As my third grade class walked through the double doors of the church I began to prepare myself for the time of prayer that was about to begin. The Stations of the cross was my favorite meditation, I had memorized the meditations given in the booklet because they were said every Friday in Lent. I loved to say the words with passion and conviction, as if I were speaking directly to Jesus. I hoped that no one noticed the tears which gradually made their way down my face. Unfortunately my sorrowful response to Christ's passion was, is to this day, and will always never feel like enough. During this time of Lent how should we respond to the moving and powerful events of Christ's life, death, and resurrection? How should we respond to moving experiences and monumental events such as the passion of Christ?
These life long questions were raised again last Saturday evening when I attended mass at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh with my lacrosse team. It was the feast of the Transfiguration and the homily focused on the apostle’s response to the impactful and moving experience they witnessed on the mountain. Having moving experiences of great importance can be a source of motivation for a person to change. This can be seen in the popular novel Brothers Karamazov when, after beating his slave, Zosima wakes up the next day feeling ashamed for what he had done and immediately asks the slave for his forgiveness. This example of a change of heart or conversion was motivated by an experience of importance. In Catholic tradition there are many accounts of conversions which occurred at the scene of Christ's crucifixion.
But as I sat there in my pew the questioned remained for me; how can I...how should I respond to Christ's passion which is of far greater importance than my experience of a beautiful sunset.
It seems that many times when we speak of a value response to an experience we speak of a magnificent sunset or the noble and heroic act of a stranger who saves a man's life. Although these examples possess intrinsic value and are beyond admirable, their value pales in comparison to the act of the Son of God dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world. How is it possible for 21st Century Christian to engage in these dramatic pivotal events which took place 2,000 years ago?
First, we must realize that no one could have a more perfect sorrowful response to Christ's death than His mother. However, we can respond to an experience of importance and value without the usual feelings and emotions tied up with viewing a sunset or a romantic scene in a movie. A sunset or the birth of a child is a joyful moment in which gratitude is the proper response. However, is this the proper response to be had towards the death of the Son of God? There is a stark contrast between the Magnificat of the most Blessed Virgin and the attitude of the Mother of God standing at the Cross. (pg.115)
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
This difference in responses is a difference between gratitude and acceptance. In The Art of Living, Hildebrand speaks of acceptance as being the proper response to Christ's death, our daily crosses, and suffering in general. The chapter on gratitude expressed that acceptance (not gratitude) is the fitting response. That although every gift from God derives from his infinite love, there is an absolute distinction between bliss and sorrow to be included in that love. "Furthermore it is in accord with God's decrees for us to make a clear distinction between a beneficial gift and a cross." (pg. 118) Gratitude is the response to positive gifts where as submissive, loving acceptance is the response to crosses. Hildebrand stresses that there are fundamental differences between the different "faces" of God's Providence which should not be passed over and ignored. Positive gifts shine forth a reflection of eternity, and distinct from that is suffering and crosses which point to the vale of tears and the condition of our earthly pilgrimage. (pg.119)
We must also keep in mind that sufferings exist for the sake of joy and only for the sake of joy. God's unfathomable suffering must not cloak the fact that the redemption constitutes the way to sanctification and opens the gates to our eternal happiness. (pg. 116) The greatness and depth of the passion of Christ causes us to pray in adoration:
Wounded with His every wound,
Steep my soul till it hath swooned,
In His very blood away.
This fact must not obscure our knowledge that the passion of Christ is the way to eternal happiness. (pg.116)
"The Sufferings of Christ, which moves us to our very marrow, and His love, in which He pours out His blood for us, intoxicating our heart and causing us to pray, ‘Blood of Christ, inebriate me,' must not allow us to forget that the eternal goal is not participation in the Cross, but rather the blessed face-to-face vision of the God-man Jesus Christ reigning in transfigured glory in eternity. We pray this face-to-face vision with the words:
Beholding Your face reveal, Your glory shall I be blessed to see." (pg.117)
However, we must not confuse this ultimate end of eternal happiness with our immediate responses to sufferings which is meek and obedient acceptance. The submissive acceptance of our crosses should purify us and unite us with the sufferings of Christ. But this is only possible if our crosses are fully suffered, if we do not force a joyful response to them. (pg.119)
We should remember that we are permitted to ask for positive gifts and for the averting of sufferings and crosses. Great heed should be taken when praying for suffering so that one's prayers do not become eccentric and artificial. Only when one possesses a special vocation (to pray for suffering) are their prayers genuine, impressive and beautiful. (pg.120)
A perfect example of a prayer to avert sufferings and humble acceptance of suffering was given by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He first asks sorrowfully that the cup be taken away but then shows ultimate submission to the will of God when he says, "Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done." (pg.120)
Therefore, during this solemn time of Lent let us engage in the dramatic suffering of Christ with humble submission and acceptance. Let us keep in mind that our sufferings are experienced in light of the ultimate end of eternal happiness.
Quotes: The Art of Living, Dietrich von Hildebrand (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1965) pages 115-120
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