G ET UP, LET US GO. LOOK! THE ONE WHO IS BETRAYING ME IS DRAWING NEAR (Matthew 26: 46). With these words Jesus went to meet his death and enter upon his glory. This statement of our Lord includes an invitation to his disciples to accompany him, to share in his fateful hour of destiny. The apostles understood them as such and set out with him boldly. Peter was ready with his sword to face superior numbers, and the others came along as well, though with misgivings in their heart. They had given their all to the Lord, left family and property to accompany him. They had come to be deeply attached to his person, treasuring his words and adhering to his presence. Bonds of friendship were deep between him and each of them. Yet, when the circumstances turned ugly and the pressure of violence was brought to bear, they all fled and left their Lord alone.
This was not the final word on the matter of their fidelity, as we know, but it does represent a failure of courage and of faith at the critical moment in our Lord's earthly life. After the strengthening of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost these same men would prove themselves to be heroic in their response. Peter, whose failure was more humiliating because of his position as leader and of his self-confidence would display admirable fidelity and give a courageous witness in his martyrdom.
Today's liturgy includes a reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew. The words of Jesus inviting his disciples to accompany him as he surrenders himself to his enemies in fulfillment of the Father's will are found in this account. They continue to be an invitation to attend the Lord in his suffering and death. Not that he continues to die in his own person, but he so identifies himself with his adherents that he suffers in his Mystical Body and will continue to do so until the end of time. This truth is strikingly brought out in the Acts of the Apostles at the time of St. Paul's conversion.
And when they were making their way, drawing near to Damascus suddenly a light from heaven shone all around him. Falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him: 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' He said: 'Lord, who are you?' And he answered: 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting' (Acts 9:3-5).
Men and women who had joined the new group who believed in the Messiah were the ones Paul had been casting into prison. Jesus does not mention them at all in this exchange. He is so much identified with them that it is truly he whom Paul is oppressing. Later Paul would characterize his activities at this period as being a persecution of the Church, and a reason why, as he saw it, he was unworthy to be called an apostle. But what is done to the members of the Church Jesus considers to be done to him. The mystical Body of Christ is not some theological construct; rather, it is a living communion of the Lord with each of his members. If St. Paul became the Doctor of the mystical Body surely these words of Jesus uttered at the time of Paul's dramatic conversion convinced him of the reality of this doctrine.
This experience that Jesus is one with those who belong to him through faith and baptism is meant to strengthen our confidence as well. The Lord knows each of us by name; he makes our cause his own. Our wellbeing, our spiritual state and advancement are a personal concern to him. So is our suffering, especially that which arises from our efforts to be faithful to him and his Church. The men and women Paul was casting into prison because of their adherence to Christ did not as yet have a written Gospel or the other New Testament writings to assure them they were following the path God chose for his faithful. . The words of Jesus identifying himself with them were spoken to Paul some time after a number of them had already suffered. But they did possess faith in the teachings of the apostles still in its pristine state. Though the doctrine of the mystical Body has not as yet been elaborated they grasped that they had a personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus and remained faithful to it even at the cost of their freedom and their lives. This suggests that the Church already possessed a sharp awareness that baptism conferred a bond with the Lord that was unique and personal. Our Lord's revelation to Paul gave a sharper focus to the nature of that relationship in its essence. What he revealed then remains true for us today: we belong to the Lord, not to our self; he has made our concerns his. Our good is inseparable from him and all that he is.
During this week we shall be living with a particular consciousness of the events that brought about our reconciliation with God through his beloved Son, Jesus. His sufferings and death represent the way in which he won us for himself and for his Father. His triumphant rising from the dead that follows immediately from his passion is present throughout this week in the background, for it is the living, glorified Christ whose mysteries we live through. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) asserts these truths and sums them up in a paragraph taken from St. John Eudes. His words bear repeating here as we stand at the beginning of this Holy Week.
I ask you to consider that our Lord Jesus Christ is your true head, and that you are one of his members. He belongs to you as the head belongs to its members; all that is his is yours; his spirit, his heart, his body and soul, and all his faculties. You must make use of all these as of your own, to serve, praise, love, and glorify God. You belong to him, as members belong to their head. And so he longs for you to use all that is in you, as if it were his own, for the service and glory of the Father (CCC §1698 from St. John Eudes, Tract. De admirabili Corde Jesu, 1.5).
This perspective lends a more personal note to Holy Week. Our own person is engaged in the happenings by which the Lord carried out the Father's plan. That plan includes our incorporation in the Kingdom as members of the mystical Body, that is to say, as persons who belong to the Lord. St. Leo the Great had already pointed out that receiving the sacraments allows us to be united with the Lord's experiences while he was on earth. He states the case in the following terms.
The Sacrament of our salvation, dearly beloved, which the creator of all things considered worth the price of his blood was fulfilled from the day of his bodily beginning to his end at the passion by the dispensation of humility . What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries. In order that faith might be more excellent and stronger, doctrine succeeded to vision. In this way the hearts of believers, illuminated by heavenly rays, might follow its authority(cf. CCC, §1115 which refers to St. Leo's text. I have included lines not found in the CCC. Cf. Sermon 74.2 PL 54: 397, 8).
Faith, then, is, according to Pope Leo the Great, a source of light to the heart and allows us to enter into the events of our Lord's life not in their historical uniqueness but in their abiding significance. Jesus himself had told the apostles at the last supper that they would be better able to understand his message and appreciate his person only after he left them through death. They, who had the opportunity of living his passion with him in the flesh, missed their unique chance. However, through their life in the Church and their participation in the sacramental dispensation Christ had inaugurated they were given a second chance, one which they took full advantage of and by means of which they proved faithful to the end. Thus in the lives of the closest associates of our Lord we see verified the principle enunciated by St. Leo: In order that faith might be more excellent and stronger, doctrine succeeded to vision. In this way the hearts of believers, illuminated by heavenly rays, might follow its authority.
By God's great mercy we find ourselves today in the same situation the apostles and our Blessed Mother lived out as followers by a firm faith of the risen Lord Jesus. They were aided by the gift of the Spirit who enabled them to remain in the presence of the Lord by sharing in the sacrament of the Eucharist and the sacrament of the inspired word. They also supported one another in the new society of those who belong to the Lord and who live no longer for themselves but for all who are the Lord's members. We share in one another's gifts of faith and love, and profit from the talents and dedication of each member of the community.
Already some four hundred years before Christ, Aristotle had examined into the way a community provided very concrete supplements to the limitations of each of its members. In his Politics he studies the arguments in favor and against rule by a democratic form of government, he decides, with some hesitation that all of us readily appreciate I am sure, that it is probably the better kind. He then gives some of his reasoning that has led him to take this position.
For it is possible that the many, though not individually good men, yet when they come together may be better, not individually, but collectively, than those who are good . For where there are many, each individual, it may be argued, has some portion of virtue and wisdom, and when they have come together, just as the multitude becomes a single man with many feet and many hands and many senses, so also it becomes one personality as regards the moral and intellectual faculties. This is why the general public is a better judge of the works of music and those of the poets, because different men can judge a different part of the performance, and all of them all of it (Politics III.vi.4, 5 Loeb ed. P. 223).
He goes on to observe that this is not true of every democratic assembly, yet, he states, nothing prevents what has been said from being true about some particular multitude. This argument is not so different from St. Paul's reasoning concerning operations of the members of the mystical body, who have distinct gifts of the Spirit. Each of these gifts, however, is given for the good of the whole, not primarily for the individual, though it is to the individual's advantage when his gift contributes to make his community a better one.
To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for practical good. To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith in the same Spirit, to another the grace of healing in one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another, prophecy, to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of languages, to another the interpretation of languages. 1Cor. 12: 8- 10).
St. Paul, after listing the special graces of the Spirit goes on to encourage us to make it our chief concern to obtain the one that is highest of all and which is available to each.
I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak with the tongue of men and angels but do not have charity I am like ringing brass or a clashing cymbal. And if I have prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so I can move mountains, if I do not have charity, I am nothing (1Cor. 13: 1, 2).
Charity is the meaning of Holy Week and the explanation of its continuing significance for us and for all people. It is first of all the charity of the Father who so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten son, that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (John 3:16). Though we are keenly aware of our weaknesses and failings, of our past sins and our present selfishness and timidity, yet we are also convinced that we belong to God. He has made that possible through the mystery of his son's passion and death and resurrection which continue to be offered to us in the sacraments and the prayer and faith of the Church. He remains with us in his word and in the Eucharist. We have offered to Him in return the obedience of our faith. By faith and the sacraments we belong not only to God but also to one another. May we return his love with gratitude and the resolve to love Him and all who are His, imitating as far as in us lies, the example of our Savior who loved us and gave himself for us.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger<
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