Who can fathom the events of Holy Week? For observers of all things Catholic, the liturgies in Holy Week are great theater. But for Catholics, the liturgies are grace-filled encounters with Jesus Christ as we celebrate and re-live the week of redemptive love. It’s not a time for analysis as to how and why the events happened but sacred hours for the liturgies to wash over us in awe, silence, and prayer.
It is customary for Jews to invite intimate friends to the festive Passover banquet. At Jesus’ last Passover, the feast was tinged with a measure of sadness; it was the hour of foreboding and farewell. As the ritual-meal progressed, the festive tone turned dark. The Lord confronted the Twelve with the abrupt prediction of their betrayal. Within the hours, it would prove true. The disciples would look out for themselves and run for cover.
The Washing of the Feet
The washing of the feet is a central part of the Lord’s Supper. The meal becomes a lasting memorial of Jesus’ love and the context for a lesson the Apostles will not forget. Why, Peter asks, does the Master insist on washing his feet? Only slaves wash feet. He recoils, but Jesus admonishes him: “If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me” (Jn 13:8). Peter may be free to refuse, but Jesus presses for his consent. If Peter wants to follow his Master, then he must renounce status, glory, power, and prestige. The Lord chooses a servile but loving act to give the example. Peter suddenly realizes that what Jesus has done for and to him, he Peter must repeat to and for others. He must share in the Lord’s redemptive work for the sake of others. Henceforth, the mandate given to Peter will be the loving service that marks Christian discipleship. It is so explicit that it cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The Eucharist opens the door that leads to unselfish love.
Why Bread and Wine?
Why did Jesus give himself to us as food? In the Supper, Christ is the priest, offering, and the Supper’s Real Presence. Therefore the senses of tasting and eating are essential. Jesus perpetuates himself by taking the form of food. Now eating is one of the conditions for sustaining life and energy. It promotes growth, and is generally considered an enjoyable and satisfying experience. In the Johannine Gospel, Jesus shows the relationship between eating and having life when he answers the Jews:
"Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (Jn 6:22). His food is the condition for life in God, for sustaining an energy motivated by love, and for growth in the Spirit."
‘I could eat you up alive’
Among our phrases of endearment, we have the phrase, ‘I could eat you up alive.’ It is most often reserved for an infant when a parent wishes to express inexpressible love for his or her child. This metaphor says more about the desire for intimate union between parent and child than the words themselves convey. It lends vividness to the fact that, as the bread of life, Jesus wants to unite himself to us, and we to him and to one another. Jesus has been placed at our disposal to be taken and incorporated into our very beings. We become what we eat, St. Paul notes. The phrase, ‘I could eat you up alive’ implies that life, the body, and food go together.
The obedience of Jesus on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in the Garden. If the Hebrew Scriptures confirm the messianic prophecies, what is the significance of the Christian scriptures? What was Jesus’ attitude toward his passion and death? He gives his followers the example of how to suffer with dignity and with love. The human condition that Jesus freely entered into brought him to the brink of despair. He knows and enters into our suffering. This is what it means to be human—to enter into the abyss and night of death. In 1941, the Franciscan friar, Maximilian Kolbe died at Auschwitz to save the life of a married man, also a prisoner at the concentration camp. Suffering did not befall the friar. Rather he freely allowed suffering to touch him. Like Jesus, Kolbe did not suffer out of lack of being, but out of his fullness.
The Father and the Son
The Johannine gospel reveals the reciprocal love between the Father and the Son. Jesus reveals what his Father meant to him in the language of love: “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (Jn 14:10). Jesus speaks of our participation in this divine life: “You will understand that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). The relationship is one of love, and this outpouring of love is the Spirit, a divine person. The Father-Son relationship is the centerpiece of this gospel, and though inseparable and distinct from the Father and Son, the Spirit proceeds from both by way of love. It was not necessary for the Father to command his Son to suffer. Love sees the need and responds to it.
Jesus’ Solidarity with humankind
Doesn’t the scene of the Agony in the Garden surprise us? On the verge of crisis, Jesus prays not for strength, courage, and acceptance of his Father’s will. Instead we witness the human repugnance, the horror, the revolt, and the effort to escape. With the arrival of the final hour, Jesus becomes everyman when he cries out with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Ps 22:1). He pours himself out, “tasting death for everyone” (Heb 2:9), but his plea is made without despairing.
Jesus seeks consolation from his Father, because his life has been spent pleasing his Father (Jn 8:29). But now, he feels abandoned by the one he most loves. It is as if the Father loads on him the full burden of sin that is absolutely opposed to God. How can this be? The one who is God’s Word in the world seems dumb. And yet, Jesus trusts his Father to the very end. Psalm 22 ends on a note of hope; the Lord has not hidden his face from the suffering soul.
Finally, “it is finished,” and Jesus releases his Spirit (Jn 19:30). His powerlessness is shot through with God’s power to save, and his obedience of love is raised high in final glorification. Everything has been pared down to two aspects of one reality: love as the reason for his suffering and total dependency on the Father.
Suffering is Not Passive
Although Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, his suffering is not that of a passive man but of one who actively receives and responds. The drama of Jesus’ suffering of love was undertaken pro me and pro nobis, and every man and woman is a player on the stage of this spectacular tableau. Each of us is Judas and Peter, the thieves, the crowds, and the guards, Simon, Veronica, and the beloved disciple. To the question, why suffering, we respond: the cross is illogical and has always contradicted human logic. It is a folly, a scandal, a stumbling-block (1Cor 1: 21-22). For the disciple of Christ, the only logic is that of love; it alone is credible. At the same time, the Psalmist has the Israelites pour out their complaints to the Lord and tell him of all their troubles. They do so repeatedly.
Most of us boast of self-sufficiency. We repudiate Christ’s condition as foolishness, at least emotionally. But Jesus helps his disciples to make sense out of suffering, not according to the human way of thinking, but according to his. He brings his followers to the cross and, sooner or later, expects us to understand it as his very own logic. Paul declares that the cross is God’s wisdom and power to save. St. Catherine of Siena exclaims: “Oh, Loving Madman! Was it not enough for Thee to become Incarnate that Thou must also die?” (The Dialogue, 91).
God’s Foolishness: Moses and Job
The Hebrew Scriptures initiate us into God’s folly. In the Book of Exodus, despite Yahweh’s commands that Moses seek the release of his people from the Pharaoh, Moses is forewarned. God will make the ruler obstinate so that he will refuse the request. Is this not sheer madness? When all seems lost, God’s inscrutable logic saves the Jews in the Passover-Exodus event. God’s foolishness is wiser than Moses’ logic.
The Book of Job as offers another example of God’s folly. Job has proved himself a good and faithful servant. A man who has everything suddenly loses all. His loss is unmerited. Anguish afflicts body and soul. He condemns himself and rubs in his failures. Curse God, his friends urge, but he refrains from doing so. The first point the Book of Job makes is that suffering is not evidence of sin. When Job’s friends muse that he has sinned to deserve such misery, the reader knows differently. Job’s suffering was a test of his faith. Even as he grew angry with God for being unjust–wishing he could sue him in a court of law–he never abandons his belief.
Job’s moral outrage prompts God’s response, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone. God’s voice “out of the whirlwind” carries a less than satisfying response: “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundations? Do you really want to reverse my judgment, and put me in the wrong to put you in the right” (Job 40:83)? God’s designs are inscrutable. Though God’s answer does not fully satisfy, Job has no response and falls silent. God’s foolishness is wiser that Job’s protests. The New Testament too is filled with examples of God’s foolishness transformed into joy.
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
On September 14th, the Church “lifts high the cross” because God’s weakness and folly prove wiser and stronger than the wisdom and strength of creatures. Suffering has no human logic. Still, in his human nature, Jesus shows us how to suffer. Without suffering out of love, acceptance of pain is a servile act. The lesson is simple, if maddening.
Like Moses and Job, we do not save ourselves in the way we want. Each of us is saved by God’s providential power and our cooperation expressed through “the obedience of faith,” the attitude which was Christ’s. The folly of human suffering becomes our glory, but we see this only after the fact. It is a paradox.
The Church pauses, assimilates the mystery, and anticipates Resurrection morning.
The cross is the glory of the Lord. The cross of Jesus was his resurrection. His life was the candled that burned itself out in order to give its light to all.
When people suffer out of love for God, it is only the fact that they have been inflamed by the most sublime of beauties–a beauty crowned with thorns–that justifies their sharing in that suffering.
In Psalm 22, the faithful servant suffers before a silent God but places itself entirely in the hands of the Lord who will deliver it. The Psalm closes with the afflicted one praising the Lord. Jesus foretold his last hours on the cross: “If I be lifted up, I will draw all things to myself” (Jn 12:32). The Father raised up Jesus from death into resurrection glory, as Lord of the universe. Henceforth, there is an upward movement in the whole of creation.
Gustav Mahler (d 1911) suffered from a difficult marital and professional life but most of all with universal questions plaguing him: ‘Why am I living, why suffering; has life been a huge, frightful joke?’ These questions found expression in his symphonies which attempt a response to these questions. When one symphony ends with tentative hope and tinged with doubt, he repeats the same questions in the next symphony.
Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony seems to be his best attempt to answer the questions. Despite anxiety, anguish, fear, and pain, his final movement struggles with the pursuit of love that leads to enlightenment and elevation:
Believe, my heart. O believe, naught shall be lost to you . . .
O believe: thou wast not born in vain!
Thou has not lived and suffered in vain!. . .
All that has sprung passed must rise again!
Now cease to tremble!
Prepare thyself to live! . . .
To soar upwards to the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live. Rise again, yes, rise again.
Will you, my heart, in an instant! That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!
The text is neither explicitly religious nor confessional. Yet, it is man’s innate hope that reaches out to God.
9/11: A Time of Doubt, a Time of Faith
In the aftermath of 9/11, the “Resurrection” symphony seemed to express the unimaginable pain that was thrust on Americans. With 9/11, the country was plunged into unspeakable suffering which pushed reason and faith to the very edge. Many turned to God for consolation. Others could not even touch the pain. The embittered repudiated God.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Allan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, chose to perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony at a “Concert for New York.” He meditated: On 9/11, we witnessed devastation, bravery, and heroism. We joined agony with hope. . . . When the boundaries of our reasoning are strained, what do we do? We listen to music, we speak through music, we question through music.” His reflections spoke to a largely secular audience, still conflicted with aspirations of hope yet tinged with doubt.
In the face of 9/11, Christian hope was possible only in the light of Christ’s redemption “in the coming of absolute love that identifies itself with suffering and with the sufferers of the world” (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 161-2). While Jesus brings us to the cross, the last sound of this symphony is not shrieking despair but resurrection glory.