This article is a part of a series on the seasons of the liturgical year: Advent I; Advent II ; Advent III ; Christmas; Epiphanytide; Septuagesima; Lent I; Lent II; Lent III.
“He began to grow sorrowful and to be sad. Then he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death. Stay you here and watch with me.”1 (Matthew 26.37-8)
(LifeSiteNews) — Having passed four and a half weeks of Lent, the traditional Roman liturgy now passes into Passiontide – the last two weeks of Lent, including Holy Week.
Passiontide is itself a part of the forty days of Lent; but up until this moment, the Sundays of Lent have been focusing on matters quite distinct to Our Lord’s passion.
Over these Sundays, the Church has presented Christ to us in four ways, emphasizing his power and dignity. This presentation is a vital preparation for Passiontide – because we can only love that which we know. The Church wants to show us who is this God-Man that chooses to suffer in Gethsemane, at the pillar, amongst mocking soldiers, on the way to Golgotha and on his holy cross.
In other words, she wants to show us – especially those seeking baptism – that whatever sacrifices are demanded of us for Christ’s sake are more than worth it.
Only after this period of preparation does the Church allow us to enter into the Holy of Holies: the silence, suffering, dignity and triumph of the passion.
Our Lord begins to be sorrowful
When Our Lord went to the Garden of Gethsemane, the gospels say that “he began” to be sorrowful, or to be afraid. Before this, there is no trace of fear in him whatsoever. Even at the Last Supper, his disciples are more afraid and sad than he is.
This is because he had not yet “begun” to be sorrowful. John Henry Newman wrote the following:
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.
His composure is but the proof how entirely He governed His own mind. He drew back, at the proper moment, the bolts and fastenings, and opened the gates, and the floods fell right upon His soul in all their fulness. […]
You see how deliberately He acts; He comes to a certain spot; and then, giving the word of command, and withdrawing the support of the God-head from His soul, distress, terror, and dejection at once rush in upon it. Thus He walks forth into a mental agony with as definite an action as if it were some bodily torture, the fire or the wheel.2
This agony became so severe that he began to sweat blood. But by the time that Judas arrives, Our Lord at least gives the appearance of having mastered this suffering, and he spends almost all of his Passion in a composed and dignified silence.
The silence of Christ
All through the manifold indignities from Gethsemane to Golgotha, Christ maintains this silence, as it was written of him in Isaias:
He was offered because it was his own will, and he opened not his mouth: he shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter, and shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer, and he shall not open his mouth. (Isaias 53:7)
Sr. Teresa Gertrude (d. 1889), an English Carmelite convert nun, suggests in her work Jesus the All-Beautiful that both Christ’s silence, and the occasional breaks in this silence, are for our benefit, rather than his own:
When indeed He spoke of His sorrows, or confessed their heavy weight by the words He uttered, it was with some definite object in view for the instruction of those who heard Him, so great was His love for them and desire to gain their sympathy.3
Further, each time Our Lord breaks his silence during his Passion, his words are a surprise.
For example: Pilate (who was no stranger to brutality) turns to the scourged Christ, crowned with thorns, and asks him questions which are clearly filled with anxiety. As the questions continue, Pilate is almost begging Christ to answer him, appealing to his power to crucify or liberate him.
Suddenly, Our Lord breaks his silence, and tells Pilate in perfectly lucid terms:
Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above. Therefore, he that hath delivered me to thee hath the greater sin. (John 19.11)
This struck Pilate so strongly, that St. John tells us that “from henceforth [he] sought to release him.” (19.12)
Other surprising breaks of this silence include his rebukes of the soldier who struck him before Caiaphas, and the women of Jerusalem weeping over him.
The most surprising break of all is at the moment of his death, in which he cries out “with a loud voice.” Our Lord is not shouting in pain – crucified men are incapable of this. St. Luke also specifies that this “cry” even consisted of articulate words: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” St. John Chrysostom says that Christ intended, by his “loud voice”, to show “incontestably that He was the true God,” and “that [his dying] is done by His own power.”4
Each of these breaks have the effect of showing us, however else it may appear, that Christ is still the master, in control of every situation. Whatever he is enduring in his passion, he is enduring because it is his own will to do so. Cardinal Newman makes the same point, adding that “at His will His tormented Heart broke, and He commended His Spirit to the Father.”5
Newman reminds us that the agony of Gethsemane remained throughout the whole of the passion. Without such reminders, Christ’s silence might make us think that this agony had passed altogether. But no: underneath this silence and composure, the suffering continues.
This silence and composure were a source of wonder in those who witnessed it. They should be a source of wonder for us too, for us to contemplate in faith and love.
But let us also consider how the Church lives out this silence in our own day.
The silence of the Church
St. Augustine frequently writes that “[Christ] is the Head of the Church, and the Church is His Body, [and the] Whole Christ is both the Head and the Body.”6 The idea that the Church is Christ, still living on earth, is very common and rooted in the New Testament itself.
Alongside side it is the idea that the Church lives the life of her head. In one sense, this happens because they live the same supernatural life. In Mystici Corporis Christi, Pius XII taught that “Christ our Lord wills the Church to live His own supernatural life.”7
In another sense, as explained by Mgr. Robert Hugh Benson in his book Christ in the Church, the Church still lives out the events of Christ’s life simultaneously in her members. At any given time, in her members, “He is born here, lives, suffers, dies, and eternally rises again on the third day.”8
In a further sense, many today believe that the Church mystically re-lives the life of Christ in a linear way through history. She will always be enduring a passion in some of her members, but it is suggested that she is currently re-living his passion in a special way – a way which does not affect just some of her members, but rather the Church herself, as a whole.
Whether this is a way of describing the final persecution foretold in Scripture, or a true view of history, or just an instinctive feeling on the part of some of the faithful, is neither here nor there. She certainly is undergoing a passion at this time – and probably the worst persecution that has ever been.
In a particular way, she appears to be re-living the silence of the passion. She stands before the world, as Christ stood before Pilate, to be judged – and she stands in silence. Because of this silence, many of us are left without access to that sure rule of faith, by which she forms, directs and protects us. The very existence of so many online apostolates testifies to the difficulty of simply trusting of those who otherwise appear to be our authorized shepherds.
Our Lord said of himself, in the third person:
[T]he sheep follow him, because they know his voice. But a stranger they follow not, but fly from him, because they know not the voice of strangers. (John 10.4-5).
While there are those who claim to speak for the Church, the sheep do not really listen to them and obey them – nor do the goats, who otherwise praise them when it suits them to do so. Rather, many of these men have more in common with the strangers, or with the thief of Our Lord’s parable, who “cometh not, but for to steal and to kill and to destroy.” (John 10.10).
Christ was remarkable in his time as one who taught with authority, an authority which was his own. But as Romano Amerio put it in his classic book Iota Unum:
The internal fact producing [today’s disunity] is the renunciation that is, the non-functioning, of papal authority itself, from which the renunciation of all other authority derives.9
Whatever we think best explains this absence and non-functioning of authority, this is the very essence of the crisis both in the Church and in civil society. Those who “teach” without authority, and without the message of Christ, do not make their voices recognizable as his shepherds, speaking for the Church.
As such, despite the proliferation of words and letters, the absence of strong, authoritative teaching of the faith is equivalent to the Church herself keeping her silence.
What does it mean?
Why, we might ask, does Christ not speak to us through his Church?
We might be tempted to ask him, with the apostles, “Master, doth it not concern thee that we perish?” (Mark 4.38).
Or, if we are really daring, we might echo his word from the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Sr. Teresa Gertude’s comments on the mystery of Christ’s silence may help us understand better that of the Church. She acknowledges how hard it is to understand why Christ chose not to speak: he allowed false witnesses to misrepresent him and his teaching; he chose not to work a miracle before Herod, which might have converted many; and he allowed this silence to bring own more contempt on himself, and lead “to His being clothed in the garment of a fool.”10
Many might have believed in him, if only he had spoken more in his passion. And yet while human judgment calls out for Our Lord to speak in his defense, even Pilate can tell that there is more here than human judgment can understand. Sr. Teresa Gertude continues:
[W]e must certainly feel sure that nothing less than the wisdom of one Who was Divine, and of a Soul replenished with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, could have justified silence in a matter wherein the glory of God itself seemed to require that it should no longer be maintained. […]
A multitude of reasons appear in our eyes to have demanded the infringement of that rule of silence which He had imposed upon Himself. But no! save where the glory of His Father and the Divinity of His own Person were concerned, our Lord preserved, from the moment of His arrest in the Garden, His passive attitude unchanged, as being most consonant with His manifestation of the majesty, the wisdom, and withal the patient inexhaustible love of a rejected God.11
Just as we veil the statues and images in Passiontide, the silence of Christ seems to veil the movements, sentiments and thoughts which he experienced in his passion. With regards to the Church, we are left to stand before this veil, like Our Lady, St. Mary Magdalene and St. John, looking on in amazement and dismay. But if we have learnt to love the Church on Laetare Sunday, then rather than make us despair, this is an opportunity for us to make acts of faith, hope and charity. It is an opportunity for us to stand by Christ in his silence, as he is once more tried, judged and condemned in his Church.
If we had nothing more than the Gospels, these texts would depict the most noble of men undergoing unimaginable treatment with dignity and composure. But the Gospels do not just tell a story about a man in the past, but rather a living God-Man whom we must follow and imitate, and in whom we must live and abide. As Dom Eugene Boylan puts it:
Christ is all and in all. The whole Christ – head and members – resembles Christ the Head. Each member is an image of the Head, for each Christian is another Christ […] Each member, and each member’s story, in some way and in some degree, resembles and reflects the Head and the story of the Head – and even the whole Christ and the story of the whole Christ.
Each tiny chapter of the story re-echoes the end of the whole story so daringly summed up by St. Augustine: And there shall be one Christ loving Himself. For Christ saves us and sanctifies us by making us part of Himself, so that His story is our story also.12
And in fact, we do have more than the Gospels – we also have the pearl of great price, the holy Roman liturgy. Through her Passiontide liturgy, the Church unveils for us parts of what transpired within Christ’s soul during his passion, and draws us into the union described by Boylan. Through this Passiontide liturgy, she teaches us how she wishes her children to relate to the holy cross and the triumph which our Master has won for us through it.
This shall be the subject of the next part.
1 All Scripture and propers taken from the Douay-Rheims-Challoner version. Some liturgical texts amended to reflect the Latin of the propers when there is a slight variation from the Biblical text.
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 Sr Teresa Gertrude, Jesus the All-Beautiful, ed. Rev. J.G. MacLeod. Burns and Oates, London, 1910, pp 331-2.
4 Quoted in St Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Vol. I, Part II, trans. John Henry Newman, James Parker and Co., Oxford and London, 1874, p 962
6 St Augustine, Sermon 87 on the New Testament (Tenth chapter of the Gospel of John), n. 1. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff, Christian Literature Publishing Co., Buffalo, NY, 1888. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Available at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160387.htm.
7 Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christ, 1943, n. 55. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_29061943_mystici-corporis-christi.html
8 Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, Christ in the Church (1911), The Cenacle Press, Stamullen, Ireland, 2022, p 10
9 Romano Amerio, Iota Unum – A study of the changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth century, Sarto House, Kansas City MO, 1996. 143.
10 Sr Teresa Gertrude, 338.
11 Ibid, 338-9
12 Dom Eugene Boylan, This Tremendous Lover, Baronius Press, 2019, pp xxi-xxii.