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The Passion of Christ and Our Strength
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There are two ways that we can look at Christ's Passion. We can see it as the great sign, indeed sacrament, of God's love for us in the sense that God Himself could not have done more than have become man; only as man could He suffer and prove that He loves us by that suffering, which is the highest indication and index of love. The first and, in a way, primary attitude that we ought to have towards Christ's Passion, to appreciate God's love for us in the Redemption, is to see it as the great motivating reason for our sacrificial love of God in return. Looking upon what God is and has done for us as the motive for our responding in return is the foundation of our faith.
But the Church also wants us to realize that Christ's Passion is more than a tribute to God's infinite mercy; it is also the greatest single source we have of spiritual power, meaning very simply that our principal source of spiritual strength is the cross of Christ. How is it that we derive our greatest strength from the Passion of Christ? The answer from now centuries of the Church's reflection, especially among her greatest saints and mystics, is that we do so in three ways: by our meditation, by our invocation, and as the capstone, by our imitation.
The Passion of Christ becomes our strength by our imitation only after we have been meditating on His sufferings. As we meditate on the sufferings of Christ we learn that there were two levels to His Passion. One is the human, and it is described in the literature of the Evangelists; the other is divine, known by God alone. Consequently, one is open to us by reason and the other is seen only by faith. Suppose we compare these two levels to see how they differ and how they can both become the source of our strength.
First, the human level. What does anyone, not only a person who believes, find on reading the Gospel narratives on the Passion? First of all there is extraordinary detail. In contrast with the Evangelists' descriptions of all that preceded Christ's Passion and Death, and also what followed before His Ascension to the Father, there is a seemingly disproportionate amount of space devoted to the Passion considering the short span of time of less than 24 hours, from late Holy Thursday night until midafternoon on Good Friday. Yet by comparison with Christ's early life and the few years of His preaching and teaching, it seems that the Evangelists just spread themselves unconscionably in writing about the Passion. We should remind ourselves that the Scriptures are revelation, not only in what they say, but in how much they say in whatever they tell us. Evidently the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Evangelists, wants us to look upon the Passion as correspondingly most important.
What else do we find on the human level? Christ is portrayed as a great preacher doing much good to many people. He is a man who evidently loved others and, as usually happens, was loved by them in return. But at the same time, here was a man who was outspoken in proclaiming the truth. He claimed to be one with the Father and confirmed His claims by remarkable miracles; so He aroused envy. He strongly criticized the hypocrisy of the Pharisees; so He aroused anger and hatred. He presumed to change the moral code of the Jews, to lay down new demands in the practice of virtue; so He aroused fear and jealousy.
Even the disciples did not always understand Him. On one dramatic occasion, Christ was teaching, "If a man puts away his wife even for adultery and marries someone else, he commits adultery," meaning that though the wife may be put away, the man may not remarry. The disciples very humanly asked, "Lord, do you mean it? If you do, it seems to us it might be better not to marry!" Then, of all the things that He could have said, He told them, "You are right! For those who have the grace and want to follow Me, it is better not even to marry. That was, to say the least, strange language in those days.
Why did He make enemies? It was not because He was so kind, but because He was honest; not because He was generous, but because He was fearless in teaching the truth and castigating error, duplicity, and pretentious piety. You might say, What did He expect? If He didn't want to make enemies, He should not have been so outspoken. He should not have been that honest. He should have kept the truth to the small circle of trusted friends, the Nicodemus type."
Finally they brought Him to His Passion. Who were the human beings responsible for His Passion and Death? They were the jealous leaders in Palestinian Jewry: the envious High Priest and the Sanhedrian; the proud, but humiliated Pharisees. (If you don't want to make enemies, don't humiliate a proud person; he becomes a raging tiger.) They were the avaricious Jews and the treacherous Judas; the cowardly Pontius Pilate and the time-serving puppet called Herod; and the cruel Roman soldiers that scourged Christ, crowned Him with thorns and nailed Him to the cross. Does all of this add up to a plausible human tragedy? Indeed it does. The Passion is great literature on the level and beyond the sublimity of a Hamlet and a King Lear. An innocent person is murdered by His enemies for reasons that, in terms of human tragedy, perfectly account for what finally transpired. On the human level all of this adds up. It is great literature. But the Gospels are not Greek or Elizabethan tragedies.
Now the divine level. Faith tells us emphatically that the reasons on a human level do not fully explain Christ's Passion. While human agents were actively persecuting Christ and finally brought Him to death, God too was active. Here we begin to climb the steep mountain of mystery. God from all eternity had anticipated these human beings committing sin. He foresaw it and in a way that beggars description, He mysteriously foreordained it. In a way that we cannot comprehend, He planned to use their sinful actions to accomplish the salvation of the world. God's Providence includes, and generally implies, the presence of evil. Whatever else we can talk about casually, it should not be God's Providence, because it includes God's providential purpose for evil in the world, even sinful evil. And here is the hard statement: this evil is the means by which supernatural good is accomplished. Fortunately, all we are asked to do is to believe it; we are not asked to understand it.
What does this teach us? We are still reflecting on the first way in which Christ's Passion is our strength, by our meditation. Meditation always means, or should mean, that we learn, grasp, and better understand the mysteries of our faith. The lesson for us is that we must first see His Passion as a pattern for our lives, and to expect God to allow pain, suffering, and even sin in order to accomplish His own divine plan. Especially must we learn totrust that God always has a providential purpose in allowing us to suffer, which includes suffering at the hands or the lips of other people, even when they sin in doing so.
This is God's normal way of having us serve as His most effective instruments of grace for our own sanctification, and in imitation of Christ for the salvation and sanctification of others. Christ did not have to suffer to save Himself. Unlike Him, part of the providential purpose of our suffering is first to save and sanctify ourselves; but then like Christ, we may become instruments along with Him for the salvation and sanctification of others.
Moreover, it often happens that the very people who cause us to suffer, indeed to suffer the most, are the ones whom God most wants us to benefit by our patient acceptance of the cross. The cross is from them, but the cross is for them; it is from them because they are causing us the pain, for them because in God's Providence, our patient acceptance of the suffering which they bring gains for them the grace they need. This takes a lot of faith. That is the first level of the function of Christ's Passion as the source of our strength, by prayerful meditation.
But Christ's Passion also becomes our strength by our invocation. His agony, betrayal, and crucifixion won for us the graces that our weak and frightened wills so desperately need to meet the crosses and crises in our lives. But we shall not, as the Church never tires repeating, receive these graces unless we pray for them. They have been won, but for us to have them applied to us, we have to pray. The strength is there for the asking.
We must ask. Hence we have to exercise our freedom to pray, we must choose to pray. It is a necessity. The graces won by Christ's Passion are enough to save a myriad fallen worlds, but those graces will not be effective unless we ask for them. We must ask and not relax fatalistically and say, "Well, Christ died, so I am saved....so...." So what! So we must still ask, humbly begging God to grant us what God-become-man has won for us.
Among the most potent prayers of petition, which the Church insists should be the mainstay of our begging for help, is also one of the shortest prayers. It contains within it the strength of Infinity. It is a prayer that was planned by God from all eternity, the simple invocation of the word "Jesus", which is many things.
"Jesus" is a name, the name of the One who is God-become-man for our sake in order that like us He might be able to suffer. "Jesus" is a title or the role which God assumed to save us from our sins; He is our Savior. "Jesus" is a mystery, the mystery of God's mercy, which is no abstraction or philosophy but a Person; God's mercy is a Person whom we are to invoke with faith. "Jesus" is a prayer by which miracles can be worked, demons put to flight, and a poor creature struggling with life and death is enabled to do what only divine power can procure. To discover the power in the name of Jesus is to discover the greatest secret on earth. We shall work miracles provided we believe, and the only reason we do not work them is because we do not believe enough. And God knows that today's world and today's Church need miracles.
Christ's Passion, finally, becomes our strength by our imitation. If we honestly strive to walk in Christ's footsteps and sincerely wish to be like the Savior in His own patience and endurance, a wonderful change takes place in our lives. We can speak so easily about imitating Christ, until we are bidden to imitate Him in His pain!
But if we learn that the final and greatest source of our strength in Christ's Passion is from imitating Him in suffering like Him, we discover what all the saints discovered, and before them what Saint Paul found out to be true: far from being afraid or ashamed of our infirmities, we can actually glory in them. Indeed, this is the reason that God made us weak because once we make the discovery, we find ourselves relying less and less on our own strength (which we all know is not much) and more and more on the strength of the Savior who emboldens us.
We become bold in daring to undertake, not merely passively allowing the "pummels of Providence" to hit us and we cower in resigned patience saying, "Lord, keep hitting me!" Well, that too. He is Lord, and with Job we can say, "He gave and He is taking away". But we also undertake; we have initiative to do what we know God wants and to suffer in the process what we are sure is His will, because we have learned from experience what it means to achieve and endure and persevere on "super-natural" powers. They are natural because we make our contribution. But they are "super" because they are from God, the power that Christ promises all who like Him deny themselves, no matter what price to self-love, in order to please Him.
Once we have resigned ourselves and decided to imitate the Savior in His own choice of the cross, we learn from experience what it means to achieve and endure on supernatural power. But we achieve only if we are willing to endure. Success even in this world belongs to those who are willing to labor; success supernaturally belongs to no one except to those who are willing to suffer, knowing that in suffering they tap wisdom and power which is beyond their own. Then God uses them. Saint Ignatius recommended that we should "fear most when everything seems to be going so well because God does His most effective work in souls through suffering and trial. Very few people realize how much God would achieve through them if only they completely allowed themselves to be used by Him, no matter what it costs their human nature. Please God, we shall learn some of this lesson.
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