A few scattered, odd thoughts as we stand at the threshold of this most solemn Three Day event, the sacred Triduum.
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis
As I mentioned Sunday, these days are the true axis of time, days when the sanctuary veil that partitions time and eternity thins out, collapses, tears open.
All of their brutality and glory, their beauty and horror, their splendor and terror has been forever caught up into the eternity of God, shaping the very manner in which Son and Father interrelate through the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). That thought alone suffices to sustain awe and wonder for a lifetime.
These days beat at the heart of the Church’s Spirit-laden memory, are the wellspring of her divinized identity and soul of her Pentecostal mission. Every minute detail of these Three days inhabits the deathless liturgies of heaven that have now broken into our world. God’s glory gleams with crimson hues, colored with the Blood of the Lamb.
The Cross, the adorable Cross, stands at the center of this axis as the unshakable foundation of the New Creation.
We speak in Good Friday’s liturgy with seemingly idolatrous excess:
Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit.
“Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world.”
“Come let us adore.”
These 2 stanzas from Venantius Fortunatus’ 6th century Latin poem, Vexilla Regis, express this adoring voice well,
Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari.
“O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.
Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
the wealth that did the world restore;
the beam that did that Body weigh
which raised up Hell’s expected prey.”
The Word became Wood
The Cross was so intimately joined to Christ’s humanity that its Wood, being saturated with his blood (see Aquinas’ Summa, III, q. 25, a. 4), claims that singular dignity of commanding latria, worship which is due to God alone. The whole of creation, visible and invisible, worships. From its splinters spring the life-giving waters, “sparkling like crystal,” that flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the New Jerusalem (cf Rev 22:1-2). It is the new Tree of Life, and from its heavy-laden boughs heavenly Manna descends, spiced Wine gushes forth.
It’s all an astonishing paradox: the grotesque, heinous atrocities accompanying the crucifixion of God by his own creatures become for us, by a supreme act of divine power, the primal signs of beauty that brilliantly illumine the new heavens and new earth with the splendors of sacrificial love.
How is this that God works? He heals by refashioning the poison, brings peace by remaking the sword, reveals wisdom by reconstituting folly, transforms power by foot washing, tramples down death by death and reveals life by transfiguring the tomb into a womb. His saving economy is a liturgy of inversions, making of man’s tragedy a divine comedy.
As Fr. Aidan Nichols aptly sums up this bewildering economy,
Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the aversio of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.
A naked and dying God revealing pure worship. The Mass flowing from the Word, “bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” The amazement stirs in me these words:
Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath fire our life-giving bread;
but on the Altar under a Wingèd Shadow
is of sudden re-made to its lowest ground:
creation is lost! Yet in truth has been found
by the Creator-Word of a God Most High
who stooped low into our starving misery,
stripped by human violence to naked Mystery;
Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath Fire our life-giving Bread;
O Bread soaked in God’s vintage Blood — Adored!
Lavishly, infinity, wastefully, lovingly outpoured
— O press your face to dusty earth! –
onto torn Flesh,
of unfettered mercy
set free by unfettered malice:
O Saving Mystery!
In Christ God reveals a strange, wonderfully strange world where Lambs conquer Dragons, the least are greatest, the most precious is the most despised, and where the supreme heights of godlike perfection are to be found in loving of enemies, in speaking well of detractors and in praying most fervently for those who wish us the greatest ill. It’s a world so other, so new, so radically fresh and different that it requires us to undergo rebirth, requires being born again of God, to see its grandeur and majesty. It requires death and resurrection. But more, to live its startling demands, it requires a new heart and a new spirit that render us susceptible to the Holy Spirit of this Unknown God, the Spirit who alone can make us co-artisans with Christ in fashioning this in-breaking Kingdom of God.
In a word, only the Spirit of the Crucified can make us saints carved from the Wood of his Cross.
Let me leave you with the words of the golden mouthed saint, John Chrysostom, who ever so eloquently unveils the stark newness of this New Creation:
It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them, especially when we recall that the [disciples] were only twelve and the whole world was full of wolves…We ought then to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep we have the victory; but if we are like wolves we are beaten, for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves…This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace. Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.