The Approach of Passiontide

18nosorr.jpgSaturday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 7:2-3, 9bc-10, 11-12
John 7:40-53

Everything in today’s Mass indicates that Passiontide is upon us. Our Lord, most especially in the liturgy of this fortnight preceding Pascha, teaches us the mystery of the Cross. Our part is to listen well with the ear of the heart, so as to understand. We are already on the threshold of the great fortnight leading up to Easter.

The reformed liturgy conserves the substance of these fifteen days. Even a cursory study of the texts reveals that, beginning this evening, we will be plunged into the mystery of Jesus suffering and of His sorrowful Mother. The hymns at the Hours sing of the Passion, the readings speak of it, and the responsories meditate it. At Mass during the Fifth Week of Lent, the Preface presents the Passion of Christ as the healing of the world, and his Cross as the sign of victory:

Through the saving passion of your Son
the whole world has been called
to acknowledge and to praise your majesty;
for in the ineffable power of the Cross
the judgment of the world
and the power of the Crucified shines forth.

A Prayer Not Without Tears
Already today, the Entrance Antiphon was the cry of the suffering Christ to the Father: “Groanings of death surrounded me, hell’s sorrows compassed me about. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice out of His holy temple” (Ps 17:5-7). What is this antiphon if not the prayer described in the Letter to the Hebrews? “Christ, during his earthly life, offered prayer and entreaty to the God who could save Him from death, not without a piercing cry, not without tears; yet with such piety as won him a hearing” (Heb 5:7). In the First Reading from Jeremiah, we are given, already, the image of the “gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19), and in the Responsorial Psalm, we hear the voice of Christ raised to the Father in a prayer of anguish and, at the same time, of utter trust: “O Lord, my God, my confidence is in thee” (Ps 7:2).

The Blood of the Lamb
Yesterday and today, there is a marked change in the tenor of the Communion Antiphon. The focus is on the precious Blood of the Lamb. In yesterday’s Communion Antiphon, we heard, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins” (Eph 1:7), and in today’s we will hear, “We are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 P 1:19). Hear the resonance with the “gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:9) in the First Reading. The “Lamb of God” during the rite of the Fraction takes on a richer tone today. So too will the invitation to Holy Communion: “Behold the Lamb of God.” The moment of Holy Communion will be yet another voice in the symphony: “The Body and Blood of Christ.” The liturgy is all of a piece. We grasp its meaning only in the relationship of each part with the whole.

Vexilla Regis Prodeunt
By means of an ensemble of allusions and resonances, the liturgy directs our steps to the threshold of Passiontide. This evening the Church returns to the ancient hymn in praise of the Cross: Vexilla regis prodeunt: Fulget crucis mysterium; “The royal banners forward go: The Cross shines forth its mystery.” The reading at Vespers will repeat this morning’s Communion Antiphon: “The ransom that freed you . . . was paid in the precious blood of Christ; no lamb was ever so pure, so spotless a victim” (1 P 1:19). Our gaze, directed by the liturgy, goes to the radiant mystery of the Cross and to the Blood of the Lamb, and remains there.

The Silence of the Word
Just a word on today’s gospel. It is extraordinary in that it contains not a single word spoken by the Lord Jesus himself. The Word is silent while all around him others speak. Those who were listening to him speak. The police speak. The Pharisees speak. Nicodemus speaks. But the Word is silent, for “He came to what was his own, and they who were his own gave him no welcome” (Jn 1:11).

The Fall and Rise of Many in Israel
There is no agreement about Jesus and his mission; there is nothing but dissension, discussion and wrangling. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, believe me, I have come to bring dissension. Henceforward five in the same house will be found at variance, three against two and two against three” (Lk 12:51-52). Thus is the prophecy of Simeon to the Virgin Mary fulfilled: “Behold, this child is destined to bring about the fall of many and the rise of many in Israel; to be a sign which men will refuse to recognize; and so the thoughts of many hearts shall be made manifest; as for thy own soul, it shall have a sword to pierce it” (Lk 2:34-35).

Jesus is the sign of contradiction. He unsettles the established order. He disturbs the tranquil. He causes the complacent to ask questions. “Do not imagine that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come to bring a sword, not peace” (Mt 10:34).

Often we experience dissension and wrangling within our own hearts! Often we hear within ourselves the voices of the many: voices of the faithless crowd, of the police, of the Pharisees, and of Nicodemus, voices of doubt, of accusation, of bewilderment, of contradiction, of inconsistency, of cautious acceptance and of refusal. And in the midst of all this speaking, the one voice of the Word falls silent, or rather, becomes inaudible except to the ear of the heart, for the silence of the Word speaks always to anyone who will be silent long enough to listen. Listen then, during this “great fortnight” to the silence of the Word.