Familiarity with the story can blind us to the reality of these great events. The paschal mystery (the Passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ) is not just past history or a myth. It is not just a morality play with some lessons for everyday life. It is nothing less than victory over sin and death.
In the paschal mystery, the Most Holy Trinity is fully revealed as a God of total self-giving love. The Father gives his Son for us. The Son gives his all for us. And the Holy Spirit is the gift that unites us to the divine love. Self-sacrificing love unto death, even death on the cross, is the only path to redemption, to resurrection and life. It is the only way out of human misery, the only answer to the longings of the human heart.
The Passion reads like a catalog of human horrors. Jesus experiences betrayal, total abandonment by his own, malicious distortions of his words and works, false accusations, the perversion of justice, beatings, spitting, scourging, mockery, stripping and one of the most cruel forms of execution ever devised — crucifixion. And he says, “Come follow me!” Only faith can make so great a leap as to follow a crucified God.
The Church corporately, and each of her members individually, has to walk the way of the cross. The human heart recoils at the prospect of enduring even a small part of the Passion. We all yearn for a quiet and peaceful life, free of illness, material want, danger, turmoil and misfortune. This is normal. It is good. It is our yearning for the way God created us to be before sin and death entered the world. Original sin, however, and the multiplication of sin have brought us a long way from paradise.
On Holy Thursday, we will commemorate the Last Supper. Listen again to what Jesus tells the apostles and their successors in the Church: “In the world you will have suffering, you will have trouble. ... If the world persecuted me, it will also persecute you. ... If they have followed my teaching, they will follow yours. The reason the world hates you is because you do not belong to the world.” (Jn 15-16)
How does this apply to us? As fundamental truths about the God-given meaning of life and love are abandoned more and more today, we can expect an ever more powerful and concerted effort to intimidate and silence those who dissent. Religious freedom, conscience clauses, respect for churches to organize themselves according to their beliefs — all these things are increasingly met with hostility. Individuals who refuse to go along are even hounded out of public service.
In the two millennia since the Last Supper, Christ’s body — his Church — has experienced all that he suffered: betrayal, abandonment, malicious distortions, false accusations, the perversion of justice, beatings, spitting, scourging, mockery, stripping and crucifixion. We are a Church of saints and sinners, and sometimes the greatest trials come from betrayal and abandonment within, not outside, the Church, just as they did for Jesus from among his own.
Yet the Church continues, however imperfectly sometimes in her members, to embrace the self-sacrificing love and self-surrender of the cross, with her eyes fixed on her triumphant and Risen Lord. His words of warning on Holy Thursday already reflect the Easter victory. Having spoken of the troubles apostles can expect as his followers, Jesus explains, “I have told you all this so that you may not fall away. ... Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. ... Take courage, for I have conquered the world.”
May our celebration this year of the paschal mystery deepen our courage and resolve not to fall away, not to be intimidated or afraid. In every circumstance, let us put all our trust in God, who provides for all our spiritual and material needs.
God bless you during holy Week and grant you a Happy Easter. †