Guercino’s (1591–1666) Crowning With Thorns depicts two attitudes toward the Suffering Christ. On the one hand we see a soldier clad in armour. With a gloved hand he forces the crown of thorns into the sacred head of Christ. His armour and gloves protect him from any direct contact with the Body of Christ. On the other hand, we see a self–righteous spectator; he holds himself at certain distance from Christ and, like the soldier, protects himself from direct contact with the Body of Christ. He holds Our Lord’s scarlet cloak of derision with one hand: signifying his approval of the cruel Passion of the Lamb.
This morning’s Mass opens with Psalm 21, the very psalm that, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord intones from the Cross: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?'”(Mt 27:46). Today’s Introit is a solemn entry into the prayer of the suffering Christ to the Father. It is Christ who prays:
O Lord, remove not Thy help to a distance from Me;
look towards My defence.
Save Me from the lion’s mouth;
and My lowness from the horns of the unicorn (Ps 21:20, 22).
One cannot sing, or hear, or meditate today’s Introit without recalling what is written in the Letter to the Hebrews concerning the prayer of Christ: “In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard for His godly fear” (Heb 5:7). The sacred liturgy during these days of Passiontide and Holy Week gives us the “prayers and supplications, the loud cries and tears” of Christ our Head and our High Priest. In a unique way, these prayers and supplications, these loud cries and tears of His, have passed into the chant of the Church, which interprets them for us. One need only sing the soaring, pleading aspice (see GR, p. 133) of this morning’s Introit to experience this.
The verse of the Introit takes up the heart–rending cry:
O God, my God, look upon me:
why hast thou forsaken me?
Far from my salvation are the words of my sins” (Ps 21:2).
How are we to understand such a prayer in the mouth of Our Lord. Jesus crucified is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). The immaculate Lamb calls our sins His sins; He has taken them upon Himself. They have been driven into His hands and His feet; they have become a crown of thorns wounding His sacred head. “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending His own Son in the likeness of flesh and [as an offering] for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3). Saint Paul goes so far as to say, “For our sake He made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
The Promises of God
The First Reading (Ez 37:21–28) is rich in divine promises.
They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols
and their detestable things,
or with any of their transgressions;
but I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned,
and will cleanse them;
and they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ez 37:23).
The promises made through the mouth of the prophet point to the purity of hearts washed in the Blood of the Lamb and in the tears of the Virgin Mother of the Lamb: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).
My dwelling place shall be with them;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Then the nations will know that I the Lord sanctify Israel,
when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore (Ez 37:27–28).
This is the promise fulfilled in the words of Christ before His ascension to the Father: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). In the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict XVI interprets these words eucharistically. “The Eucharist,” he writes, “makes us discover that Christ, risen from the dead, is our contemporary in the mystery of the Church, His Body” (art. 97).
The sacramental presence of God in the midst of His people is manifested in holiness. The saints of every age are evidence of the presence of Jesus Christ in the adorable mystery of the Eucharist, His “dwelling place” and “sanctuary” at the heart of the Church.
The First Reading is followed by one of two Gradual chants: either the Gradual Tenuisti manum dexteram meam or the intense and musically challenging Responsory Collegerunt. (The interpretation of Collegerunt was my “final exam” as a novice studying Chant many years ago.) In the first option we hear again the voice of Jesus in prayer to His Father:
Thou hast held me by my right hand;
and by Thy will Thou hast conducted me,
and with Thy glory Thou hast received me (Ps 72:23–24).
In the phrase, et cum gloria assumpsisti me, the musical treatment of the word gloria is protracted and, at the same time, expressive of confidence and peace. The resonance with the priestly prayer of Christ in Saint John immediately strikes the ear of the heart: “And now, Father, glorify Thou me in Thy own presence with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was made” (Jn 17:5).
The verse of the Gradual relates to the Passion of Jesus and to His laborious steps beneath the weight of the Cross. I translate zelavi as “I loved ardently.” The “peace of sinners” is the false peace of those who would compromise with evil.
How good God is to Israel,
to them that are of a right heart!
But my feet were almost moved;
my steps had wellnigh slipped
because I loved ardently among sinners,
seeing the peace of sinners (Ps 72:1–3).
The Responsory Collegerunt is taken from the Gospel of the Mass and anticipates it, interpreting it dramatically. In some way, it functions as a meditative introduction to the Gospel.
The chief priests and the pharisees gathered a council and said:
What do we, for this man doth many miracles?
If we let Him alone so, all will believe in Him;
and the Romans will come, and take away our place and our nation.
V. But one of them called Caiaphas, being the high priest that year,
It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people,
and that the whole nation perish not.
From that day, therefore, they devised to put Him to death, saying:
And the Romans will come,
and take away our place and our nation (Jn 11:47–49, 50, 53).
The Offertory Antiphon, again a prayer of the Heart of Christ to the Father, expresses His obedience; it must be sung and heard in symphony with His supplication to the Father in the garden of Gethsemani: “My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, Thy will be done” (Mt 26:42).
Quicken thou me, O Lord, according to Thy word:
that I may know Thy testimonies (Ps 118:107, 125).
The Communion Antiphon, like the Offertory, is taken from Psalm 118. In the context of today’s Mass, all of Psalm 118 becomes an expression of the adhesion of the Son to the will of the Father. “He Who sent Me is with Me; He has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to Him” (Jn 8:29). By partaking of His adorable Body and Precious Blood we are taken up into the obedience of the Son and into His prayer:
Remove from me reproach and contempt:
because I have sought after Thy testimonies,
and Thy testimonies are my meditation (Ps 118:22, 24).