(LifeSiteNews) — In the previous part, we saw that Christ’s passion is not just an event in the past, but also a living mystery from which grace continues to flow. We saw how his silence in the passion manifests a composure and dignity under even the most unimaginable treatment. We considered how this silence is a veil, like those which cover the statues in Passiontide, hiding the thoughts and feelings which Christ experienced.
We considered how, in addition to the account given in the Gospels, we have also the holy Roman liturgy. In this “pearl of great price,” the Church lifts part of the veil of Christ’s silence. Through her liturgy, she teaches us parts of what transpired within Christ’s soul, opens this living mystery to us, and draws us to abide in him through faith and love.
To see how, let’s consider the place of the psalms in the life of the Church and in her liturgy.
In the Roman liturgy, the variable parts chanted by the choir (the “propers”) are usually taken from the psalms, which dominate the Mass from the start to the finish. They are a crucial means by which the Church’s liturgy teaches and sanctifies us, and draws us into the thoughts and feelings of Christ’s Sacred Heart.
Christ states several times that the Old Testament speaks of him – including the psalms. The New Testament itself often explains Christ’s mysteries with the language of the psalms – as can be seen with various scriptural methods of saying the Rosary.
But even more than the foreshadowing events of his life, it is a commonplace that many parts of the psalms are written as if spoken or thought by Christ himself.
So, what are we to be taught when we approach them in the propers of the two Sundays in Passiontide – Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday?
The liturgy of Passion Sunday
The propers of Passion Sunday present Christ as completely composed in the face of suffering and death – to the point that there is almost no mention of his suffering at all.
This is the Christ who does not have his life taken from him: rather, he lays it down, and he takes it up again. Fr Johannes Pinsk writes:
The Christ presented to us on passion Sunday is a worthy peer of the Christ presented on past Sundays of Quadragesima.
Again and again, in the midst of all his anguish and indigence, in the teeth of all challenges and attacks, there shines forth the interior grandeur, nobility and glory of the Lord.1 (Line breaks added)
In the introit, we hear the following from Psalm 42:
Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man: For thou art God my strength.
Sent forth thy light and thy truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto thy holy hill, and into thy tabernacles.
This is the psalm prayed by the priest at the foot of the altar at each Mass – it is his preparation for going “in to the altar of God” to offer the sacrifice of Christ. By appearing at the start of Passiontide, it presents Christ as composed and prepared for the Holy Sacrifice on Golgotha.
The gradual is a call for help – but one of assured confidence, returning to the confidence in the vindication of God:
Deliver me from my enemies: Teach me to do thy will.
O God, who avengest me, and subduest the people under me, my deliverer from my enraged enemies. And thou wilt lift me up above them that rise up against me: from the unjust man thou wilt deliver me. (Ps. 142, Ps 17)
The tract presents Our Lord’s mistreatment by the wicked, but shows no weakness – on the contrary, it ends with a warlike vindication:
[O]ften have they fought against me from my youth, but they could not prevail over me. The wicked have wrought upon my back.
They have lengthened their iniquity: The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners. (Ps. 128)
The offertory is completely serene, talking only of God and with no regard for fear or suffering at all:
I will give praise to thee, O Lord, with my whole heart. Give bountifully to thy servant, enliven me: and I shall keep thy words. Quicken thou me according to thy word, O Lord. (Ps. 118)
In the communion we hear the words of Our Lord at the last supper – again emphasizing that Christ himself is the one in control:
This is my body, which shall be delivered for you: This chalice is the new testament in my blood, says the Lord. This do ye, as often as you shall receive it, for the commemoration of me. (1 Cor. 11:24-5)
Who could be so composed and serene knowing that in a few days, they would be betrayed, scourged, mocked and publicly crucified? Yet this is the presentation of Our Lord in the liturgy – and it is the same as that of the Gospels. As Newman said, quoted in the previous part:
What He suffered, He suffered because He put Himself under suffering, and that deliberately and calmly. […] He said, ‘Now I will begin to suffer,’ and He did begin.2
Outside of the propers, the Epistle again presents Christ’s self-sacrifice as a considered act, rather than one of passive suffering:
Christ, being come an high Priest […] by his own blood, entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption. (Heb. 9.12)
The Gospel reading itself depicts the debate between Our Lord and his opponents, in which he again states that God’s judgment will favor him – and in which he affirms his own divinity:
Before Abraham was made, I am. (John 8)
When his opponents prepare to stone him, Christ hides himself – perhaps explaining the veiling the statues and images during Passiontide.
But when we consider the Mass of Palm Sunday (as opposed to the procession), we find a very different picture presented.
The Mass of Palm Sunday
In many cases, the propers of these Masses mirror each other. As with Passion Sunday, the introit calls for God’s deliverance – but in the place of confidence, there is now the deepest sorrow:
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 unicorns.
O God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me? (Ps. 21)
Where the gradual previously expected God’s deliverance and vindication, it now expresses dismay at “the prosperity of sinners”:
[…] My feet were almost moved; my steps had well nigh slipped. Because I had a zeal on occasion of the wicked, seeing the prosperity of sinners. (Ps. 72)
The tract of Passion Sunday spoke of the maltreatment by the wicked, but their inability to overcome him. The same sentiments appear in Palm Sunday’s tract (Ps. 21), but with much greater expression given to the sufferings of the passion.
While the offertory sang of praising God “with [his] whole heart”, it now seems to express part of the agony in the Garden – as well as the vinegar of the Cross:
My heart hath expected reproach and misery. And I looked for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none: and for one that would comfort me, and I found none. And they gave me gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. (Ps. 68)
Finally – and most touchingly – where the communion of Passion Sunday showed Christ in control, offering the chalice of his blood to his disciples, we sing about a different chalice on Palm Sunday:
Communion: ‘My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done.’ (Matt. 26)
This Mass, especially following the triumphal procession, represents Christ’s transition from a state of power into one of apparent powerlessness and pain.
It might be tempting to think that these states in Our Lord – of triumph, suffering and composure – were successive, and mutually exclusive. But we also know that the Gospels show us, through Christ’s silence, his constant composure throughout his passion.
Rather than representing successive states, with Christ’s composure displacing his agony, the Mass of Palm Sunday seems to show us that this agony continued throughout the whole passion, coexisting with the composure and dignity presented on Passion Sunday.
What response should we have to this silence, dignity and composure, under physical suffering and co-existing with such mental agony?
To repeat Pinsk, “in the midst of all his anguish and indigence, in the teeth of all challenges and attacks, there shines forth the interior grandeur, nobility and glory of the Lord.”3 Our first response should be one of awe and admiration for this God-Man, his “heroism” and his fortitude.
To this awe, we should add love and gratitude, when we realise that he suffers these things to atone for our own sins. We should return his great love with our own, and strive to abide in him by faith and charity – and contrition for what drove him to make such a sacrifice.
But another response might be to enter further into the mystery by considering the question: How could this sorrow and suffering be borne with such composure at all, and how might we try to understand it?
Christ’s choice to suffer
We know that Christ really suffered – the liturgy shows us the reality of this mental and physical suffering. The twentieth century Dominican theologian Fr Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange clarifies the relationship between Christ’s mental and physical sufferings, and how he willed that his own sight of the beatific vision should not limit his sufferings:
Only the summit of our Savior’s human intellect and will were beatified. Jesus willed very freely to abandon to suffering the less elevated regions of His superior faculties and of His sensibility.
In other words, He freely prevented the irradiation of the light of glory on His lower reason and on His sensitive faculties. He did not wish that this light and the joy which derives from it should by their irradiance lessen in any way the moral and physical suffering which He had chosen to bear for our salvation.4
Garrigou-Lagange gives us a beautiful image to help us contemplate this mystery, showing that in spite of the beatific vision, Christ truly suffered for us:
Christ’s peace amid suffering reminds us of a high mountain peak whose summit is bathed in sunlight, while its lower reaches are in the grips of a terrible storm. Thus only the uppermost portion of Christ’s superior faculties was free from suffering, because He freely yielded Himself up to suffering without seeking any relief in the vision of the divine essence.
There is undoubtedly a mystery in all this. Yet we can at least get a faint idea of it in the case of a penitent. St. Augustine tells us that the truly contrite penitent rejoices because he grieves over his sins, and the more he grieves the more he rejoices.5
But why would Christ choose to become man, suffer and die for us in such a heroic way, and even to put aside everything that might mitigate this suffering – not only divine things, but even the wine he was offered to numb the pain?
In The Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius says that it is because Christ specifically “wants to suffer.”6 This desire is plain from the Gospels, in which Our Lord says:
I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized. And how am I straitened until it be accomplished? (Luke 12.49-50)
But again, why was Christ so “straitened” and desirous for his passion?
The answer is that the passion represents Christ’s triumph, the manifestation of God’s glory, and the achievement of the greatest work – the one, infinitely pleasing and worthy sacrifice, offered to God on behalf of a race otherwise unable to do so, which thus effected the reconciliation of this fallen race to God.
And – unlikely though it may seem – nowhere in the liturgy is the passion commemorated as a triumph so clearly as on Good Friday itself. This shall be the subject of the next part.
1 Johannes Pinsk, The Cycle of Christ, trans. Arthur Gibson, Desclee Company, New York, 1966, p 42.
Fr Johannes Pinsk (1891-1957) was involved with the twentieth century liturgical movement in ways that many readers would consider regrettable. However, his works have a wealth of interesting information about the liturgical year, which I would like to share. They also contains some things which traditional Catholics might not appreciate. My purpose here is to present what is good, along with some comments, to help us appreciate the holy Roman Liturgy.
2 John Henry Newman, ‘Discourse 16. Mental Sufferings of our Lord’, Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, Longmans, Green, and Co. London, 1906, pp 323-341; pp 333-4. Available at https://newmanreader.org/works/discourses/discourse16.html
3 Pinsk 42.
4Fr Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Our Savior and his Love for Us, B. Herder Book Co., London, 1951. 276
6 St Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises, trans. Louis J. Puhl SJ, The Newman Press, Worthington, Ohio, 1951, p 98