On this third Friday of October, we walk with Jesus to Calvary as we reflect upon the Sorrowful Mysteries. As with the other posts in this series, this post goes deep into each Mystery yet still does not exhaust their beauty. We hope you can join us as we accompany Christ in these final hours of his life.
The Agony in the Garden
He knows. Of course he knows. Not just a general foreknowledge; he has a detailed understanding of what is to come. The twelve heard proof of this knowledge a few days ago, just before he entered the city:
“‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles, and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him’” (Mark 10:33-34). This, though, was only the most recent such display. He has known all along; has spoken of it since the beginning of his ministry. “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’… he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21). Knowing, however, does not make it easier. Knowing the outcome does not mean we should not ask for a different one.
So he prays, requesting a different cup from which to drink. He asks the Father for that which he knows the Father will not send. Why? Our answer is found by looking at how Jesus is addressed, in the very next word said to him. This lesson comes from an unlikely source: Judas Iscariat: “And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said, ‘Rabbi’” (Mark 14:45). At that moment, Jesus was a Rabbi, a teacher.
What is he teaching us in Gethsemane? Turn to the Father with everything. We need to come to God to thank and praise him, of course. We need also to ask our petitions of him, even when it looks like there is no possible answer. The reason for this gets to the very purpose of prayer. Thomas Aquinas points out that we do not pray so as to change God’s mind, but so that we may see the connection between our petition and God’s will (Summa Theologica, Part Two, Second Part, question 83, article 2). In other words, we pray not to ask God for what we wish, but as an act of faith that he will provide for what we need.
We all find ourselves in a garden at times. At this point, when looking ahead, only disaster and grief are visible. And when this is the case, we too, should ask for another cup, if God wills it. Ask so as to reaffirm in ourselves the knowledge that God can make this pass. The very question will deepen our relationship in God. The relationship thus strengthened, we may still see his will in what comes next, and will allow us, when things get even harder, to confidently recite other prayers such as “Father, forgive them,” and ultimately, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The Scourging at the Pillar
“This, too, shall pass,” a phrase spoken countless times in distress, brings relief: a reminder that better times are ahead. What about those circumstances where one sees what comes next, and it looks as bad or worse after “this” passes?
Consider Christ, when Pilate ordered him scourged. Over and over, our Lord was whipped. While the blood covered his back, he knew what was to come: when the scourging finished, it would not be replaced by a brighter day, but an eclipse of darkness. How much more can we be inspired by his acceptance of this pain, knowing that what would replace it would be even greater pain, which in turn would lead to his death. But he endured it because he knew that his suffering would also allow our eternal life. We must remember this when our own suffering seems to have no value, especially if it is unjust or unearned. Even if it only leads to a different pain, or to death, we must keep our minds on heaven; on doing God’s will no matter what those around us have done. As St. John Chrysostom put it :
The soldiers buffeted him; they that passed by jeered him and reviled him, the thieves accused him; and to no man did he utter a word, but by silence overcame all; instructing you by his actions, that the more meekly you shall endure, the more will you prevail over them that do you evil. (Homily #87 on Matthew)
Look also at the reason for the scourge. Pilate had Christ flogged only because he lacked the integrity to set an innocent man free against the apparent wishes of the crowd; he thought this would allow him an ability to balance his conscience against his cowardice by avoiding an execution. But like all Faustian bargains, the devil took more than his share when the crowd was not satisfied to watch Jesus bleed. Chrysostom pointed this out in the same homily, “Yet nevertheless, even when these things were said and done, they prevailed nothing, not even at the very time.”
Remember Pilate, when considering difficult life choices. His decision to scourge Jesus was an attempt to compromise: to allow Jesus to suffer less, but still give the world what it wanted. However, he only stoked the crowd’s fire. Rarely are the most egregious mortal sins isolated incidents. They often have their genesis with much smaller acts. Satan greases the skids on this downward slope. Attempts to justify sin in the short term, “just for a little bit” or by thinking “at least I am not doing (something else)”, will only lead to greater rationalization, and then another, until we have fallen more than three times, and cannot get up on our own any more.
The Crowning with Thorns
Considering the emotional depths, physical brutality, exhaustion, and finality of the other Sorrowful Mysteries, The Crowning with Thorns seems the least intense. This does not deny the pain caused by them; imagine one prick from a single thorn before pulling away, then multiply this by the number constantly digging into Jesus’ head. Amplify this by its occurrence after his body was weakened by the scourging, how it continued to affect him while he carried the Cross and later was nailed to it and realize the torture involved.
The perversions involved, though, make this even more sorrowful. First, in the item itself: what is the purpose of a thorn? It protects plants. A creation of God, designed to protect a delicate life, is here ripped from the stem and used, instead, to inflict pain and suffering. From a botanical standpoint, the main threat that a thorn stops is the bite of animals who wish to eat the plant. Yet, ironically, just a few hours prior, Jesus had freely offered his body to be eaten, and then faces the thorns himself.
The form of a crown is a perversion as well. In perhaps the ultimate blasphemy, Christ’s own kingship is mocked. A majestic symbol humiliates and tortures instead. Augustine notes that in allowing this, Christ is again an example to us:
“By concealing for a time the terror of his power, he commended to us the prior imitation of his patience; thus the kingdom which was not of this world overcame that proud world, not by the ferocity of fighting, but by the humility of suffering; and thus the grain of grain that was yet to be multiplied was sown amid the horrors of shame, that it might come to fruition amid the wonders of glory” (Tractate 116 on the Gospel of John, paragraph 1).
Accept this invitation to a patient humility. In doing so, we will avoid using God for our own purposes. May we always see his kingship as his honor. May we always see our faith as something to raise us up, not as something we can tear down. If we do this, then we too will find ourselves amid the wonders of glory.
The Carrying of the Cross
He wills himself to take a step; then, another. Now, he falls. His body beaten and whipped, his face bloody from the thorns still digging into his head, he searches for the strength to stand up. He will fall again, he knows that; is used to it. He knows, too, that when he does, he will be helped up, as has happened each time he has lowered himself. He “came down” from heaven to this world, and when he was at his most vulnerable, the Father protected him through the dreams of Joseph and the magi (Matthew 2:12-13). He “went down” from the riverbank into the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit appeared and announced God’s pleasure (Matthew 3:16-17). He “came down” from the mountain after being tempted by Satan and angels ministered to him (Matthew 4:11). He “comes down” to us at every Mass in the lowly form of bread, and his bride—the Church—is nourished, able to serve him more fully. Whenever he allows himself to fall, he has received assistance, and is able to offer that assistance to us when he rises again.
St. John Paul II said of Jesus’ ordeal, “This abject suffering reveals not only the love of God but also the meaning of man himself” (Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, Paragraph 22). It is the meaning of man that we suffer, because of our fallen nature. Just as Christ had to bear his, our cross will weigh on us, and will drag us down. Perhaps we will move forward with the help of a neighbor, as Simon assisted Jesus. However, like Jesus, we will fall. Sometimes, our falls will be like Christ’s in that our own efforts to do God’s will are so difficult in a world filled with sin. Other times we will collapse because of our own sin. But no matter what type of fall, each time we are brought down, there will be that moment when the pain is too strong and we can rise no more on our own. We too must lift our eyes and ask for help. It will be there, even if it takes us to a place we do not want to go.
The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord
Place yourself at the foot of the Cross. Stand alongside Mary and John, and look up to see him hanging in agony. You do not want to. But you must; not only to remind yourself crucifixion is needed for Easter to transpire. For now, forget how the story ends, and gaze upon a dying man. See him at his darkest moment. St. Cyril of Jerusalem correctly said “He who died for us; he was not a literal sheep; he was not a mere man; he was more than an angel; He was God made man” (On the Words Crucified and Buried, paragraph 33).
While not a “mere man,” however, Jesus is still fully human, and humanity craves community in times of suffering. Were you there at the Cross, you may not have spoken any words to our Lord. Perhaps you could only sob. But to be there, to look upon him, to show him as much love and comfort as you could while his body was failing him, would join you with him in a communion unlike any other.
Do we incorporate this type of prayer in our lives frequently enough? Not just coming to God with a list of what we need, are thankful for, sorry for, or how great he is, but instead just gazing at him with tender love. We can do so, even without traveling through space and time to Jerusalem. Sacramentals such as icons and crucifixes allow us to do this in a contemplative manner. If you do so, you may consider another way to comfort Christ: gazing upon others who are sick and dying. Visiting hospitalized friends and relatives is difficult for some. But we are called to see Christ in everyone in all circumstances.
We prefer remembering Cana over Calvary. But Cana prefigures Calvary, as a mirror image (or, if you will, a bookend). Jesus’ ministry begins at a dark moment when Mary requested something of him, and water is poured in a miraculous transformation to wine. Here, Jesus began with a transformation of wine (becoming his blood). Hours later, after Christ makes a request of his mother (“Behold your son”) this blood is poured out in a dark moment. Remember this request as you stand with Mary. As she must behold Jesus in John, and by extension the whole Church, we must also behold him in everyone as well.