The Passion Begins


Today’s is a challenging assignment: To write on the beginning of Christ’s Passion this evening, the deicide by which (you all know the back story) mankind’s Original Sin in Eden and (conservatively speaking) the subsequent millennia of accumulated personal sins were atoned for. I’ve often thought that, when I reach heaven (Deo volente), I want to sit down with Adam and Eve and ask them: “What were you thinking!”

Yes, our sins have been forgiven, but at what a price! Our yearly liturgical baptism in the events of Holy Week makes the agonizing exchange evident in excruciating detail.

As we advance from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we have to be candid that we may find it hard to enter fully into the mentality of the disciples. We, after all, share something of the perspective of Jesus – not because we are any better than the disciples or Mary Magdalene, but because we know how things turn out.

In particular, we know how the Palm Sunday euphoria gives way, a few days later, like a stage trap-door, to the emotional descent into the Agony in the Garden, the Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court, Pilate’s miscarriage of justice, the scourging, the mocking, the Via Dolorosa, and the Crucifixion.

Why didn’t the disciples understand better what was coming, after the hints and flat-out prophecies of Jesus as he “set his face” towards Jerusalem to be sacrificed as the Lamb of God? Did the crowds, the acclaim, the miracles, and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem all get in the way?

Here, midway through Holy Week, we unite ourselves to the Passion of Christ, and particularly those final hours on the Cross. But how do we do this? Day by day, we are called to live out the meaning of Calvary in the middle of the world, where most of us find ourselves. Yet too often we complain about even the smallest crosses or fail to recognize them as veritable mother lodes of grace for ourselves and for others.

The disciples, being only human (and fallen humans at that), could, perhaps understandably, get carried away by being the hand-picked leaders of the Messiah’s upcoming New World Order and, consequently, overlook the predicted doom and gloom. After all, so many things Jesus said to them sailed right over their heads – just look at their inability to comprehend the point of the simplest parable without his help.

        Christ on the Mount of Olives by Paul Gauguin, 1889

Why wouldn’t they also resist the implications of Christ’s very hard sayings about his upcoming suffering and death?

For us it should be different. One purpose for the Church’s yearly re-presentation of the events of our salvation is to make it easier for us to take up our crosses, big and little, offering them up in love and thanksgiving to Our Savior who out of love for us endured a cross beyond our comprehension. As Catholics, we know that God’s divine condescension permits us a share in his redeeming action, “filling up what is lacking,” as St. Paul daringly put it to the Colossians, in the sufferings of Christ.

We do this when we embrace our daily challenges and opportunities to help others, from the spiritual to the mundane. For instance, we can offer our Communion with a special intention for sinners or the deceased. We can also offer up work in the office or at home for sinners and the souls in purgatory; we can practice self-denial in food and drink and entertainment and engage in corporal or spiritual works of mercy (you can read about them in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which no doubt is on the table beside you as you read this).

We can pray the Holy Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, picket or pray before an abortion clinic, make pilgrimages to holy places with family and friends. We can read books on the Passion by saints, mystics, and sound spiritual authors (Pope Emeritus Benedict’s concluding volume on Jesus offers great insights).

And of course there is the Way of the Cross itself, available with commentary in dozens of worthwhile versions, including those of (soon-to-be) St. John Paul and St. Josemaria Escriva. The intercessory value of such offerings to God, even the smallest, can be immeasurable, since that value comes from Christ.

In any event, none of us will escape life without suffering. Whatever form it takes – bodily pain, mental illness, addiction, poverty, loneliness, bereavement, persecution. It is in experiencing this suffering that we truly are able to identify to some extent with HIS Suffering, which was both incalculably worse (because he bore the sum total of human sin and suffering) and completely unmerited.

It is then, in our own affliction, that we grasp something of how he – true God and true Man – suffered for each one of us.

(As the old hymn goes: Let me love you more and more.)

So in this momentous season for the Church, but also for an unsuspecting world, we all have a part: share your mercy and love of the suffering Christ with everyone you meet. 

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.