For many years, I had the privilege of teaching a two-semester course to undergraduates at Boston College: “Exploring Catholicism: Tradition and Transformation.” A central component of the course was the “synthesis paper” that concluded each semester. The students were challenged to weave the strands of the semester’s readings and lectures into a tapestry that reflected the course’s content, but also incorporated their personal reflections upon the material. Reading their papers, at the end of each semester, was often a moving and learning experience.
Gradually, over the years, I refined the directions for the paper, guiding students to achieve a creative balance between the objective material studied and their subjective perspective on it. One year it occurred to me to add another feature to their paper. I asked the students to place on the title page an “epigraph”: a concise quotation from one of the course readings or from some other source that summed up the thrust of their essay. I found that not only did it sharpen their focus, it provided insight into their own personal appropriation.
In my own reading, I am always intrigued by the epigraphs authors choose as a preface to their work. It often reveals the affective heart of the matter, which then unfolds over the course of the treatise, the novel, even the film.
One of the monumental novels of Western literature is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Over its sprawling length of more than seven hundred pages, the depths of human loves and fears are unveiled with literary genius and spiritual acuteness. Yet, in many ways, the entire novel flows forth from the epigraph Dostoevsky affixes to his masterpiece: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but, if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
This passage from John is, of course the gospel reading for this Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is the crucial turning point of John’s Gospel: Jesus’ announcement that now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” All the anticipations of Jesus’ hour – the change of water into wine at Cana, the feeding of the five thousand near the Sea of Galilee, the healing of the man born blind at the pool of Siloam, the raising of Lazarus of Bethany – will find their consummation now in the Passover of the Lord.
And the fruit promised is that when he is “lifted up,” he will “draw all to himself” (Jn 12:32). All people and places drawn into unity, at-oned, because the “new covenant” foretold by Jeremiah, will now be fulfilled, established, and ratified in the blood of the Lamb.
Each of the readings of the Fifth Sunday of Lent can offer abundant matter for meditation. The selection from the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews strikingly complements that Letter’s first chapter. In the first chapter (read at the Mass of Christmas Day), the Church celebrates God’s Son “who bears the radiance of the Glory of God, the very imprint of his nature, upholding all by his word of power.” (Heb 1:3) Yet this very Son, today’s reading scandalously teaches, “learned obedience from what he suffered, and, being made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb 5:8-9) The Council of Chalcedon’s confession of “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity,” is strikingly foreshadowed in this Letter to the Hebrews.
Though the readings of this Sunday have a particular richness, the three readings at every Sunday liturgy are almost too much to absorb, especially if not preceded by prayerful meditation. They could certainly profit from an epigraph! Providentially, the Liturgy supplies one. The Collect for each Mass serves as epigraph, orienting our devotion and affection toward the heart of the Good News that is to come.
Thus, the Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent asks of God the grace to “walk eagerly in that same charity with which, for love of the world, God’s own Son handed himself over to death.” “For love of the world”//“Handed himself over to death” – the systole and diastole of the wondrous Good News and of our ongoing contemplation.
And contained within this prayer is a phrase so suffused with spiritual and theological import that it alone could serve as epigraph: handed over – in the Latin, tradidit. On the basic historical level, Jesus was handed over, by Judas to the Chief Priests, and by them, in turn, to Pilate. But on the deeper spiritual level, as the prayer proclaims, Jesus handed himself over to death for the sake of the world’s redemption. He thus embodied his own instruction: “Greater love than this has no one: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13)
There is yet a third consideration. One distinctly hears in tradidit “tradition”: the joyful handing down of the Good News one has received. And that tradition is not, in the first instance a body of propositional truths, however necessary these may be. Tradition is, at its deepest, the very body of the crucified and risen Savior. He is the Traditus: the one whom the Church hands over in faith. Or better the one who hands himself over in the Church, Sunday after Sunday, as the Church gathers on the Lord’s Day to celebrate that Meal at which Jesus Christ is both host and sacrifice.
As we move toward Holy Week and the double proclamation of the Passion Narrative on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we will encounter again what is perhaps the most famous epigraph in all history. The one composed by Pontius Pilate and hammered by soldiers above the bleeding head of the Savior: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.”
Confronted with this epigraph, one is not impelled to further writing. “What I have written, I have written.” One is only impelled to praise and to worship.
*Image: The Crucifixion by Guido Reni, National Art Gallery of Bologna [Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna, Italy]