A number of years ago I attended a talk given by a local priest at a training session for a social outreach ministry. I’ve always enjoyed this priest’s sermons when I played at his Masses from time to time for various occasions. He tends to be very matter of fact and often thinks outside the box (obviously a trait I admire). His portion of the training was integral to the day’s session, as we would be working with persons in Lafayette who were living with a terminal illness. Needless to say, the preparation and the work required a spiritual component, and this was it.
At some point in the talk, Father B. started talking about sacrifice, and naturally mentioned the typical sacrifices associated with Lent: giving up something, usually a favorite food, sometimes a favorite activity or hobby, maybe a bad habit. His sacrifice was rather different, though. At the time, was shocked by his charge to go ahead and eat meat on Friday, eat whatever you want! Think about a different sacrifice, he suggested. Try to live the Our Father. Do it every day, not just on Fridays. Interesting twist, isn’t it? Something actually a lot harder to do than to forgo that bologna sandwich. Father B. was wise to the situation: usually we just don’t eat the meat off the buffet, but pile our plates with more of the meat-less sides. No steak means three potatoes instead, and veggies, etc. No dessert usually means having a couple melon balls or an apple. But this task: live the Our Father. Mean what we pray and, the hard part, pray what we mean. In other words, going meatless for 5 days isn’t much a sacrifice to us moderns. Rendering praise to God may very well be. Forgiving others most definitely is a challenge most times. How can God’s kingdom be arranged here on earth? What can we do? Can we conform to God’s will? What can we do to avoid temptation? It might not always be possible, but we can think about it, perhaps. How often do we call upon the Lord in difficult times? Depending on the person, some or all of these tasks would rank on various difficulty levels.
Usually, preparing the chants for Holy Week and studying their texts is my spiritual preparation for the Triduum. This Holy Week, I have no need to do that, since I will not be chanting them nor will I be singing the part of John the Evangelist in the Good Friday passion Gospel. So this year, I pulled down my volume of Martin Luther’s Sermons off my study book shelf. It’s an antique 1902 edition, written in the old German Fraktur script, and contains one or more sermons for each Sunday of the year, including holy days. This would be my Triduum preparation. Read and ponder the words of Luther regarding the passion and the resurrection. Like Father B.’s Lenten challenge, Luther proposes an interesting Good Friday charge, one I had never considered, but which makes complete sense. When celebrated properly, the Good Friday service is packed with emotion, as we know, however this emotion is the problem: it’s misleading, and Luther tells us this flat out. We get caught up in the sufferings of Christ and mourn for him: we are moved to tears that an innocent man is judged, convicted and executed. Instead, we should indeed be rightly moved to tears, but we should mourn and weep not for Christ, but for ourselves “like with women who followed Christ from Jerusalem and were admonished by him that they should weep for themselves and for their children”, for it is our own fault that Christ shed his blood.
I’ve often been asked as a choir director why the text of the Passion Chorale (O Sacred Head) is so gory. Many hymnals clean up the text a bit, but my choice is always the old translation that spares none of the blood and pain. It’s the edition most like the original German text. The text isn’t meant to make you physically ill, but it is meant to make real the scene of the passion, to remove the sterility and present the reality. This makes perfect sense when we read Luther’s observation in his Good Friday sermon. Here’s my translation of a particularly pertinent passage: “To ponder the suffering of Christ correctly, to really behold it, is to be profoundly horrified and that the conscience likewise sinks into despair. You experience the horror in that you behold the grave anger and immutable seriousness of God regarding sins and sinners, because he did not want to give the sinners’ lot to his most beloved son, but through it, he would do such a great and heavy penance. So he speaks through Isaiah (53,8): Because of my people’s sin, have I slain him. What could come against the sinner, if the most beloved child is slain? It must be an unspeakable, unbearable seriousness, when for the sinner such a greatly immeasurable person steps in, suffers and dies. And if you ponder it quite deeply that God’s son, the eternal wisdom of the Father, himself suffers, so you should be horrified, the more, the deeper. And further you must realize and never doubt it, that you are the one who puts Christ to death. For your sins have surely done it. In this way St. Peter (Acts 2, 36,37) horrified the Jews as if with a clap of thunder when he told them: You have crucified him. And then it happened that three thousand, horrified and quaking, said to the apostles on the same day: O dear brothers, what should we do? Therefore, when you see the nails of Christ piercing through his hands, believe firmly that they are your works. Look upon the crown of thorns and believe: these are your thoughts. And understand this: where a thorn pricks Christ, there should easily more than one hundred thousand thorns have pricked you, and that eternally and with even more violence. Where a nail was driven through the hands and feet of Christ, you should have been made to endure even more violent nails…For this serious mirror, Christ, neither lies nor complains.”
Thinking about the passion of Christ in this way makes that fish order seem pretty inconsequential, doesn’t it? Christ was pierced for our offenses, and as recompense, we dutifully order the halibut. Heretic! Blasphemer you say I am! You rend your garments! Calm down, Pharisee! I’m just turning up the heat a bit on the sacrifice scale, just like Father B. did. Entering the passion of Christ means a little more than going through the motions. Luther charges us to stop and take notice. Gaze upon the crucifix and at least attempt to magnify Christ’s sufferings a thousand fold, and the result is what we ourselves merit. Ponder it. Hagios ho Theos!