Saturday, March 18, 2017

Praying the Passion with St. Bridget: Call to Mind

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  Romans 6:6

In my last meditation, I spoke about the way in which Bridget’s passion prayers carefully turn us away from the danger of viewing Christ’s passion and death as a purely human story.  They also, quite carefully steer us away from the accompanying danger of seeing the Cross as an event that belongs only to the past, something that happened on a lonely hill in Palestine long ago and remains there, an interesting story in someone else’s life.

Instead Bridget believes that Christ’s passion and death are a reality with deep significance for the present moment, and that Christian discipleship is deeply bound up in responding to Christ’s call, described in one of the prayers as “enduring in the way of the Cross.” 

In the text of the prayers, the repeated phrase that makes this most clear is one that we, ironically might be most likely to misunderstand.  It’s the way the prayers use phrases associated with memory.  In each prayer, after Christ is addressed, usually with a title that acknowledges his power and goodness, we ask him to call to mind, to remember, some aspect of his humiliating course of suffering.  And then, the prayers’ second sentences all begin with the phrase “in memory of”—“in the memory of these pains,” “in memory of the depth of your pity,” “in memory your mercy,” and so on. 

When we speak of memory and remembering, it’s often a shorthand way of saying “cast you mind on something you might have forgotten,” “use your imagination to go back into an event that happened long ago.”   If that’s all the prayer means, I can’t see that it’s very useful for us.  How could Christ ever forget his suffering or his mercy, since His risen body bears forever the marks of the wounds?  Perhaps even more seriously, what good would such calling to mind be to us?

The prayer draws on a more ancient, richer understanding of remembrance, which undergirds Christian liturgy, as it did Jewish liturgy before it.  When God freed His people from slavery in Egypt, he commanded them to conduct “a remembrance” of  His redemption in an annual rite, the Passover.[1]  In the rite, which is called the Seder, they would praise God for his great acts in the past, and also call upon Him to call those great acts to mind so that He would do the same thing again for them in the present.  The Passover miracle is meant to be continually renewed, as God acts afresh in response to His people’s praises, revealing even more of who he showed Himself to be in the past.

Jesus had exactly this concept in mind when, while keeping the Passover with His disciples, he modified that rite to become the Eucharist, in which His people would break bread and drink the cup “in remembrance of me.”  The language of the Prayer Book is very helpful here, because it speaks to God of “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make[2]”—a memorial—not just a thought, but an action that includes within it a petition that God act on behalf of His people in the present time. 

In the Eucharist, the mercy and grace revealed on the Cross becomes present to us in a new and fresh way each time.  Though the Cross was, as the Eucharistic prayer says, “a sacrifice once offered for the sins of the whole world,”[3] that same sacrifice comes us afresh each time, imparting “the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”[4]  Christ becomes present to us in the bread and wine as the One who died for us at Calvary, just as He is always present before the Father in heaven, pleading His sacrifice. 

So when we ask Jesus to “call to mind” some aspect of His passion and in remembrance of that aspect to act in a new way, we are just expanding this ancient concept to a longer list of particulars.  For me, at least, this is an immensely helpful way of understanding both the death of Christ for me and my own desire to follow Him faithfully. 

Saint Paul certainly speaks with power when he tells us that in baptism we were buried with Christ to be dead to sin,[5] that we should share in his sufferings,[6] that the marks of the cross should be present in our flesh.[7]  But that kind of dramatic rhetoric is not very specific.  What does that mean for me?  Where should I be looking to see the Cross effective in my prayers and actions?  What are the specific parts of my life where the call to deny myself and take up the cross should sound out most clearly.

For each of us, that call may be slightly different, and maybe the exercise I have suggested for your meditation time will help you with thinking this through for yourself.  But St. Bridget’s prayers gives us some very helpful places to begin.  She provides us with a whole list of petitions in the closing sections of her prayers, areas in which we can either imitate Christ in his obedience and humility, or areas in which we are deeply dependent on the grace His Cross supplies.

Several of St. Bridget’s prayers ask that Christ would strengthen us with his steadfastness and courage, so that we too can “hold fast to what endures,” and continue purposefully in the path He has blazed for us.  We ask for strength to resist the power of sin, death and the devil, recognizing that Christ’s self-offering came as the final fruit of a struggle against supernatural forces.  What appears as great weakness in Him is actually a sign of great inner strength, something we will often find as we continue in His way.  We ask in the prayers for an increase of mercy, and the ability to love others generously and to work patiently to build up unity in the church and in the wider world.   Here the prayer is that we might have some part in implementing the cross’s great work, to shatter the dividing walls of hostility that keep people divided.

It may be best to speak, though of the work of the cross being implemented in us rather than us expanding or implementing its work.  Because we cannot follow Christ and share in His cross through our own strength.  He alone gives us the knowledge and the desire to do this. 

So many of St. Bridget’s petitions ask that the Cross’s effects would be made manifest in us, that through the power of Christ’s blood we would be granted full forgiveness, and that its revelation of sin’s true cost would stir us to deeper repentance and contrition, a sorrow that comes from recognizing that we have placed Him there, the one who bleeds and dies for us.  As the Holy Communion’s effects flow from Christ’s body broken and blood shed for us on the Cross, we pray for grace to communicate worthily, in gratitude for His mercy and desiring to keep the promises renewed in our self-offering at the Altar, that each of us might be a “reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.[8]

We cannot really offer these prayers of St. Bridget’s without also weighing our own lives, knowing our own weaknesses.  I would urge you to use part of your meditation time to hold up the mirror, to ask yourself where you have gone astray, and then to meditate on that aspect of Christ’s passion and death that Bridget has linked to it. 

If your resolve to resist temptation is weak, think on Christ’s humble commendation of Himself to God after so many battles fought and won, and ask for a share of that determination.  If you pay God little mind, not loving or fearing Him as you should, think of Christ’s arms outstretched, a sign of a life given over fully to God, and ask for a share in what He has revealed.  If you make your communion in a perfunctory way, think of Christ receiving the gall and vinegar, and the way His bitter pain has become our sweet consolation. 

The Cross is the classroom of the Christian soul, every challenge we face can be sustained by its grace, every failure forgiven.  Spend some time pondering your life and the places where it meets Christ’s gift of His own life for you.

[1] Ex. 12:14.
[2] “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One.”  Book of Common Prayer (1979), 335.
[3] Ibid. 334.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Rom. 6:4
[6] Phil. 3:10
[7] Gal. 6:17
[8]“ The Holy Eucharist,” 336.

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