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The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion of Our Lord

This post is by Brody Stewart, Verbum Marketing and Promotions Coordinator.

When I meditate upon Jesus’ crucifixion, I can’t help but think about Palm Sunday. Why is that?

Palm Sunday should be a celebration of Christ’s victorious entry into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:7-9); the fulfillment of messianic prophesies (Zec. 9:9); and the royal procession for the King of All Creation (Lk. 19:39-40).

But during the Palm Sunday liturgy, these triumphant events are juxtaposed with a memorial of Christ’s crucifixion.

If you’re a contemporary American Catholic (like myself), you’ve probably celebrated a Palm Sunday Mass in which the Gospel is read more like a play than a pericope. The priest takes the role of Jesus, the lector narrates, and the people in the pews speak for the angry mob. As the narrative progresses, we inevitably come to the scene of Christ’s condemnation:

 Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what do you want me to do with the man you call the king of the Jews?” They shouted again, “Crucify him.” Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:12-15, NABRE, emphasis added)

Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross

Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross, by Jacques Tissot, 1890.

We, as hapless members of the congregation, are compelled to chant: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

It’s very uncomfortable. It ought to be.

It’s easy for us to picture the pristine, glorified Christ hanging on a cross. It’s far more difficult to picture the blood, the pain, and the death—in short, the penalty for our sins.

The truth of the matter is that we are responsible for Christ’s death. Every time we lie, cheat, or steal; every time we gossip, slander, or boast; every time we lust, lash out, or refuse to forgive—we may as well be shouting, “Crucify him!

When I meditate upon the crucifixion, I can’t help but think about my own part in Christ’s passion and death. It’s sobering, but it’s also illuminating. It transforms the Sunday-school platitude into a life-giving reality:

“While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NABRE).

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: Jesus Carries the Cross

This post is by Brody Stewart, Verbum Marketing and Promotions Coordinator.

In classical art, we’re often presented with a familiar scene: Jesus, cross on his back, valiantly marches towards Calvary. Less commonly, we’ll see depictions of Simon the Cyrenian helping Jesus carry his cross. Only in a select few paintings will we see Simon carrying the cross for Jesus.

Has this confused anyone else?

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When we read the Gospel accounts of “The Way of the Cross,” we find that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention Simon the Cyrenian carrying Christ’s cross. It’s only in the gospel of John that Jesus reportedly carried the cross on his own.

On the surface this seems confusing. But looking deeper, it’s not difficult to see that both reports are part of the larger narrative. Christ carries his cross until he can go no further, at which point Simon the Cyrnenian is pressed into service. Chronologically, these events are reflected in St. John Paul II’s Scriptural Way of the Cross.

In preserving both halves of the narrative, Holy Mother Church offers us two spiritual lessons:

1. Jesus carries his cross, and calls us to imitate him.

As God of the universe, Jesus could have abandoned his salvific mission. Instead, he submitted himself to torture and death. Jesus never took the easy way out. In carrying his own cross, he models for us the perfect response to our own trials and temptations. He even goes so far as to tell us that “whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27, NABRE). We can courageously carry our own crosses with the knowledge that the God-who-became-man carried his first.

Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus

Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus by Jacques Tissot, 1894

2. God is merciful, and sends us help in our distress

To quote the Psalmist, “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress” (Psalm 46:2). During Christ’s distresses, God did not spare his son this help: in the wilderness, angels were sent to minister to him (Mt 4:11); in the garden , an angel was sent to strengthen him (Lk. 22:43); and on the road to Calvary, Simon the Cyrenian was called to carry the cross for him (Mt. 27:32). If God offered this help to Jesus, how much more will he offer it to us—for whose sake Jesus came to save?

Just as Christ was helped by Simon the Cyrenian,  God uses his people to help us carry our crosses. Rather than relying on our own strength in times of trial, we can trust in God’s goodness and mercy.

The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns

This post is by Brody Stewart, Verbum Marketing and Promotions Coordinator.

For today’s reflection, I’d like to share an excerpt from one of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies. These words of the famed “golden-mouthed” orator are sure to be more moving than my own.

crowning with thorns

Crowning with Thorns by Caravaggio, 1604.

Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him  (Matthew 27:29, NABRE).

What plea shall we have after this for being moved by injuries, after Christ suffered these things? For what was done was the utmost limit of insolence. For not one member, but the whole entire body throughout was made an object of insolence; the head through the crown, and the reed, and the buffeting; the face, being spit upon; the cheeks, being smitten with the palms of the hands; the whole body by the stripes, by being wrapped in the robe, and by the pretended worship; the hand by the reed, which they gave him to hold instead of a sceptre; the mouth again by the offering of the vinegar. What could be more grievous than these things? What more insulting?

For the things that were done go beyond all language. For as though they were afraid lest they should seem to fall short at all in the crime, having killed the prophets with their own hands, but this man with the sentence of a judge, so they do in every deed; and make it the work of their own hands, and condemn and sentence both among themselves and before Pilate, saying, “His blood be on us and on our children,” and insult Him, and do despite unto Him themselves, binding Him, leading Him away, and render themselves authors of the spiteful acts done by the soldiers, and nail Him to the cross, and revile Him, and spit at Him, and deride Him. For Pilate contributed nothing in this matter, but they themselves did every thing, becoming accusers, and judges, and executioners, and all.

And these things are read amongst us, when all meet together. For that the heathens may not say, that ye display to people and nations the things that are glorious and illustrious, such as the signs and the miracles, but that ye hide these which are matters of reproach; the grace of the Spirit hath brought it to pass, that in the full festival, when men in multitude and women are present, and all, as one may say, at the great eve of the passover, then all these things should be read; when the whole world is present, then are all these acts proclaimed with a clear voice. And these being read, and made known to all, Christ is believed to be God and, besides all the rest, is worshipped, even because of this, that He vouchsafed to stoop so much for us as actually to suffer these things, and to teach us all virtue.

Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 87.

The Second Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar

This post is by Brody Stewart, Verbum Marketing and Promotions Coordinator.

“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged” (John 19:1, NABRE).

This event takes up all of nine words in Scripture. It’s easy to skim over if you’re not reading closely. And getting whipped doesn’t seem all that bad in comparison with being crucified. This one verse almost seems like an afterthought.

But it wasn’t an afterthought for Jesus.

Scourging at the Pillar

The Scourging at the Pillar by Jason Jenicke. http://www.jasonjenicke.com/

In ancient Rome, a “scourge” was a very different thing than your father’s belt. This instrument of torture consisted of multiple leather thongs, each woven with shards of metal or stone. With every lash of the whip, the flesh of a criminal would be ripped from his back.

Scourging was so severe a punishment that Jewish law imposed restrictions on its use:

Forty stripes may be given him, but not more; lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight. (Deuteronomy 25:3, RSVCE).

In essence, scourging was an excruciating form of punishment.

When we meditate upon the Scourging at the Pillar, we remember what Christ had to endure. But more importantly, we remember why he endured it:

He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, RSVCE).

The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden

This post is by Brody Stewart, Verbum Marketing and Promotions Coordinator

The Sorrowful Mysteries have always seemed the easiest for me to meditate upon. There’s something altogether relatable about Jesus in his moments of weakness, anxiety, and suffering. While we see Jesus being tempted by Satan (Lk. 4:2), or weeping at the death of his friend (Jn. 11:35), we get a real sense of his humanity in the first of the Sorrowful Mysteries: The Agony in the Garden.

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matt 26:36-46, NABRE)

The first thing that strikes me about this account of Christ’s agony is that he is “sorrowful even to death.” The first time I read this passage, I was taken aback. “Even to death?” I wondered, “Isn’t that a bit… melodramatic?” But we see in Saint Luke’s account of events that Jesus isn’t just using dramatic language:

He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. (Lk 22:44, NABRE)

We’ve all experienced some amount of sadness, anxiety, or depression. Some of us have experienced more than our share. But have you ever been so agonized that you sweat blood?

There’s a reason Jesus is so perturbed: he’s God. He knows precisely what awaits him in a few short hours. He knows precisely how he will suffer at the hands of Roman soldiers. And he knows precisely when and how he will die.

Agony2

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1772.

As the God of the universe, Jesus could choose to prevent all of this. But what does he do instead? He prays to his Father that “this cup [might] pass from me.” He asks for a way out. This is exactly what you or I would do in our own sorrowful circumstances. Jesus has lowered himself to the level of broken humanity.

But Jesus continues his prayer: “yet, not as I will, but as you will.” He recognizes his own dependence upon the Father. He sees the necessity of his mission. He resolves to carry it out.

Jesus participates in our suffering, and models the proper response.

After his first hour of prayer, he returns to find his disciples asleep. He’s understandably upset. He’s lived and travelled with these men for the last three years. These are his most loyal servants. These are his closest friends. And they can’t stay awake for one hour.

Jesus withdraws to pray again, and again, finds disciples asleep. This happens not once, not twice, but three times. The men Jesus trusted most—Peter, James, and John—have failed him three times. And, on this most agonizing night, their failure is followed by Judas’ ultimate betrayal.

Imagine the tone in Jesus’ voice when he asks, “Are you still sleeping? Look, my betrayer is at hand.”

With the weight of the world on his shoulders, he is failed and betrayed by his closest friends.

Jesus’ bodily suffering may not have begun yet, but in the Garden of Gethsemane he experienced the fullness of spiritual, mental, and emotional agony.

When I meditate upon this portrait of Jesus, I see a God who intimately understands our sufferings. I see a God who cares to share in our sorrows. I see a God who is truly man.

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