Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Cross stands while the world is turning

No apologies to Galileo!

With this image of the salvation brought by the Paschal Lamb, the Church now gives herself to meditation on Christ's sufferings in the suffering psalm which follows and in the Passion of John. In the psalm we hear, as we do so often in the last days, the prayer for help to his Father and helper, of the one who struggles with death and its world. But in the passion according to John as Jesus is taken prisoner, when he is questioned by Annas and Caiphas, and then by Pilate, again and again behind the mask of suffering there appears the royal face of the world's king, who goes to his death of his own will, of his father's will. 'You would have no power over me, if it were not given you from above.'

The Orationes Solemnes
Never perhaps is the Church so deeply aware as today of the imponderables which the eternal king's free suffering puts into her hands. For this reason she gathers together in the great petitions—the 'prayers of the faithful' as they were once known, since only the faithful were allowed to be present as they were said-all the members of her body, all the orders of the Church; but those too who wander and arc far from God, and all those who suffer want in the world. She brings them all to the cross of her Lord to beg for each of them mercy 'in the name of his cross and pain'.

Not that we are to imagine that these striking prayers were always reserved for Good Friday. At one time they were made in every Eucharist, as they are among the Greeks to this day. In the Roman liturgy the only sign of the ancient custom is the now solitary oremus at the beginning of the offertory in the place where the Latin Church once presented the great petitions. This lacuna in our Eucharist is perhaps to be regretted; but it is a gain as well, as this day shows. Because this is the only day which has kept the orationes solemnes we feel instinctively, even though we know better, that here is something unique and deeply akin to the meaning of Good Friday. It is not possible that these prayers should be unheard, says the community praying them. They are spoken into the Lord's breaking heart, laid in his pierced hands. "With these marks he goes in to his Father for the needs of his Church; his blood, poured out for us, has a louder cry than the blood of Abel. It will find hearing and grace for us. Tin's is the promise made to us in the lesson from Hebrews, in Tenebrae.

Indeed, is not he, the crucified one, the fulfillment of all these petitionswhich the Church sends up to him? When he fell asleep on the cross he made real the quieta et tranquilla vita, the deep-flowing, quiet life in God, the holy ordering of life, which the Church asks of him.

All orders within the Church arc the creation of this sacrificial blood, calling and office, gift and mission. All have from God the spiritual power to hold to their way and perform what it is their office to do. The cross is the guide which all must finally accept if they are to come to their goal, all unbelievers and Jews with their erroneous ways, all heretics with the uncertain ways they have chosen for themselves. Christ opens his arms upon the cross to receive all and enclose them in the oneness of his body; he rules as king from his cross, not by the iron of force, but by the wood of shame. Here is the true school in which the rulers of men may learn what is more important for them: how religion and integrity may be preserved, how the kingdom may have security; here on the cross is the port of salvation for the voyagers, the home to which pilgrims return; here is the stricken and wounded one who is health for all the sickness of men. Christ nailed to the cross holds the key to all the world's prisons, for he brings to the prisoners a freedom which no tyrant can take from them, the freedom they gain when they take on the will of God. Truly here is the fullness of salvation which stands open to all in this man whom the world had thought abandoned. Perhaps the orationes had to leave the other days so that they might reveal on this one the whole of their power. But the individual may perhaps be glad to take them over, if only in a short summary for use on other days as well, after the example which St Hippolytus gives us in a sermon: 'We call upon you, Christ, King of the pneuma, King of the aion. Hold out your broad hands over the holy Church and the people you have made holy.'

The Veneration of the Cross
With this continuous prayer the Church has approached the climax of her liturgy for Good Friday. Now is the time to uncover the cross and show it to the people. 'See the wood of the cross upon which hung the world's salvation.' Whether or not it is the true cross, as at one time in Jerusalem, or as today in many places a particle of it, the Church sees everywhere the same, one cross, and she kneels before the hard wood on which God's mercy became visible. 'Come, let us adore.' She kneels in the dust, and kisses the wood as in the Orient one kissed the feet and the garments of kings. She does worship to the majesty of love, bent in the same knowledge of human guilt against this love, which prostrated her at the beginning of this liturgy. In sight of the uncovered cross she gives moving expression to her grief in the improperia, the accusations of Christ against his people. So deep is her emotion that she does not stop until she has fled from the holy one, whom to name puts her in fear, to the merciful God, the forgiver. 'Holy God; strong God; holy and immortal God, have mercy upon us.' The ancient acclamations ring out from the two choirs in Greek and Latin, as if the whole Church, eastern and western, had joined together to give witness of God's holiness and man's sinfulness before the crucified Lord.
The whole Church: it is this which the new ordo (1956 reform of Holy Week) makes so beautifully clear, when it calls upon all the faithful, and not merely the priests and ministers as heretofore, to honour the cross with kneeling and the kiss of love and reverence. Of course this is a return to the old custom, as Aetheria saw it and as it a little later came over to the West; but it is one of the peculiar excellences of the new ritual. It is precisely the veneration of the cross by all which serves the main ideas of the liturgical reform: active participation of the believing people in the healing action of the rite. For it is one thing to see the adoratio cruets performed perhaps at a considerable distance by clergy, and another to enter oneself into the sanctuary to give answer in person to the Lord's decisive question: 'My people, what have I done to thee?'"

If one is only an onlooker at this reverence, one can well let it go by, without being inwardly touched by it: a fine ceremony which binds the individual to nothing. But one who goes up and takes part must pledge himself to the crucified God for life and death, must offer his longing to have part in Jesus' suffering, to have a share in the Pasch, both here in ritual, and in all the difficulty of daily life. If my act is to be no kiss of Judas it must say: 'Here is a pledge to you, Christ and Lord. Draw me into your sacred Pasch.' This gesture towards the cross on the day and at the hour when Jesus died is an open renunciation of the self, of the world, and of Satan. It is public witness for Christ and his cross, and at the same time a deeply felt marriage vow, from this moment on to think of nothing, to love nothing, to have nothing except Christ: nihil amori Christi praeponere: to prefer nothing to Christ's love."

Understood and performed in such a way, the symbolic act of the veneration of the cross can become a true mysterium, if not in the perfect manner of the Eucharist, still communicating a real union with the suffering and dying Christ. One might in fact have been satisfied with this communio alone without the reintroduction of the communion of the laity. It was for a long time the ancient rule. Still we can see precisely from the adoration of the cross what it was that moved the Church to follow with the communio. It is the kissing of the cross which has shown readiness to bear with Christ the pain of his obedience; such readiness is not to be deprived of the occasion to set seal on the Pasch of Christ and to receive its strength to suffer on to the end by tasting of the body and blood which has been offered. It is as an expression of our sharing Christ's suffering and death that the communion on Good Friday has its meaning. But it is not, as it is at every other time, a meal with the joy of Easter in.the company of the risen Christ, a meal in the anticipation of the glory to come; rather today it is the food of pilgrimage, nourishment for us on the road, as the Jewish Pasch had been, which gives us strength like the prophet to reach God's mountain, Golgotha, the cross of Christ.
This is the peak of today's liturgy. The cross is set up, no longer on the hill of Calvary before the gates of ancient Jerusalem; it is no longer surrounded by the curses of heathen soldiers, but by the reverent Church which receives as consolation at this moment of deepest sorrow, a faint taste of joy at resurrection to come. 'Your cross, O Lord, do we adore and your sacred rising we praise and glorify; look, through it joy has entered the entire world.' Easter is anticipated only for a moment. The Church sings of resurrection and of joy. We are to hold on to that: the unforgettable impression of this suppressed and melancholy, yet still at its deepest, happy song of Good Friday: 'Through the cross joy has entered the entire world.'

That is characteristic for the Church's most elemental bearing, not only in her liturgy, but in all her life. She goes with her Lord made man through time, and she bears the cross with him. She sees how his blood is always being poured out from God's hands for those who do not know him, and how his precious life is spent. For it is the Lord himself who suffers death when death touches the members of the body that his Spirit, his pneuma, has fashioned. Good Friday lasts until the world ends and its deepest darkness remains to come. But the Church does not cry out, nor waver. She stands up beneath the cross as Mary did; she has uncomplaining patience on the cross as Jesus had. And whenever death comes she dies in witness to God, certain of the life that is her possession.

The Church's life is a life of the cross, a continual dying. Yet her speech is joyful; her liturgy is the festival of life. She suffers death, but she already lives the resurrection, for her food is the meat of immortality; she has part in the risen Christ, and cannot perish. Rather, as she shows us today, when she keeps only the prayer for the people and the holy communion from the Mass, she remains alone in the world's decline, daily suffering death, daily awakened to life, praying for her murderers and making petitions, in the sing of the joyful cross, for the tortured world. With her hands outstretched in prayer, wholly one with her Lord, she is herself the cross; of which it should be said until the end of time, 'Through the cross joy entered the entire world.'

From the Great Week by Aemiliana Loehr OSB (in fact, a disciple of Odo Casel OSB but I cannot detect any influence in this passage)


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