s. An ugly death versus a beautiful death.
…The martyrs could die their death as they did, because Christ died His death as He did, because His death is our salvation and His death is victory over death in a way in which ours can never be.