Circular Letter: Lent 2005
Draw Water with Joy from the Font of Salvation
When St. John recounts the soldier who opened the side of Christ on the Cross, in addition to mentioning the stream of Blood and water that immediately came forth, he also cited two Biblical quotes to explain the significance of this event: “These things occurred so that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of His bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of Scripture says, ‘They will look on the One Whom they have pierced’” (John 19:36-37). The first citation is from the regulations of Old Testament regarding the prohibition of breaking the bones of the Paschal Lamb. St. John thereby gives a clear indication that Jesus is the true Paschal Lamb. The significance of the words of St. John the Baptist also become clear: “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29).
The second quote is from the prophecy of Zechariah:
And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn… On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zech 12:10-13:1)
With this citation St. John teaches that the fountain which the prophet predicted would be opened for the cleansing of the People of God is to be understood as the Blood and water that came from the Heart of Christ.
In the last two Circular Letters we have meditated on the stream that flows from the Heart of Christ as the river that gives joy to God’s city. In those previous meditations we saw the joy of perfect praise and adoration which comes from this stream, and the joy of the light of contemplation which also pours forth from the Lamb who was slain. In the passage from the prophet Zechariah we see a third aspect of this stream: that it cleanses from sin. For in this stream is also found the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezechiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ez 36: 25). This branch of the river corresponds to the third finality of sacrifice, as well as to the third fundamental bearing in the Work of the Holy Angels: expiation. Like the other two streams, this branch of the river delights God’s people. In this case it is the consoling joy of forgiveness which can be found by “bathing” in this stream.
This stream which began to flow from the Heart of Jesus on the Cross continues to flow in the Church through the Sacraments. In a special way it flows through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confession, Holy Anointing and the Eucharist. How can we enter into this stream to benefit from its cleansing power? The first and foremost requirement is faith. Many lepers lived in Israel during the time of the Prophet Elijah, and many may had bathed in the Jordan. But only Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy because of his faith. Many people touched Jesus as He passed through the crowd, all of whom suffered from some wound in body or soul. But only the woman with the hemorrhage of blood was healed. For she touched His garment with faith. The good thief benefited from this stream from the side of Christ, while the other thief, so close to this saving fount, did not. It is faith that brings us near and brings us into contact with this cleansing stream.
Beyond faith, to benefit from this stream of the expiatory mercy that flows from the Heart of Christ, we also need contrition. St. John the Baptist’s work of preparation for the coming of Christ was principally to prepare a people fit for the Lord by means of a baptism of repentance. This means that we recognize our sin, confess it to God’s priest, have true sorrow for our sin and the firm resolution not to sin again. Like the people who came to St. John the Baptist, we too need to ask again and again: “What then are we to do?” in order to discover what is necessary for a true change of life.
But although faith and contrition are necessary, they are not sufficient. There is need also for the practice of mercy. As Jesus so often mentioned in His teachings and parables: Unless you forgive those who offend, you will not be forgiven. The command to forgive if we wish to be forgiven corresponds to the very nature of the stream that flows from the Heart of Christ. This stream is a “purifying Blood which pleads more insistently than Abel’s” (Heb 12:24). Unlike the Blood of Abel, which cried to God for vengeance (cf. Gen 4:10), this blood cries for forgiveness. If the blood of Abel the just one cried out for revenge, how is it that the Blood of the truly just, Son of God did not cry out all the more for vengeance, but rather, for pardon? The difference is that this Blood flowed from the Heart whose prayer was “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). This prayer defines the nature of the stream that flows from His Heart and determines the disposition required to have access to this river of grace.
Our Share in Christ’s Work of Atonement
But beyond the fact that God forgives our sins, He also gives us the capacity to share in Christ’s redemptive work of repairing the damage consequent upon our sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this possibility of cooperation:
The Cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one Mediator between God and men”. But because in His incarnate divine Person He has in some way united Himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the Paschal Mystery” is offered to all men. He calls His disciples to “take up [their] Cross and follow [Him].” For “Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in His steps.” In fact, Jesus desires to associate with His redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of His mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of His redemptive suffering. (CCC 618)
This call to share in the Cross of Christ is to be seen not only as an act of God’s justice, but also of His merciful love for us. For it is by allowing us to share in His suffering and death that He can give us a share in His glory as well. The relation between the Cross and glory is repeated throughout the New Testament. Christ Himself said to His Apostles after His resurrection: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (Lk 24:26). The writings of the Apostles repeatedly make a connection between the Cross and glory. For example:
But if we are sons, we are heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him. (Rom 8:14-17)
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. (1 Pet 4:13)
Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)
The Cross: The Ladder to Glory
The connection between the Cross and glory is twofold. First, the Cross is the only way for us to the future glory of heaven. As St. Rose of Lima once said: “Apart from the Cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (CCC 618). As St. Paul says, we will be glorified with Him provided we suffer with Him (cf. Rom 8:17). Acceptance of the Cross is a necessary condition. If Jesus, Son though He was, learned obedience through suffering (cf. Heb 5:8), ought we not be ready to endure God’s loving discipline in order to be considered His legitimate children? Such are the momentary afflictions that are preparing us for an eternal weight of glory (cf. 2 Cor 4:17-18). Saints and spiritual writers have consistently taught that Christian suffering provides a necessary preparation for our union with God.
But there is another connection between the Cross and glory, which is a little more mysterious. Our Lord, at the moment Judas left the Last Supper to betray Him, stated: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in Him God is glorified; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him at once” (Jn 13:31-32). This passages shows that not only is the Cross the means to future glory in heaven, but it is also in itself a glorification here and now. The world has its own standards of what constitutes greatness and glory. Riches, fame, power and pleasure are the common things used to measure the glory and greatness of a person’s life. But Christ, Who said “Blessed are the poor… Blessed are those who weep… Blessed are you when men hate you” (cf. Lk 6:20-22) has set all new standards for greatness and glory. He has given the Cross as the standard with which we are to measure. The Cross is the measure because it is the manifestation of the greatest of the virtues: love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). On the Cross Jesus did not only give up His life; but He did so in the midst of the greatest of suffering. Rather than the glory of riches, He emptied Himself and was willingly stripped of everything for love of us. Rather than the glory of fame, He suffered the greatest humiliation for love of us. Rather than the glory of power, He became utterly powerless, nailed immovably to the Cross for love of us. Rather than the glory of pleasure, He suffered the most intense pain of body and soul possible for love of us. Such is the glorious love of the Redeemer.
Because Christ’s faithful are called to holiness, they are also called to have the honor of participating in Christ’s redemptive love. There is no sanctification without crucifixion with Christ. St. John of the Cross was so convinced of this truth that he used the following strong words:
If at any time, my brother, anyone should persuade you, be he a prelate or not, of a doctrine that is wider and more pleasant, do not believe him, and do not accept the doctrine even if he were to confirm it with miracles, but rather penance and more penance and detachment from all things. And never, if you wish to possess Christ, seek Him without a Cross. (St. John of the Cross, Letter to Father John de Santa Ana)
St. John of the Cross is saying the same thing that St. Paul once said to the Galatians, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal 1:8). The Gospel we have received contains the words of Christ Who told His Apostles, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow Me” (Mt 16:24; Mt 10:38-39; Lk 14:27).
The true dignity and glory of any creature consists in being a “fellow worker with God” (cf. 1 Cor 3:9). And there is no greater work than the work of Christ’s loving redemption on the Cross. The sufferings of our life can be transformed into our glory if we unite them to the sufferings of Christ, for the salvation of ourselves and others. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me’” (Rom 15:1-3). Suffering which is born in union with Christ manifests His glory in us: the glory of His divine love. It is a love which thirsts for our own sanctification and for the eternal salvation of others.
The angels of God mark the members of the Church who express such love with the sign of Him whose soul was “sorrowful even unto death” (Mt 26:38) for the sins of men. Such a mark serves as a special protection, as was indicated in the prophet Ezechiel: “The Lord said, ‘Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a Cross upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’ And then he said to the others: ‘Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare and you shall show no pity…but do not touch anyone on whom is the Cross’”
When the prophet Ezechiel was shown the stream that came forth from the side of the temple he was also shown that the passage of time does not diminish, but rather increases the depth of this stream. For this torrent swells according to the principle mentioned by St. Paul: “Where sin increases, grace overflows all the more” (cf. Rom 5:20). Within the Church, whenever there is an increase of sin and scandal, God raises up ever anew men and women marked by the angels because they grieve and lament over all the loathsome practices in the City of God, the Church (cf. Ez 9:4). All the members of the Work of the Holy Angels are especially called to enter into the depths of this stream of the grace of expiation: the vicarious love which is willing to bear spiritually the burdens of others. We are not called to accuse sinners, but to intercede for them earnestly and faithfully. A special means of learning how to participate in the intercessory work of Christ is through the weekly observance of the Passio Domini. In the Passio Domini we accompany Jesus in prayer and in an offering of ourselves during the hours of His Agony in the Garden every Thursday night and during the hours of His suffering and death on the Cross every Friday (to the extent that our duties of state allow). In this way we can work with the holy angels by imploring the drops of Christ’s redemptive Blood for the various intentions of the Church and especially for priests, channeling the waters of His grace to those members of His Body in greatest need.
Especially during the season of Lent, the Christian faithful are offered the opportunity to experience the dignity and the glory of participating in the redemptive work of Christ by observing special acts of penance and prayer. The members of the Work of the Holy Angels are encouraged to an even more faithful and fervent observance of the Passio Domini during this season. Through this practice they can know the joy spoken of in the prophet Isaiah:
You will say in that day: I will give thanks to You, O Lord, for though You were angry with me, Your anger turned away, and You comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; He has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the fonts of salvation. (Is 12:1-3)
Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC
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