March 7, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Passiontide reminds us to join our sorrow and pain to that of Christ

St. Joseph Church in Jasper is one of the largest churches in Indiana.

It has an awesome character about it and certainly had that effect on me as a child. Like a lot of families in those days, our family had a favorite pew that we occupied invariably.

As a child, I think I had all of the symbols and images on our side of the church memorized.

And I was always startled when, on the fifth Sunday of Lent, called Passion Sunday, we arrived in church and all of the statues were covered in purple cloth.

It was the practice in those days as a penitential and kind of mournful sign to cover the crosses, statues and images in the church in view of the approaching observance of the Passion and death of Jesus.

When I was a junior monk at Saint Meinrad, my assignment for a time was church decoration. And covering the statues and images for Passiontide was one of my jobs. There were a lot of statues!

After the Second Vatican Council and the reform of the liturgy, a good number of devotional practices were set aside. I missed some of them; this external marking of Passiontide was one of them.

The Ordo, the official Church calendar for 2008, has this entry: “In the dioceses of the United States, crosses in the church may be covered from the conclusion of the Mass for the Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent until the end of the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. Images in the church may be covered from the conclusion of the Mass for Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.” (Notice, the restoration of this devotional practice is not obligatory.)

I welcome the practice to mark Passiontide. External signs and symbols that promote our devotion are an ­acknowledgement of our need for aids to help us strengthen our faith.

We need images and symbols to stir our imagination and to direct our attention to the shifts of meaning and experience in the liturgical life of the Church. This is one of the distinctive features of Catholic worship.

There was a day when we may have placed too much emphasis on devotional externals that, in fact, distracted us from the essential meaning and centrality of the Eucharist and the mysteries celebrated in the liturgy of the Church year.

Arguably, in order to achieve a liturgical and devotional balance after the Second Vatican Council, we tended to the other extreme.

In some respects, our eucharistic and other liturgical celebrations tended to become overly intellectualized. Heart and mind and emotions are all important in our human experience of life. So it is in our experience of liturgical life in the Church.

I don’t intend to say that this means crosses and sacred images should be covered during the two weeks of Passiontide. But practices such as this can help capture our attention, and help focus our prayer and reflection more specifically about what is being celebrated in the liturgical year.

So what about Passiontide? What should be different in our worship and prayer? Before we celebrate the wonder of Easter with Jesus, we are led to focus on the stark fact that he suffered an ignominious death.

In order to redeem us from the otherwise hopeless darkness of sin that had been our human heritage, freely he took upon himself the burden of our suffering. He was unjustly convicted and crucified as a criminal. He accepted that humiliation, and the very real emotional and physical suffering it entailed.

That, of course, is by no means the end of the story. But for a brief time in the liturgical year, the Church encourages us to ponder the awesome gift of Jesus in all its stark reality.

It is also in this brief time of Passiontide that we remind ourselves that when it is our lot to suffer in this life, we have the opportunity to join our sorrow and pain to that of Christ.

And it is fruitful to reflect that our participation in his Passion and death on the cross gives some ultimate meaning to our own suffering. No one escapes the reality that in one way or another sickness and the heavy burdens of human loss and sorrow touch every life.

As we reflect and pray with the Church during these weeks of the Passion of Jesus, we recall once more that in the end we have been freed of suffering. We walk with him to the Kingdom “where every tear will be wiped away” (Rv 21:4, Rv 7:17).

These two weeks of Passiontide remind us that we arrive at the Kingdom and Easter by way of the cross. †

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