JESUS SAID: "NOW IS THE SON OF MAN GLORIFIED AND GOD IS GLORIFIED IN HIM." (John 13:31). These words which occur in today's liturgy remind us that we commence the last two weeks of Lent on this Sunday. In the period prior to the reforms of Vatican II this period was referred to as Passion Tide, and was marked by a more somber tone in the texts chosen as well as in the decor of the churches . All the crucifixes were covered with a dark purple cloth and, in our monastic Churches, a huge, heavy veil of the same color was hung before the sanctuary so that the sacrifice of the mass took on a more mysterious air and the congregation felt separated more markedly from the sight of all that is holy. Certainly the effect was to raise the consciousness of unworthiness, and the need for a savior who would take away the veil of sin that hides from us the light of God's countenance.
These rites gave an emphasis to those elements in the various liturgical texts of this season which touch on the plight of our human condition after the fall with the introduction of suffering and death as the devastating consequences of sin. We are alienated from God, unable to effect a reconciliation by any efforts of our own. No contriving on our part can succeed in removing the heavy barrier between us and the God who gives life and light, hope and joy to human existence. Only the willing acceptance of death by the Savior sent by God the Father for our redemption can remove the veil and open to us the way to the heavenly sanctuary. Until the celebration of Easter that brings forward the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, hope is tested by the dark, impenetrable screen of a disordered world. By penance, prayer, fasting offered from a humble and contrite heart the believer could share in the sufferings of Christ and so be joined to him in hope of his resurrection to eternal life.
Without denying all that remains valid in this manner of viewing the events that the liturgy enables us to relive and so to participate more intently in the Lord's Paschal mystery, the present manner of presenting the final days of Jesus' earthly life shifts the stress placed on these various realities. Greater emphasis is given to the passion as a confrontation with the forces of evil in which the victorious outcome is already in some mysterious way actually present. There is a brighter tone set because of the assurance that the one who suffers is now reigning in glory and remains with us even as we recall his anguish in the garden and his humiliation and suffering on the cross. The text cited at the head of these reflections set the tone of the current liturgy: JESUS SAID: NOW IS THE SON OF MAN GLORIFIED AND GOD IS GLORIFIED IN HIM.' The reference here is to our Lord's coming passion and death, but it is viewed from the perspective of the resurrection in which the passion culminates. If Jesus makes no explicit mention here of humiliation, nor does he speak of suffering or death, it is not because he denies their reality. Rather, he refers to the very real mocking, helplessness and suffering he is to pass through as being his glorification. He already sees that they terminate in his victorious resurrection. And so even while they are immanent and he well understands the pain and anguish he will endure, he views these things in the light of his vision of the Father, from the perspective of eternity. He says as much in the words that immediately follow these: "IF GOD IS GLORIFIED IN HIM, GOD WILL ALSO GLORIFY HIM IN HIMSELF AND HE WILL GLORIFY HIM STRAIGHTWAY."
Accordingly, Jesus transformed the nature of death and its meaning by his full acceptance of it with all its attendant circumstances. He made the passage through death integral with the resurrection of the body. By his own resurrection he became the source of that life which is not subject to death for all those who are united with him in faith and the love of the Holy Spirit. St. Francis de Sales, for all his gentleness of spirit, understood very well that the only way to cultivate a pure love that is durable, lasting forever, is to share in the cross and death of Jesus. His doctrine of sweet reasonableness in regard to the treatment of others, is anything but sentimental. It is solidly planted on Calvary and requires all the steel-like determination that he displayed in his own life to achieve its goal. He sums up the matter in the last chapter of his work on "The Love of God" in these words:To conclude, the death and the Passion of our Lord are the gentlest and the most violent fores that can animate our hearts in this mortal life... Mount Calvary is the mountain of lovers. Every love that does not take its origin from the Passion of the Savior is fragile and perilous. Unhappy is death without the love of the Savior;; unhappy is lover without the death of the Savior. Love and death are so mingled together in the Passion of the Savior that one cannot have one in the heart without the other.("St. Francis de Sales, Oeuvres", Paris 1969, "Traité de l'Amour de Dieu", Xii.xiii, pp. 970, 971)
We see what this can mean in practice for those who truly believe by the examples provided us by accounts of the death of the saints. Very early in the history of the Church certain of the faithful were inspired to record in considerable detail various descriptions of the way Christ's devoted followers met death. The first such record is the most authoritative, for it is found already in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus we have the assurance of inspired Scripture that Jesus stands by those who witness to him in the face of death to sustain them. Even earlier than this account of the first martyrdom as recorded by St. Luke, we have St. Paul's teaching that not only the martyrs, but all those who died with their hope in Christ are best referred to as those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. Their spirit is not extinguished; rather, they continue to live in hope of a final and definitive reunion with their body in the resurrection. "If Christ has not risen your faith is useless; you are still in your sins, and so those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (1 Cor.15: 17, 18)", But of course, Christ has risen and so the faithful sleep in hope of eternal life, as he goes on to affirm: "For as all died in Adam, so also all have been made alive in Christ (! Cor 15: 22)."
The eagerness with which certain of the martyrs met death nowhere found more convincing and moving expression than in the Epistles written by St. Ignatius of Antioch on the journey taking him to Rome where he was to meet his death. In his moving testimony written to the Romans prior to his arrival in that city he writes:Living I write to you, loving to die. My love is crucified and there is in me no fire that loves matter, but rather living water that murmurs within me saying: Come to the Father.' I no longer find pleasure in food that is corruptible or in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, that is the flesh of Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, and I desire as drink his blood which is undying love (Lettres, VII.2,3 S.C. Paris 1958 pp. 134, 136).
Another account of a holy death, taking place under very different circumstances,, was written several centuries later by a man who himself is honored as a saint. I refer to the death of St. Macrina, written by her youngest brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa. The description he gives is a vivid one for he was present at the scene, and since she was the superior of a convent of nuns, the conditions which surrounded her last days and death are much closer to those we as monks are likely to experience. After describing her illness and increasing distress, Gregory records the lengthy vocal prayer she made in his presence when she realized her death was approaching. I note some of the more significant lines, that reveal her dispositions concerning the meaning her departure from this world held for her.It is you, Lord, who have abrogated for us the fear of death. It is you who have made the end of this life to be the beginning of true life. It is you who give repose to our bodies for a time by a sleep, and again awaken them at the last trumpet. It is you who give our earth as a deposit to the earth, which you are fashioned with your hands and again awaken what you have given, transforming what is mortal and difformed by incorruptibility and grace.... O eternal God... whom my soul has loved...send your luminous angel to lead me by the hand to the place of refreshment where is found the water of repose (Vie de Macrine, ed. P. Maraval, S. C. 178, Paris 1971, pp.218-221).
Death, then, for her who had, as she says, consecrated herself, body and soul to God from her youth, was not an end so much as a new beginning. It is experienced in a radically new manner, as a passage to the fulness of life, as a completion of a long voyage and the beginning of a repose that is replete with satisfaction of longings nourished in hope and cherished with love. Death has become a doorway to new kinds of relations with the God who made us for himself and who so fashions us that we are more personally present to those we leave behind on earth than we were while in the corruptible body.
These same convictions, held in a faith that quite literally proves stronger than death, continue to sustain and fortify the faithful down to the present time, and consequently, change the experience of death, for those who have been transformed by grace. To attain to this peace and hope when actually confronted with suffering and death is always possible to those who turn to God with faith and sorrow for sin even in their last hours. But normally it is granted to those who devote their lives over an extended time to the daily labor of purifying the heart and putting on the new man created in Christ. St. Augustine states the case strikingly in his concise manner:We have been made new; we have become the new man, because that new man has come. Forwhat is so new as to be born of a Virgi? Because there was nothing in him to be renewed by the precept, that he had no sin, a new birth was given him. In him a new birth, in us a new man. What is a new man? One who has been renewed from the condition of oldness. For what reason is he renewed? That he might desire heavenly things, that he might thirst for eternal realities... (Tractatus in Jo. Evang. 30.7)
Time and again in the persons of those who, with firm and lively faith in the risen Lord Jesus, confront their approaching death, whether from some illness already actively undermining their bodily form or from the encroachments of advancing old age, we can rediscover for ourselves this ever new manner of meeting death. We continue to have witnesses to this truth in more recent times, not only in the person of such saints as Therese of Lisieux and Maximilian Kolbe, but as well of our brother monks who have died here. One after another they have displayed the same living hope that overcomes discouragement, suffering and fear, as they went from this world to a definitive meeting with the risen Savior.
The approaching Paschal liturgy brings to the forefront of our minds and makes accessible to our heart the source of this courageous, hope-filled conviction that the destructiveness of death has been abolished for those who belong to the Lord. We are, in God's mercy, destined, not for the extinction of consciousness at the termination of this life, but for a higher, purer awareness, suffused with the power of light and love. We do not leave for good those persons who have shared their lives with us in friendship and cooperation; rather, we go ahead to await with active concern and prayer, their joining us forever in eternal light. This light of eternal life is a transforming energy that refashions our whole being by a power emanating from the glory of God. It is a sharing in the same life that courses through the Trinity of divine persons who are the realization of absolute truth, beauty, and goodness that are the expression of infinite love. Let us make it our concern to intensify our faith in these truths as we prepare ourselves during these next weeks to celebrate the mysteries of Christ's death and resurrection.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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