Nine years ago, in his Wednesday audience on 8 April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI gave an unforgettable introduction to the Sacred Paschal Triduum, a veritable mystagogical catechesis. The luminous and serene teachings of Pope Benedict XVI merit re–reading and meditation. The subtitles are my own.
Into the Sacred Paschal Triduum
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Holy Week, which for us Christians is the most important week of the year, offers us the opportunity to be immersed in the central events of Redemption, to relive the Paschal Mystery, the great mystery of the faith. Beginning tomorrow afternoon, with the Mass “In Coena Domini,” the solemn liturgical rites will help us to meditate in a more lively manner on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord in the days of the Holy Paschal Triduum, fulcrum of the entire liturgical year.
Christus Factus Est Pro Nobis Obediens
May divine grace open our hearts to comprehend the inestimable gift that salvation is, obtained for us by Christ’s sacrifice. We find this immense gift wonderfully narrated in a famous hymn contained in the Letter to the Philippians (cf. 2:6-11), on which we meditated several times in Lent. The Apostle reviews, both in an essential and effective manner, the whole mystery of the history of salvation referring to Adam’s pride who, not being God, wanted to be like God. And he contrasts this pride of the first man, which all of us feel a bit in our being, with the humility of the true Son of God who, becoming man, did not hesitate to take upon himself all the weaknesses of the human being, except sin, and pushed himself to the profundity of death. This descent to the last profundity of the Passion and Death is then followed by his exaltation, the true glory, the glory of the love that went all the way to the end. And that is why it is right — as Paul says — that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!” (2:10-11). With these words, St. Paul refers to a prophecy of Isaiah where God says: I am the Lord, to me every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth (cf. Isaiah 45: 23). This — says Paul — is also true for Jesus Christ. He really is, in his humility, in the true greatness of his love, the Lord of the world and before him every knee truly bows.
How marvelous, and at the same time amazing, is this mystery! We can never meditate this reality sufficiently. Jesus, though being God, did not want to make of his divine prerogatives an exclusive possession; he did not want to use his being God, his glorious dignity and power, as an instrument of triumph and sign of distance from us. On the contrary, “he emptied himself” assuming our miserable and weak human condition — in this regard, Paul uses a quite meaningful Greek verb to indicate the kenosis, this descent of Jesus. The divine form (morphe) is hidden in Christ under the human form, namely, under our reality marked by suffering, poverty, human limitations and death. The radical and true sharing of our nature, a sharing in everything except sin, leads him to that frontier that is the sign of our finiteness — death. But all this was not the fruit of a dark mechanism or a blind fatality: It was instead his free choice, by his generous adherence to the salvific plan of the Father. And the death which he went out to meet — adds Paul — was that of the cross, the most humiliating and degrading that one can imagine. The Lord of the universe did all this out of love for us: out of love he willed to “empty himself” and make himself our brother; out of love he shared our condition, that of every man and every woman. In this connection, Theodoret of Cyrus, a great witness of the Eastern tradition, writes: “Being God and God by nature and having equality with God, he did not retain this as something great, as do those who have received some honor beyond their merits, but concealing his merits, he chose the most profound humility and took the form of a human being” (Commentary on the Letter to the Philippians, 2:6-7).
The Chrism Mass and the Year of the Priest
As prelude to the Paschal Triduum, which will begin tomorrow — as I was saying — with the thought-provoking afternoon rites of Holy Thursday, is the solemn Chrism Mass, which the bishop celebrates in the morning with his presbytery, and in the course of which at the same time the priestly promises are renewed, made on the day of ordination. It is a gesture of great value, an occasion all the more propitious in which the priests confirm their fidelity to Christ who chose them as his ministers. Moreover, this priestly meeting assumes a particular meaning, because it is almost a preparation to the Priestly Year, which I have proclaimed on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the death of the holy Curé of Ars and which will begin next June 19. Blessed also in the Chrism Mass will be the oil of the sick and of catechumens, and the chrism will be consecrated. These are rites that signify symbolically the fullness of Christ’s priesthood and the ecclesial communion that must animate Christian people, gathered for the Eucharistic sacrifice and vivified in the unity of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the afternoon Mass, called “In Coena Domini,” the Church commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, the ministerial priesthood and the new commandment of charity, left by Jesus to his disciples. St. Paul gives one of the earliest testimonies of all that happened in the Cenacle, vigil of the Lord’s Passion. “The Lord Jesus,” he wrote, at the beginning of the 50’s years, based on a text he received from the Lord’s own realm, “on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me'” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). Words charged with mystery, which manifest clearly the will of Christ: Under the species of bread and wine he renders himself present in his body given and with his bloodshed. It is the sacrifice of the new and definitive covenant offered to all, without distinction of race or culture. And from this sacramental rite, which he entrusts to the Church as supreme proof of his love, Jesus appointed his disciples as ministers, and those who followed them in the course of the centuries. Holy Thursday is, therefore, a renewed invitation to render thanks to God for the supreme gift of the Eucharist, to be received with devotion and to be adored with lively faith. Because of this, the Church encourages, after the celebration of Holy Mass, watching in the presence of the Most Holy Sacrament, recalling the sad hour that Jesus passed in solitude and prayer in Gethsemane, before being arrested and then being condemned to death.
The Precious Blood and the Wood of the Cross
And so we come to Good Friday, day of the Passion and crucifixion of the Lord. Every year, placing ourselves in silence before Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross, we realize how full of love were the words he pronounced on the eve, in the course of the Last Supper. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). Jesus willed to offer his life in sacrifice for the remission of humanity’s sins. Just as before the Eucharist, so before the Passion and Death of Jesus on the cross the mystery is unfathomable to reason. We are placed before something that humanly might seem absurd: a God who not only is made man, with all man’s needs, not only suffers to save man, burdening himself with all the tragedy of humanity, but dies for man.
Trust and Abandonment in God
Christ’s death recalls the accumulation of sorrows and evils that beset humanity of all times: the crushing weight of our dying, the hatred and violence that again today bloody the earth. The Lord’s Passion continues in the suffering of men. As Blaise Pascal correctly writes, “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world; one must not sleep during this time” (Pensées, 553). If Good Friday is a day full of sadness, and hence at the same time, all the more propitious a day to reawaken our faith, to strengthen our hope and courage so that each one of us will carry his cross with humility, trust and abandonment in God, certain of his support and victory. The liturgy of this day sings: “O Crux, ave, spes unica” (Hail, O cross, our only hope).”
In the Silence of Mary
This hope is nourished in the great silence of Holy Saturday, awaiting the resurrection of Jesus. On this day the Churches are stripped and no particular liturgical rites are provided. The Church watches in prayer like Mary, and together with Mary, sharing the same feelings of sorrow and trust in God. Justly recommended is to preserve throughout the day a prayerful climate, favorable to meditation and reconciliation; the faithful are encouraged to approach the sacrament of penance, to be able to participate truly renewed in the Paschal celebrations.
The Paschal Vigil
The recollection and silence of Holy Saturday lead us at night to the solemn Paschal Vigil, “mother of all vigils,” when the singing of the joy of the resurrection of Christ will erupt in all the churches and communities. Proclaimed once again will be the victory of light over darkness, of life over death, and the Church will rejoice in the encounter with her Lord. We will thus enter into the climate of the Easter of Resurrection.
The Triduum with Mary
Dear brothers and sisters, let us dispose ourselves to live the Holy Triduum intensely, to participate ever more profoundly in the mystery of Christ. We are accompanied on this journey by the Holy Virgin, who in silence followed her son Jesus to Calvary, taking part with great sorrow in his sacrifice, thus cooperating with the mystery of the Redemption and becoming Mother of all believers (cf. John 19:25-27). Together with her we will enter the Cenacle, we will stay at the foot of the Cross, we will watch next to the dead Christ, awaiting with hope the dawn of the radiant day of the Resurrection. In this perspective, I now express to all of you the most cordial wishes for a happy and holy Easter, together with your families, parishes and communities.