Holy Week is upon us. Our Lenten journey through the desert of earthly detachment and repentance is not as yet complete, but we have arrived at a moment in time when we can almost hear the faint strains of Alleluia! building in the near distance.
Even though the eyes of faith cannot help but see the light of new life glowing ever more brightly on the horizon, we must be careful not to look too far ahead lest we lose our bearings and fail to fully savor the liberating truth that the Via Crucis – the way of the Cross - is the solitary path that leads to the joy of the Resurrection.
“The strong temptations, the vanity and the malice of the world can only be overcome when we recognize that all human activity, which is constantly imperiled by man's pride and deranged self-love, must be purified and perfected by the power of Christ's cross and Resurrection” (cf GS 37).
Holy Week, and indeed all of Lent, is a perfect representation of what the Council Fathers are teaching, but even more than that, it is a microcosm of that earthly Christian life for which Easter Sunday on earth is a blessed foretaste of Heaven.
We are reminded in a concrete way during Holy Week that those who wish to enter into the Gloria of the Risen Christ for all eternity can do so only by walking in the very footsteps, traced on Good Friday, of He who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Sure, we can presume to simply check off the days of this holiest of weeks (and the days of our lives) as though our salvation is a fait accompli, but unless we carry the Cross that serves as the key to Heaven’s door, this Sunday – as every one to follow - will forever remain little more than just the first day of yet another week in which fallen man will labor in vain, by the sweat of his brow, only to die in this valley of tears.
“You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
Holiness. This was the underlying purpose of the Mosaic Law and its 613 commandments, but these were not an end unto themselves; rather, the People Israel were called to holiness in preparation for the Christ; He who would one day up the ante by proclaiming, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
Clearly, our Savior did not come simply to reiterate that Old Law which in letter was impossible to uphold; He came to fulfill it, and to do so in such way as to give to fallen man even more than he had lost in Eden. As such, Jesus shows us not merely a way to holiness; He shows us the very perfection of the Father!
“He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Jesus is the Way to that true holiness that belongs only to God, to that Heavenly perfection attainable only through, with and in Him. The personal mandate to perfection after the example of the Holy One of God is reflected in the “universal call to holiness” issued by the Council Fathers at Vatican II.
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one - that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (LG 41).
How can anyone answer this call to holiness in such way as to be truly worthy of sharing in the Lord’s glory? On our own, we cannot, but this, as all things, is made possible only by the Divine Mercy of Him whose “yoke is easy and whose burden is light” (cf Mt. 11:30); Christ the King, “our Redeemer and High Priest who continues the work of our redemption in the sacred liturgy – in, with, and through the Catholic Church” (cf CCC 1069).
As Lent draws to a close, it is beneficial to consider the image of Simon of Cyrene – the passerby who was snatched from obscurity to a place of prominence on the Via Crucis, for he strikes a poignant figure of every single Christian who aspires to share in the glory of the Risen Lord.
Yes, we are called to “take up our cross and to follow” Christ (cf Mt. 16:24), yet we must realize that there is but one Cross that can truly redeem us, and likewise only one path that leads to Heaven; the way of which Jesus said, “Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 8:21).
What then are we to do?
Even though we tend to think of Simon of Cyrene simply as he who assisted our Blessed Lord in carrying the Cross, this is to miss the point entirely. In truth, Jesus had no need of any man’s assistance on the Via Crucis - the Cyrenian was called forth, not for the Lord’s sake but for ours; that we might see what it means to emerge from the outlands to walk with Christ toward the Eternal Jerusalem.
Our journey of faith is not so much a matter of taking up our own cross (as though we could ever bear up under its weight for even one step) as it is laying claim to that portion of the Cross of Christ that rightly belongs to us. In calling sinners to take up their cross, Jesus is issuing an invitation to emerge from the exile that truly deserve, to embrace that decree of death that is rightly our own; that which found its place on the Cross that Jesus alone (not you, not me, not Simon of Cyrene) could willingly carried.
“Blotting out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us, Jesus hath taken the same out of the way, fastening it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14) so that we might repeat after St. Paul, “With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
Surely we are not the authors of our own salvation; rather, we are by the grace of God called to be co-operators in His saving action - that which is made mystically present in a most profound way in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – a truth worth sharing with those family members and friends who tend to treat the sacred liturgy as a biannual, largely cultural, event.
All that is asked of us – not just during Lent, but every day of the year - is to join the sacrifice of our lives to the one Cross of Christ, in His Church; that by His perfect offering of love poured forth in the shedding of His Most Precious Blood, we may be made holy to the glory of His name.
“He Himself stands as the Author and Consummator of this holiness of life...” (LG 40)
Lift high the Cross!
A version of this column was originally published by The Catholic Weekly of Sydney, Australia, April 9, 2009
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com