These last weeks of Lent have their own content and feel. Something shifts with the 4th Sunday of Lent, still more with the 5th and then definitively with the Sunday following, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. It’s a shift of focus: from our own Lenten endeavours to the person of Christ, to Christ on his way to Jerusalem. We might remember the Passiontide hymn of the 6th c. poet Venantius Fortunatus, Vexilla regis prodeunt. “The standards of the king advance; the mystery of the Cross shines forth”. Fulget crucis mysterium. This was composed to welcome a relic of the True Cross coming from Constantinople to Poitiers in the year 567. But for us every year, the Cross comes to us, liturgically, sacramentally, eucharistically. Fulget crucis mysterium: that is what is happening these last weeks before Easter. The Cross shone before our Lord and shines before us.
There’s a feel of clouds gathering, the sky darkening, thunder in the air. Given recent events, we might think of a hostile army gathering on the frontiers of Christ’s goodness, ready to invade. “Let us test him with cruelty and torture and thus explore this gentleness of his.” In the Gospel, the people are confused, the authorities uncertain, manoeuvring, conferring, plotting. The ancient serpent is readying itself to strike Christ’s heel, the beast of the Apocalypse is rising out of the sea and the mystery of iniquity is about to throw itself against the holiness of Christ. Fulget crucis mysterium. It shines against a growing darkness. Christ’s presence calls out the mystery of evil. It feels him. It is discomfited and threatened by him.
The readings have an intensity to them. Last Monday, we began to read the Gospel of John; it will be our guide all the way to Pentecost. John’s is the Paschal Gospel par excellence. In it Jesus speaks three times of being “lifted up”, that is, on the Cross and beyond. The Cross is his triumph. Some ten times or so, he calls the Cross his “hour”, the moment his glory is revealed. Tonight, we begin reading a long section of the Gospel, beginning at ch. 7 and taking us through to the end of ch. 10 – a section which is one long argument between Christ and his adversaries among the Jewish authorities, a confrontation. Tonight, too, we hear the Book of Wisdom describing the misguided reasoning of those desperate to be rid of a disturbing son of God. The original reference is unclear, but the passage fits the Passion perfectly. Tomorrow’s 1st reading gives us Jeremiah under attack, “a trustful lamb being led to the slaughter-house” – another intimation of Christ. The Psalms are cries for help or expressions of trust; we can hear the voice of Christ in the voice of the Psalmist. It’s the same with the Entrance Antiphons. The Passion is everywhere. Fulget crucis mysterium.
So this is how the Liturgy can carry our thoughts and prayer as Easter approaches. Like Mary, we want to align ourselves with Jesus, cultivate an empathy, get on the inside of these things. As our Lord comes to his Passion, something is rising within him, something for us to tap. In the Gospel of John, he seems to have only one subject: his relationship with the Father, his sonship. I have come from the Father, I am sent by the Father, I am bringing you knowledge and life from the Father. Of myself I can’t do anything, only what the Father shows me. Of myself, I don’t have anything to say; I only say what the Father has told me to say. I’m not here to do my own will, but the Father’s. “Father glorify the Son that the Son may glorify you.” No-one has ever spoken like this. “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” It is striking how, as the storm clouds press around him, Jesus discloses his inmost, intimate self. He doesn’t close in on himself. On Good Friday we read the Passion according to John and that Passion narrative climaxes in the opening of Christ’s heart and the flowing forth of blood and water. This self-disclosure is an invitation. Passiontide invites us to enter into Christ, to share his sonship, to share his prayer. Jesus went to the Cross and died on the Cross praying, and praying the Psalms especially. Christ’s glory, while hostility surrounds him, was to do the will of the Father and to love to the end. The Son’s bond with the Father and through the Father his being “for us” remained unbroken. It’s this bond of love which makes the Cross redemptive: Jesus to the end in the Father and the Father in him and thus space opened for us, our sonship restored.. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself.” These last days of Lent are not a Mel Gibson production. They don’t focus on our Lord’s physical suffering. They draw us inside him, into his mind and heart and soul, his charity, his prayer, his orientation to the Father. Fulget crucis mysterium.
And if we do take this inward path, what might happen to us? We’ve heard and seen so many heart-rending things since the invasion of Ukraine. But one clip I saw the other day was something more than that. Perhaps some of you saw it. The testimony of a Ukrainian woman, Iryna, from Kharkiv, an English teacher. She had to leave her husband behind and go with her children to Romania and there has found shelter in an Orthodox monastery at Sihistria. One remark of hers stood out. She said simply, “The monastery stopped me hating.” I have read book after book about the role of monasteries, many saying beautiful things. But this surpassed them all. How overjoyed I’d have been if a departing guest had said to me at Pluscarden: “this monastery has stopped me hating.” It would vindicate the whole monastic life. If you were a parish priest, and a parishioner said, “This parish stopped me hating”, the same. If in our synodal discussions we heard, “being in the Church has stopped me hating.” “The monastery stopped me hating and now I pray for Putin,” she said. Fulget crucis mysterium. The Cross shines in this remark -the victory of Christ shines in it. This woman has reached its interior: the pardon and patience and prayer of Christ, the unsnapped cord, the love that overcomes. The Crucified One had every reason to hate, but he did not. He said quite other things as he was dying. He didn’t die in a rage or bitter; he died entrusting himself and us to the Father. Iryna will pass this victory on to her children and, if please God, they listen, they will not live their lives hating Russians and in turn passing hatred on. For the Fathers of the Church, the whole Christian ethic and ethos lies in the love of enemies. This is Christianity, holiness, human completion. This is the heart of the Passion. “The monastery stopped me hating.” She doesn’t say how; just that it did. May this Easter, the Gospel, the Eucharist, whatever or whoever functions as “monastery” for us, take us in the same direction, into the heart of Christ, into the victory of love. Fulget crucis mysterium.
Friday 1 April 2022