Saturday, March 18, 2017

Praying the Passion with St. Bridget: Devastating and Glorious

God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.  II Cor. 5:19

If you’ve ever read through one of the Gospels from beginning to end in a single setting, maybe what surprised you most was how long the passion story, the account of Jesus’ suffering and death is.  In what is probably the earliest Gospel, St. Mark, 45% of the text is of the last week of Jesus’ life.  Regular worshippers know to prepare themselves for Palm Sunday, because when we read the passion, it will take quite a long time.

The Gospels are unlike any other kind of literature that predates them in the way they focus in on this final (or properly almost final) part of the life of their subject.  We have some deathbed scenes for other important figures in the Bible, and the classical biographies usually include an account of the death. There is generally in ancient literature a sense that the death reveals the character, but the passions of the Gospel stories are really unprecedented.

This may be because earliest Christians wrote down these texts first, using them in the all-night vigil that celebrated Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The passion stories are rich in narrative detail, dramatic tension and symbolic weight.  Jesus’ words are carefully noted.  From the beginning, they were almost certainly a focus for meditation, every part having its own significance.

The Fifteen Os, like many passion devotions, trace the details of the story in succession.  There is great attention to Christ’s physical pain: His experience of being spit upon and beaten, His arms stretched out and nailed to the cross, His deep wounds and profound thirst.  But many of the famous seven words from the Cross are captured as well, and there is also attention to Christ’s emotional suffering: His abandonment, His sorrow at the misunderstanding of the people He has come to redeem, His alienation from God. 

These prayers want us to understand the full weight of what has been borne, the length to which Christ has gone to reveal his love to us.  The prayers are directed to Christ, and they call on him to bring to mind his sufferings and for the sake of them to remember us.  We’ll talk more about why that is important later.  But it’s also crucial that we remember, that no part of the agony of this story is taken for granted.

Part of the power of the prayers also lies in their use of ironic contrast, as we are awakened to an understanding that, as Saint Paul says, it is “God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”  This is not mere human suffering, as powerful as that story would be. This is the eternal God, the maker of all things, the giver of all good things who is suffering before us. This is how we treat him when He has come to us in love. 

When Bridget considers different parts of the passion story, she moves quickly to considering how this humiliating pain stands in relation to some glorious truth about who God is—she wants us to see how far He has emptied Himself of His glory to suffer for us. 

Some of this ironic contrast is present within the Gospel texts themselves—when Saint John tells us that Christ said “I thirst,” he clearly intends us to think back to an earlier story in his Gospel, the one we will read tomorrow, about when Jesus was thirsty and opened a conversation with a woman at Sychar, and he promised her that to believe in Him was to have a never failing stream well up within her.[1]  Jesus supplied that stream of abundant life and joy to others—what Bridget calls the “boundless fountain of compassion.”   But now he was thirsting for something more profound, God’s desire to reconcile all things to Himself,  thirst that could only be satisfied in this way.

The prayers select a wide range of parallels, a sign that the author knew the Bible well.  Jesus, these prayers say, is the “heavenly physician,” the healer of all diseases, whose own body is broken on the cross.  He is the “mirror of eternal love,” the one whose life and words reveal God’s passionate purpose.  And yet when He looks out into the world before him, a world so loved by God, all he sees in that mirror is sin.  But He shows love again in forgiving the penitent thief.  

He is the “beloved and most desirable king,” the head of that new kingdom God was founding to bring life to the world.  And yet here at the cross He is abandoned by his disciples.  He is stripped of nearly all authority, yet he retains just enough to commend his mother into John’s care.  Recalling an ancient prophecy spoken by the dying Jacob[2] he is the “lion of the tribe of Judah,” a strong and victorious fighter, and yet here he lies exhausted, his energy spent, seemingly defeated by death.

Part of what makes these contrasts so fruitful for meditation is that though the grand acclamation and the humiliating suffering seem at odds with each other, often something more profoundly true about God’s eternal purpose and Jesus’ earlier ministry is fully revealed in this same moment of pain and seeming defeat. 

It remains true, for example, that nothing can encompass or limit God, but because He chooses to be nailed to the cross, He is able to extend his reach even to the destruction of death.  We could not have understood the depth of God’s mercy for us, had He not allowed himself to be pierced so deeply with physical wounds.  Though it seems that when His flesh is torn and his blood poured out, Jesus can no longer be “the mirror of truth, the symbol of unity, the link of charity”—we know that the truth of His word, the unity of His church and the love that saves us all depends on this precise moment, and that without such destruction something would be lacking in all three. 

Christ’s disciples might have understood his parable about the vine and the branches earlier as a wonderful description of how their life was sustained by His teaching and spiritual vitality,[3] but that parable means still more when His life is crushed, like the grape, to pour out blood from his riven side.  

There is a danger in approaching the passion as a spectacle of brutal suffering alone.  Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Cross” was criticized for seeming to glamorize violence.  We can weep for Christ as we weep for the suffering hero of a tragic story.  But this drama is not mere tragedy.  It is the earnest work of God, who as Bridget reminds us in the first prayer, has become incarnate for just this purpose.  The Cross for all its folly and shame, as Saint Paul says, is also “the power of God and the wisdom of God, stronger than human power, wiser than human understanding.[4]”  Gibson’s movie (or the Grunewald painting, for that matter), can’t reveal this fully to us, but Bridget does.

The Passion is devastating, but it is also glorious, and a full understanding of it and a complete devotional engagement with it must hold both truths together.  I know of few other devotions better than this series of prayers for engaging fully with both aspects.  I invite you to read and pray through them yourself, calling to mind the events they describe and also thinking past them, to praise God for the way He accomplished His greatest work at the moment when He became most weak and vulnerable.

[1] John 4:14
[2] Gen. 49:9
[3] John 15:1ff
[4] I Cor. 1:24.

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