by Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. 1870
Holy Church will soon be calling us once more to join with her in the holy Offices: meanwhile, let us, as it behoves us, keep our hearts and thoughts upou our Redeemer, for these are the very Hours when he wrought our Salvation. Our morning’s meditation brought us to Calvary, where we were considering how the executioners stripped Jesus of His clothes, preparatory to their nailing Him to the Cross. Let us reverently assist at the consummation of the Sacrifice, which He offers, for us, to the Justice of His Eternal Father.
The executioners led Jesus to the spot where the Cross is lying on the ground: it is the Eleventh Station. Like a lamb destined for a holocaust, He lays himself on the wood that is to serve as the Altar. They violently stretch His hands and feet to the places marked for them, and fasten them with nails to the wood. The Blood gushes forth from these four life-giving founts, wherein our souls are to find their purification. This is the fourth Bloodshedding. Mary hears the strokes of the hammer, and every blow wounds her heart. Magdalene’s grief is intensified by her incapability of helping her tortured Master. Jesus is heard to speak: it is his first Word on Calvary: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (St. Luke, xxiii. 34). O infinite goodness of our Creator! He has come into this world, which is the work of His hands, and men nail Him to a Cross: and on that Cross He prays for them, and in His prayer he seems to excuse them!
The Victim is fastened to the wood, whereon He is to die. But the Cross is not to be left, as it is, lying on the ground. Isaias has foretold that the Root of Jesse is to be raised up as a Standard of all nations (ls. xi.10.). Yes, our Crucified God must be raised up, and, by that elevation, purify the polluted atmosphere of this world, infested as it is by the spirits of wickedness. He is the Mediator between God and men; He is our High Priest; our Intercessor; He is lifted up (St. John, xii. 32) between earth and heaven, making reconciliation between them (Rom. v. 11). Not far from the spot where the Cross now lies on the ground, they have made a hole in the rock, wherein to fix it, so that all may have a sight of Him that hangs upon it. It is the Twelfth Station. It needs a great effort to raise and plant the Tree of the world’s Redemption. The soldiers lift it up, and then, with impatient vehemence, let it fall into the hole. The shock tears the four wounds. Oh! see Him now exposed naked before the multitude, this good Jesus Who is come to clothe the nakedness that sin has caused in us! The soldiers have done their work, and now they claim His Garments.
They tear them into four lots, and each takes a share: but a strange feeling induces them to respect His Tunic, which was without a seam, and, as we are told by a pious tradition, was woven by the hand of His Blessed Mother. Let us not cut it, say they: but let us cast lots for it, whose it shall be (St. John, xix. 24.). It is a symbol of the unity of the Church, which is never to be broken under any pretext whatsoever.
Above our Redeemer’s head there are written these words, in hebrew, greek, and latin: JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS. The people read this Inscription, and say it to each other; without wishing it, they are once more proclaiming the Royalty of the Son of David. The enemies of Jesus are quick enough to perceive this: they hasten to Pilate, and beseech him to have the Title changed. The only answer he deigns to make them is: What I have written, I have written (Ibid. 22.). The Holy Fathers have noticed a circumstance of the Crucifixion, which expresses, how this King of the Jews is, indeed, rejected by His chosen people, but that He will reign all the more gloriously over the Nations of the earth, whom the Father has given to Him for His inheritance. The circumstance we allude to is this: the soldiers, when fixing the Cross in the rock, have so placed it, that Jesus has His back to Jerusalem, and is stretching out His arms towards the countries of the west. The Sun of Truth is setting on the deicide City, and rising upon the new Jerusalem, that proud Rome, which feels that she is destined to be “The Eternal City,” yet knows not that she is to be so by the Cross.
The Tree of our Salvation, as it falls into the hole prepared for it, strikes against a tomb: and the Tomb is that of our First Parent. The blood of the Redeemer flows down the Cross, and falls upon a skull: it is the skull of Adam, whose sin has called for this great expiation. In His mercy, the Son of God wills that the instrument, wherewith He has gained pardon for the guilty world, should rest amidst the very bones of Him that first caused its guilt. Thus is Satan confounded: the creation is not, as he has hitherto thought, turned, by his own artifice, to the shame of its Creator. The hill, on which is raised the Standard of our Salvation, is called Calvary, which signifies a skull. Here, according to the tradition of the Jews, was buried our First Parent, the first Sinner. Among the Holy Fathers of the early Ages, who have handed down this interesting tradition to us, we may cite St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome. Origen, too, who had such opportunities of knowing the Jewish traditions, mentions this among the number. At a very early period, Christian Art introduced the custom of placing a human skull at the feet of Jesus’ image on the Cross: it was done to commemorate the great fact, to which we have been alluding.
But let us look up and see this Jesus of ours, Whose life is so soon to end upon this instrument of torture. Here we behold Him exposed to the view of the Jewish people, as the Serpent was, of old, lifted up, by Moses, in the desert (St. John, iii. 14). His enemies pass before Him, making insulting gestures, and saying: Vah! Thou that destroyest the temple of God, and in three days dost rebuild it, save Thine own self! If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross (St. Matth. xxvii. 40)! The Chief Priests and the Ancients continue the blasphemy, but adding their own emphasis to it: He saved others; Himself He cannot save! If He be King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusted in God; let Him now deliver Him, if He will have Him; for He said: I am the Son of God (St. Matth. xxvii. 42, 43). The two thieves, who were crucified with Him, insulted Him in like manner.
Never had God conferred on His creatures a blessing comparable to this: and yet, never did man so boldly insult His God! Let us Christians, who adore Him Whom the Jews blaspheme, offer Him, at this moment, the Reparation He so infinitely deserves. These impious men cite His own words, and turn them against Him: let us reverently remind our Jesus of an expression He once deigned to use, which should fill us with hope: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself (St. John, xii. 32.). Sweet Jesus! the time is come: Thou art lifted up from the earth: fulfil Thy promise, draw us to Thyself! Alas! this earth has such hold upon us, we are chained fast to it by so many ties; self-love fetters us; and when we attempt to fly towards Thee, our flight is checked. Oh! break our chains, and draw us to Thyself, that we may at length reach Thee, and Thou be consoled by the conquest of our souls!
It is the Sixth hour, or, as we call it, mid-day. The sun immediately withdraws his light, and darkness covers the face of the earth. The stars appear in the heavens, and a gloomy silence pervades throughout the world. It is said, that the celebrated Denys the Areopagite of Athens, who was afterwards a disciple of St. Paul, exclaimed, on witnessing this awful eclipse: “Either the God of nature is suffering, or the world is coming to an end.” Phlegon, a pagan author, who wrote a century after, tells us, that this sudden darkness spread consternation throughout the Roman Empire, and that the Astronomers owned it baffled all their calculations.
So terrible an indication of the wrath of heaven produced a panic of fear among the spectators on Calvary. Blasphemers are struck dumb, and the blasphemies of them, that were just now insulting our Redeemer, cease. All is silent as death. The Thief, whose cross was at the right of Jesus’, feels himself touched with repentance and hope. Turning to his companion, he upbraids him for what he had been saying: Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation? And we, indeed, justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this Man hath done no evil (St. Luke, xxiii. 40, 41).
Jesus defended by a Thief, at the very time that He is being insulted by them who boast that they know every iota of God’s Law, and are sitting in the Chair of Moses! Nothing could give us a clearer idea of the blindness, to which the Synagogue has voluntarily brought itself. This poor criminal, whose name is Dimas, represents the Gentile world, which now is steeped in ignorance and crime, yet is soon to be cleansed from all its abominations by confessing Jesus Crucified to be the Son of God. Turning his head towards our Saviour’s Cross, he thus prays to Him: Lord! remember me, when thou shalt come into Thy kingdom! He believes Jesus to be King; and the Chief Priests and Ancients were, but a moment ago, making jests with this King! Dimas sees the divine calmness and dignity of the innocent Victim: it is evidence enough; he gives Him his faith, and begs a remembrance from Him when the day of His glory comes. Grace has made him a true Christian: and who can doubt, but that the grace was asked and obtained for him by Mary, the Mother of Mercy, who is now uniting herself in sacrifice together with her Jesus? Jesus is pleased to find in this poor criminal the faith He had vainly sought for from Israel: He thus grants his humble prayer: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise (St. Luke, xxiii. 42, 43). It is the second of Jesus’ Words on the Cross. The happy penitent is filled with joy, and awaits in patient silence the blissful moment when death shall set him free.
Meanwhile, Mary draws near to the Cross, whereon hangs her Son. She recognises Him, in spite of all the darkness; her love was her light. The eclipse has dispersed the crowd; all is silent; and the Soldiers can find no reason for keeping the afflicted Mother from approaching her Son. Jesus looks with tenderest affection upon Mary; the sight of her sorrow is a new grief to His sacred Heart. He is dying, and His Mother cannot console or embrace Him. Magdalene, too, is there, distracted with grief. Those feet, which, a few days before, she had anointed with her most precious perfumes, are now pierced through with nails, and the Blood is clotting round the wounds. They are near enough to the ground for her to reach and bathe them with her tears; but her tears cannot stay the pain. She is come to see the Death of Him that forgave her all her sins. John, the Beloved Disciple, the only Apostle that has followed Jesus to Calvary, is overwhelmed with sorrow. He thinks of the favour bestowed upon him last night, when he rested his head on the Breast of this dear Master, and the remembrance intensifies his grief. He grieves for the Son, he grieves for the Mother. He little knows the reward he is soon to receive for this his love! Mary of Cleophas has followed the Holy Mother up to the foot of the Cross. At some distance off, there stands a group of women, who loved Jesus, and had ministered unto Him during His life (St. Matth. xxvii. 55).
The silence is again broken: Jesus speaks His third Word, and it is to His Mother: but He does not call her by that dear name, for it would redouble her pain: Woman! He says, behold thy son! Then looking upon John, He says to him: Son! behold thy Mother (St. John, xix. 26, 27)! What an exchange was here for Mary! but, O what a blessing it brought upon John, and through him to all mankind! the Mother of God was made our Mother! This was the subject of our meditation on the Friday of Passion Week: let us, today, gratefully receive this last Testament of our Jesus, Who, having by His Incarnation made us the adopted Children of His Heavenly Father, now, in His dying moments, makes us Children of His own Blessed Mother.
It is close upon the Ninth hour, the third hour after mid-day, and it is the one fixed by the eternal decree of God for the Death of Jesus. The feeling of abandonment, which had caused our Redeemer to suffer an Agony in the Garden, now returns. He has taken upon Himself the sins of mankind: the whole weight of God’s justice now presses on His soul. The bitter Chalice of God’s anger, which He is drinking to the very dregs, extorts from His lips this plaintive cry: My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken Me (St. Matth. xxvii. 46)? It is the fourth Word. He does not say My Father! He speaks as though He were but a poor Sinner, trembling before the judgment seat of God. A burning thirst elicits from Him the fifth Word: I thirst (St. John, xix. 28). Whereupon, one of the soldiers presents to His dying lips a sponge full of vinegar; and this is all the refreshment He receives from that earth, on which He daily pours a heavenly dew, and to which He has given ever-flowing fountains and rivers.
The moment is at length come, when Jesus is to yield up His Soul to His Father. He has fulfilled every single prophecy that had been foretold of Him, even that of His receiving vinegar when parched with thirst. He therefore speaks this His sixth Word: It is consummated (St. John, xix. 30)! He has, then, but to die; His Death is to put the finishing stroke to our Redemption, as the Prophets assure us. But He must die as God. This man, worn out by suffering, exhausted by His three hours agony, Whose few words were scarce audible to them that stood round His Cross, now utters a loud cry, which is heard at a great distance off, and fills the Centurion, Who commands the guard, with fear and astonishment: Father! into Thy hands I commend My spirit (St. Luke, xxiii. 46)! This is His seventh and last Word; after which He bows down His head, and dies.
At this awful moment, the sun reappears in the heavens, and darkness ceases: but the earth is shaken by an earthquake, and the rocks are split. The space between the Cross of Jesus and that of the bad Thief is violently rent asunder, and the opening is shown to this day. The Jewish Priests, who are in the Temple, are terrified at seeing the Veil, which hides the Holy of Holies, torn from top to bottom: the time for figures and types is over, the great realities are come. Many holy personages arise from their graves, and return to life. But it is in hell itself that the Death of Jesus is most felt. Satan now sees Who He is, against Whom He has excited all this persecution. He sees, that the Blood which He has caused to be shed, has saved mankind and opened the gates of heaven. This Jesus, Whom he dared to tempt in the desert, He now recognises as the Son of God, Whose precious Blood has purchased for men a Redemption that was refused to the rebel Angels!
O Jesus! Son of the Eternal Father! we adore Thee now lying dead on the wood of thy Sacrifice. Thy bitter Death has given us Life. Like those Jews who saw Thee expire, and returned to Jerusalem striking their breasts, we, also, confess that it is our sins which have caused Thy Death. Thou hast loved us, as none but God could love. Henceforth, we must be Thine, and serve Thee, as creatures redeemed at the infinite price of Thy Blood. Thou art our God; we are Thy people. Accept, we beseech Thee, our most loving thanks for this final proof of Thy goodness towards us. Thy holy Church now silently invites us to celebrate Thy praise. We leave Calvary for a time; but will soon return thither, to assist at Thy holy Burial. Mary, Thy Mother, remains immoveable at the foot of Thy Cross. Magdalene clings to Thy feet. John and the holy women stand around Thee. Once more, dearest Jesus! we adore thy sacred Body, Thy precious Blood, and Thy holy Cross, that have brought us Salvation.