A Paschal Diptych
FOR THE PONTIFICIUM COLLEGIUM GERMANICUM ET HUNGARICUM
P. Joseph Carola, S.J.
I: A PASSIONTIDE MEDITATION
In the year 2005, Good Friday fell on the 25th of March. The Solemnity of the Annunciation was transferred that year to the Monday after Mercy Sunday, that is, it was celebrated two days after Pope John Paul II had died. The passing of the Holy Father on the vigil of Mercy Sunday, a feast which he had extended to the Universal Church, struck many as providential. It seemed only fitting and certainly not by chance that our Holy Father should die after first vespers and the celebration of the vigil Mass for the Second Sunday of Easter. For the believer, the timing of John Paul II’s death revealed a mysterious order—something undeniably more than mere coincidence. The same can be said for that year’s felicitous commemoration of Our Lord’s death on the liturgical anniversary of His conception by the Holy Spirit in the Blessed Mother’s virginal womb. An ancient tradition first attested to in the third century assigns Our Lord’s death to the date of 25 March. His conception and crucifixion coincide without being coincidental. This ancient tradition sheds a marvelous light upon our meditation of Our Lord’s passion and death, His Mother’s unique collaboration in His redemptive mission, and the celibate chastity of our priestly vocation.
Jesus is the Son of God made man. He exercises His priesthood in His humanity. Indeed, Christ’s priesthood exists from the moment of His conception. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus the High Priest can rightly say, “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Isaiah 49:1). As man Jesus offers Himself in priestly sacrifice to the Father whereas as God Christ receives together with the Father His own reconciliatory self-offering. Thus does the man Jesus uniquely mediate between God and men. He consummates His priestly mediation in the paschal mystery. There He reveals himself to be both priest and victim—a dual vocation which the tradition of commemorating Christ’s death on the anniversary of His conception places in stark relief.
Though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, accepting even death, death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8). The Son of God became man in order that in His humanity He might die for us thereby forgiving us our sins and reconciling us to the Father. Consider for a moment Andrej Rublev’s icon of the Nativity. The Russian depicts the Christ Child not so much as wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, than as bound tightly in a burial shroud, lying in a sarcophagus. The mystery of Jesus’ birth already reveals the mystery of his death. Our Father Ignatius makes this point abundantly clear in the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises. He instructs the retreatant that, when contemplating the Nativity, he is to consider how Our Lady and Saint Joseph labored “that Our Lord might be born in extreme poverty, and that after many labors, after hunger, thirst, heat, and cold, after insults and outrages, He might die on the cross” (Spiritual Exercises # 116). The humility of Christmas is already the humility of Calvary—the third and most perfect kind of humility; the humility of poverty, insults and disdain (cf. Spiritual Exercises # 167). According to that ancient tradition, the common celebration of the Annunciation and Good Friday on the 25th of March confirms the sacrificial nature of Our Lord’s kenosis from the moment of His conception. The Son of God assumes our mortal nature in Mary’s womb in order to die for us. On Calvary Christ the High Priest offers Himself, the Divine Lamb, in sacrifice. He pours out His own Blood as a sin-offering of infinite value truly pleasing to the Father. In His death He fulfills His mission: “Consummatum est—It is finished.” The Resurrection, in turn, reveals the victory over sin and death gained on Calvary Hill.
Mary, the Mother of God, figures centrally in these saving mysteries as well. Indeed, without Mary, there would have been no Annunciation, and without God’s taking flesh at the Annunciation, Calvary would never have been. Mary, whose fiat bore fruit in the Incarnation, participates intimately in her Son’s priestly self-offering on Calvary Hill. The tradition which places Christ’s death together with His conception in a common celebration reveals the mystery of Mary’s unique co-operation in the Redemption wrought by her Son.
In the contemplative spirit of Our Father Ignatius, let us consider these two scenes—the Annunciation and Calvary—superimposed one upon the other. Let us call to mind Mary’s place at the foot of the Cross. As her Son breathes His last breath, she falls on her knees. Her hands lie open upon her lap. She assumes again the posture which was hers at the angelic annunciation. Adsum, she says, “Here I am.” These words communicate more than a mere physical presence. They are rather words of consecration—the “Here I am, Lord! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8) of the prophet Isaiah. “Here I am,” she assures her Son, “I have stood by You faithfully unto the end.” Indeed, this sinless Mother could never have abandoned her Child.
On that same day some 30 years before, Mary had received a mission. She received the mission to be the Mother of God. She spoke her ‘yes’ for humanity in every age. God had created us without our consent, but He would not redeem us without our cooperation. Mary’s ‘yes’ was the thoroughly grace-filled cry of an otherwise desperate humanity unable to save itself. From the moment of her own conception, she had been preserved from the stain of Original Sin so that with uncompromised freedom she could utter her fiat on our behalf: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.” Having first conceived Christ in her mind through faith, she now conceived Him in her womb by the Holy Spirit. God became bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. Assuming her flesh He came to die. Adsum, she had said in her oratory at Nazareth. Adsum, she repeats again at the foot of the Cross. “Here I am, Lord,” she utters, “I come to do Thy will.” Her graced-filled cooperation bears its salvific fruit in her Son’s redemptive sacrifice on Calvary Hill.
Some years before at Cana, Mary had anticipated her Son’s hour when she drew His attention to the needs of a newly wedded couple. “They have no wine,” she told Him. He responded enigmatically, saying, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). In response she simply informed the servants to do whatever He told them. Thus did Mary’s intercession draw forth Jesus’ first sign at Cana in Galilee. What does the Woman of Scripture have to do with her Son, Jesus? One may rightly respond, “Everything.” She is the New Eve whose obedience rectifies the first Eve’s disobedience. Through her obedience she becomes the Mother of God, the Mother of Christ, the Second Adam, and thus the Mother of His Body, the Mother of the Church and in this fashion she is in reality what Eve only foreshadowed—she is the Mother of all the living (cf. Genesis 3:20). According to her maternal vocation, both in time and in each of us individually, she gives birth to Jesus, who is the life of our souls. By uttering her fiat she inaugurates His priestly hour. It is only fitting, then, that she should be present at its consummation, and not merely physically present but present as only a mother can be at the death of her child—suffering every minute of that hour in Him, through Him and with Him. Fiat, fiat, she says. “O woman, what have you not to do with me,” the dying Christ could well have asked, “now that my hour in its fullness has come?”
At the foot of the Cross, the Woman of Scripture’s universal motherhood is revealed. “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26-27). From that hour—the hour of the Divine Mercy, the hour of which Our Lord had first spoken at Cana, the hour at which some 30 years before eternity had burst forth into time—from that hour the Mother of the Redeemer became the Mother of the redeemed. She bears us in suffering as she suffers the death of her Son. Conception and death prove inseparably one.
“It is finished,” Jesus says. He has faithfully fulfilled His mission, obediently accepting even death on a cross. Despite all temptations to the contrary, never once did He betray the self-emptying nature of His mission. Mary’s mission embraced without reserve at the Annunciation has reached its fulfillment as well. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, she had said in response to the Archangel’s proclamation. Mary now utters these words again as she offers herself in union with her Son’s redemptive self-offering upon the Cross. Her Son’s final words echo in her Heart: “It is finished.”
Jesus never felt the spear which pierced His side. He was already dead by then. But Mary felt it. As its sharp edge sliced open Jesus’ scourged flesh and cut through to His Heart, the sword, which Simeon had prophesied, pierced her Heart as well. The Mother intimately suffered her own flesh’s passion in her Son. For what loving mother could ever fail to suffer her own child’s pain? The graced union of their Hearts would have known no separation in death. Mary singularly suffered that final act which revealed the infinitely merciful depths of her Son’s divine love.
As the spear pierced Jesus’ Heart, the sword pierced Mary’s “also, that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). Indeed, Longinus’ spear pierced a vast multitude of hearts that day. In Baptism and the Eucharist, the Christian is incorporated into Christ’s Body. Our hearts are conformed to His. Thus our hearts are wounded in love in order to love all the more. The priest’s heart sacramentally ordered to Christ’s priestly Heart must likewise be a wounded heart—a heart which loves to the point of death and in dying is ripped open in order that it might love all the more.
In your priesthood, you will love. In your celibate chastity you will offer your love in priestly sacrifice. Your love will be pierced not in order that it die but rather that you be able to love all the more. As you love selflessly, that is, without clinging to those, whom you love, for your own sake, the Lord will rip open your hearts. Like Mary, you will suffer that final act of Christ’s passion. You will feel it intensely. As you suffer it faithfully, the depths of your priestly ability to love will grow in God’s grace all the more. Through your priestly love, Christ will be conceived in the hearts of those whom you compassionately serve. Your spiritual paternity will be an expression of Mary’s maternity as you generate Christ in others. But to conceive Christ in this way, you must be both priest and victim. You must suffer with Him the passion of your priestly celibacy. In your celibate love you must die to yourselves as you live now for others. Yours must be a love which never seeks itself—a love crucified unto death (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 7.2: “ ‘o evmo.j Ve,rwj evstau,rwtai”; Ignatius of Loyola, MI, Epp. XII, 678ff: “Amor meus crucifixus est.”) By means of this death, you will conceive life. As with Christ so too with His priest—the alter Christus—death and new life go hand-in-hand.
“It is finished,” Jesus cries aloud as He entrusts His spirit into the Father’s hands. “It is finished,” Mary repeats inwardly, contemplating all things within her Heart as she has done since the beginning. “It has only just begun,” says the priest as he lives the sacred adventure of crucified love. As we enter into these most sacred days of our faith, let us kneel with hands laid open in prayer before Our Crucified Lord. Let us humbly come before Him as mendicants poor in goodness. Let us obediently say with Mary, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum—be it done unto me according to Thy word. Thus dying to ourselves may we live our love for God and neighbor in the Crucified Christ alone. May God’s grace preserve us unto the end so that, when at last we come to review the sacramental life of faith which God has used our priesthood to conceive in others, we may conclude our fiat as Mary concluded hers, echoing faithfully her beloved Son’s bitter-sweet words: “Consummatum est.”
P. JOSEPH CAROLA, S.J.
Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum
Rome, 31 March 2007
II: AN EASTERTIDE MEDITATION
In the days following Our Lord’s conception, Mary arose and made haste to the house of her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah. Joy led her forth. With joy Elizabeth greeted her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:42, 45). In joy Mary responded: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1: 46-47). As the mystery of the Annunciation anticipates Christ’s suffering, the mystery of the Visitation foretells His glory. Indeed, the bliss of the Visitation is but a foretaste of the boundless joy of the Resurrection.
The Blessed Virgin Mary trusted that the word which the Lord had spoken to her would be fulfilled. The Immaculate Daughter of Zion remembered the promises which God had first made to her father Abraham, the great Patriarch of her people. The Lord had assured him that he would be the father of many nations. His descendents would number like the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore. Through Isaac Mary was a child of the promise. By nature, she was a Hebrew, Abraham’s daughter according to the flesh. But the cause of her joy lay elsewhere. Like her father Abraham, she believed. She had faith in the Lord and trusted in His promise. By grace, Mary was a believer, the daughter of Abraham according to the spirit. Isaac had been a figure of Christ in whom all nations would be gathered. Thus Mary’s Son fulfilled the divine promises made to her father Abraham. In Him, the Law and the prophets found their fulfilment. From Jerusalem the Good News of our salvation was preached in His name to all nations (cf. Luke 24:47). Through baptism into Christ and the Eucharist, people of every nation have become the spiritual children of Abraham according to the promise. We have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, the seed of Abraham and the son of David according to the flesh. The promises made to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ have been realized in His ecclesial Body, the Catholic Church. Mary, the Mother of the Church, rejoices in God our Savior, for she recognizes that the promises made to her and her forefathers have indeed been fulfilled.
Having been the cause of her joy at the Visitation, Mary’s faith in the Lord’s promise sustained her at her Son’s death. During the dark hours of the passion and the desolate days which followed, Mary, the Daughter of Abraham, never ceased to believe “that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Mary’s blessedness, which Elizabeth had extolled, proved itself golden in the fiery furnace of those tragic days. Yet its lustre went unseen as the sorrowful Mother mourned her dead Son.
In the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, our Father Ignatius would have us consider “the desolation of our Lady, her great sorrow and weariness” (Spiritual Exercises # 208). Let us place ourselves with her now in the darkness of that night as she mourns her Son who lies dead in the grave. With the liberty of an Ignatian contemplation, let us image Saint John, to whom Our Lord only hours before entrusted His Blessed Mother, as he accompanies Our Lady from Calvary back to her lodgings within the city walls. Night is falling. The Sabbath has begun. The Beloved Disciple suggests that he stay with her, that she not be alone. But she graciously sends him on his way to join the other disciples who by now have congregated again in the upper room, where only the night before they had shared the paschal meal with Jesus. Judas had been with them then as well, but now both the betrayer and the Betrayed are dead. Fear seizes the Eleven. How much longer will it be before the rest of them are put to death? Days? Hours? On this dreadful night, Mary has chosen to remain alone in her grief as her Son rests alone in the grave. As darkness descends, this Sabbath night brings only anguished rest.
Before dawn on the third day, we find Mary alone in her cell (Spiritual Exercises # 218-225, 299). Desolate and sorrowful, she is not, however, given over to despair. Drawing strength from the memory of that boundless consolation which she had enjoyed some 30 years before, the sorrowful Mother has patiently persevered in faith. Never did she doubt that the Child whom she conceived was “holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). This knowledge sustains her now. She has not lost faith. Had her Son not foretold the events of these days? He taught His disciples: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise. But they did not understand the saying and they were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:31-32). She, nonetheless, believed. Even now despite her overwhelming grief, she trusts that the promises of the Lord will be fulfilled. Though sorely afflicted, the Mater Dolorosa keeps faith (cf. Psalm 116:10). Obedient to the Lord’s command, Abraham had been given back his son whom he was willing to put to death. Ever obedient to God’s word, Mary faithfully longs for her own Son, whose priestly sacrifice she suffered on Calvary Hill. Despite the encircling gloom beyond which none can see, Mary’s hope remains.
As the rising sun breaks forth over the horizon on that first Easter morning, light dispels the darkness. Seated, in mourning garb arrayed, her eyes closed and head bowed, Mary does not perceive the One whose divine glory surrounds her. His pierced hands draw her closely to Himself. Heart speaks to Heart as He enfolds her within His embrace. Immediately her faith recognizes the Risen Lord. With tear-swollen eyes, she looks up and gazes upon His once marred, now glorious face. Behold, the Risen Christ has come in haste to console His sorrowful Mother. Resurrected love transfigures her being. With boundless joy her soul magnifies the Lord; her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Blessed is she, yes, indeed, blessed is she who trusted even in her sorrow that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled.
Such is the medieval tradition which our Father Ignatius reverently places at the beginning of the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises: Our Lord first appeared to His Mother after the Resurrection. Indeed, that Our Lord should have appeared first to His Mother is most fitting not simply because a loving son ought to think of comforting his mother before all others, but more to the point because Mary’s faith was uniquely able to recognize the Resurrection. Amidst the desolation and despair following Our Lord’s death and burial, Mary alone, we may rightly believe, trusted with a pure Heart that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled. She persevered in faith. Despite the overwhelming darkness, Mary’s faith never wavered. When the Son of Man came back from the dead, He did indeed find faith on earth. He found it in His sinless Mother whose virtue—in this case, the theological virtues of faith and hope—never failed. The medieval tradition employed by our Father Ignatius intuits Mary’s invincible faith which immediately welcomed the Risen Lord as some 30 years before it had docilely conceived the Incarnate Word. At Nazareth Mary uttered her fiat. None other than the Immaculate Virgin could have spoken that ‘yes’. Similarly, at Jerusalem, Mary uniquely recognizes the Risen Christ. Without faith, one cannot recognize the Risen Lord. Later that same Easter morning, the Magdalene will think Christ the gardener, and still later on the evening of that same day, the despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus will walk miles with the Risen Christ before recognizing Him in the breaking of the bread. But Mary’s faith, which is the Church’s faith in seminal form, welcomes her Risen Son without fail. In her the Church infallibly proclaims Christ’s Resurrection from the dead.
The seminarian and the priest have much to learn from Mary’s perseverance in faith. Mary teaches us to trust in Divine Providence, most especially in times of trial when darkness obscures our vision. Priestly formation calls the seminarian to die to himself so that he may live solely for Christ. With St. John the Baptist the seminarian and priest learn to pray “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30) to the point that we can say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2.20). Priestly formation prepares us for our sacramental conformation to Christ, Priest and Victim. The dying to self necessary for one who would be an alter Christus is never easy. Indeed, it often hurts. During the dark days of our purification, we can easily be led to despair. At such moments Our Lady aids us. She instructs us through her example to trust that the promises of the Lord will be fulfilled. Our Lady of the Resurrection still dressed in mourning garb yet illumined by her Risen Son’s divine glory inspires us to believe that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28). With Marian faith we pray, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). Thus in hope do we persevere. Mary’s paschal faith assures us that the Lord’s love is truly invincible. No matter how bleak the situation or painful our suffering, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). During times of desolation, we would do well to imitate Our Lady who having pondered in her Heart the joys of Christmas (cf. Luke 2:19) found the spiritual strength necessary to endure the desolation of her Son’s passion and death as she awaited the fulfilment of His paschal promise (cf. Spiritual Exercises # 321, 323).
As we enter into the Sacred Triduum, let us turn to Mary, Our Lady of the Resurrection, who trusted that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled. Let us implore her intercession. May she teach us how to persevere in times of desolation as we faithfully await consolation’s return. May she make haste to visit us with her Son’s grace so that on Easter morning our souls may truly magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in Christ our Risen Savior.
P. JOSEPH CAROLA, S.J.
Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum
Rome, 4 April 2007