Having heard what we’ve just heard, I’d like to share a prayer of a great layman, a good husband and father, an accomplished lawyer, a writer, saint and a martyr: St Thomas More, beheaded in London on 6 July 1535. It goes (modernised) as follows:
‘Good Lord, give us your grace not to read or hear the Gospel of your bitter Passion with our eyes and ears in the manner of a pastime, but that it may, with compassion, so sink into our hearts that it may stretch to everlasting profit of our souls.’
I find that very beautiful. The account of the Passion just read is to sink, with compassion, into our hearts and stretch to our everlasting profit. It is to sink and to stretch. (This isn’t physiotherapy or Pilates!). Two movements: one downward, sinking deep into our hearts, the other outward, stretching. To sink and to stretch.
We have the phrase, don’t we, ‘from the depths, from the bottom, of my heart’? ‘I was moved to the depths of my heart; I love you from the bottom of my heart.’ That is where the event, the story, the Gospel we’ve just heard is meant to go. That is where Christ’s Passion belongs. That’s where Jesus wants to go. The eternal Son of God ‘came down from heaven’, says the Creed. This isn’t about physical displacement. God ‘came down’ by becoming human, becoming a creature that has sprung from the ground (humus). And in the passage of St Paul we hear often this week: ‘he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross’. Crucifixion, physically, meant being lifted up, but inwardly it meant the opposite. ‘He submitted so humbly’, says our 2nd reading, ‘that his prayer was heard…He learned obedience through suffering.’ This is to go down, to be under. Jesus called himself a grain of wheat that had to fall into the ground and die. Last night, we heard how he bent down to wash his disciples’ feet, going down to serve. In Gethsemane, he fell to the ground in prayer. He went down being arrested, being put under human judgment, being sentenced to death. He went down under a rain of mockery, under the crown of thorns. He went down into ugliness, says Isaiah, ‘no look to attract our eyes’, ‘despised’, that is, literally looked down on. Twice, in Isaiah and the Psalm, we heard the word ‘thing’: ‘a thing despised and rejected’, ‘a thing thrown away’. Yes, he went down to the level of a ‘thing’. He went down into pain, into thirst, into death, into silence and burial. ‘He descended into hell’, says the Creed again. There are so many levels here. And why? Thomas More’s prayer gives an answer: ‘so to sink, with compassion, into our hearts.’ That’s journey’s end for the falling grain. To find a way into our hearts. To take his compassion into our hearts. To cleanse them with the blood and water from his side, put them in order, set them right, give them peace. Christ’s Passion is something our heart is to take to heart. It’s something not to be ‘forgotten in men’s hearts, like a thing thrown away.’ This forgetting of Christ (and much else) in the heart is the tragedy of our Western culture. It leads to the forgetting of the heart, the hardening of the heart, the death of the heart.
‘May the Passion of Christ so sink into our heart as to stretch our souls’, goes the prayer. Sinking in order to stretch. To enlarge our hearts. We think of Christ’s hands stretched out on the cross. We can think of his heart pierced open with a lance. We can think of his resurrection when in his humanity he enters a great new space, a human way of being no longer confined by suffering and death. And so the Cross that sinks also stretches. ‘The Cross of Christ has become the tree of life,’ says an antiphon. Will our heart let the Passion sink its roots into and stretch out its branches?
‘But as for me, says the Psalmist, I trust in you, Lord / I say: “You are my God”’ – the stretching of trust.
‘Be strong, let your heart take courage, all who hope in the Lord’ – the stretching of hope.
‘He was praying all the time for sinners’ – the stretching of prayer.
How many exercises for the heart, as the Passion stretches out in us ‘to the everlasting profit of our souls’! Most of all, the Passion stretches our humanity all the way to the wide heart of the risen Christ, the heart that never forgets, that doesn’t look on others as things, doesn’t despise and reject or crown with thorns or pierce with lancing words, the heart in whom the Father is well-pleased.
‘After the Passion, there’s only compassion’, said Paul Claudel – the convert of Notre Dame Cathedral.
‘Good Lord, give us your grace not to read or hear the Gospel of your bitter Passion with our eyes and ears in the manner of a pastime, but that it may, with compassion, so sink into our hearts that it may stretch to the everlasting profit of our souls.’
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 19 April 2019)