This article first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Living Church.
If the first two sorrowful mysteries — our Lord’s agony in the garden and scourging at the pillar — directly confronted us with the Passion, dropping us in the deep end, the last three only repeat and intensify the regimen. Their sole purpose is to fix our attention on things as they are: the form of God’s suffering love. To pray these mysteries — traditionally on Tuesdays and Fridays year round, and on Sundays of Lent — is to commit oneself to pressing in to the heart and soul of the Christian revelation, with confidence that “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14) must follow his ascetical path, not as some masochistic revelry but as a humble commitment to formation. These mysteries function much the same as the stations of the cross, with the added benefit that we may pray the rosary in every season — in the summertime, on vacation, on the road.
Set within the contemplative cadence of the Our Father and sets of Hail Marys, all the mysteries of the rosary inspire questions: Presuming this is true, what would you have me do, Lord, this morning or this afternoon? What next right thought shall I think? What next right action shall I take? — something, perhaps, I had not imagined may be possible or appropriate. Having wondered to the Father, we recognize the pattern of his response, in persona Christi: “Do this in remembrance of me.” That is, Be like me, pointing — in the case of the mysteries at hand — to the forlorn figure of his Son.
Crowning with thorns. Having witnessed our Lord’s terrible torture, his crowning with thorns marks a humiliation. The Savior of the world is left to the devices of debauched soldiers, who keep “coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face” (John 19:3). Pilate, in a criminal derogation of justice, betrays him to the mad crowds. “So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’” (19:5).
Ecce homo, indeed, for here is the God-man. At once divine and human, our Lord amazingly appears as the companion of the abused, disrespected, and scorned, the mocked and the maltreated. Christ suffered, writes St. Thomas Aquinas,
from friends abandoning him; in his reputation, from the blasphemies hurled at him; in his honor and glory, from the mockeries and the insults heaped upon him; in things, for he was despoiled of his garments; in his soul, from sadness, weariness, and fear; in his body, from wounds and scourgings. (Summa theologiae III 46, 5 c)
He suffers as the Word made flesh, and so recasts human humiliation, making it peculiarly his own. He gives himself completely to God, not counting equality as something to be grasped (see Phil. 2:5-7). As man he renounces pride and all that would separate him from God or distort the divine image. His way of renunciation entails the cross (2:8), which seeds new life by death, the same death he previously commended by his own baptism and the institution of the Mass, wherein all may be sacrificed in him. Together, these deaths illuminate the way of humility, that is, the transforming of “the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (3:21).
In this light, we can see that Christian humility and associated humiliations in Christ are not optional extras for would-be heroes of the faith, nor regrettable extremities to which poor souls are sadly subjected. Crowning with thorns is the normal way, as an entry or door to the place where faithless fears and self-absorption may properly be put to death. God would pour himself out surprisingly in the “springs of salvation” to be “known in all the world,” in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He does this chiefly in the person of his Son, who calls all who suffer — all human beings — to walk with him in transforming compassion. To crown ourselves, and to be crowned, with thorns, in a bid of self-compassion and self-love, is to go down to the dust singing Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, however prospectively (see Burial I, 1979 BCP, p. 483). These are the means by which we behold God, which form the substance of our testimony precisely in trial. “Surely, it is God [Ecce, Deus!] who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior” (Canticle 9, the First Song of Isaiah).
Carrying the cross. Already at Mark 8, Jesus’ message to his disciples and to the crowds is clear: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). And then he demonstrates how it is done. What can we glean from the Gospels? Where the synoptic accounts have Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21, Matt. 27:32, Luke 23:26), St. John states explicitly that Jesus “carried the cross by himself” (19:17). Putting the two together, our Lord is urging us to share his communion of suffering — the bread of his flesh that he gives “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). We who meditate on this mystery must pray for the grace to be called upon like Simon to aid our Lord in love, as a small token of thanks to God who “proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Likewise, we are the women of Jerusalem following behind. St. Luke presents Jesus’ striking prophecy in an apocalyptic key: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28-29). In a world of feigned allegiances and half-hearted loyalties, cross-carrying begins with confrontation of our own duplicity, both as individuals and various collectives. Mature compassion grows not from a feeling of sorrow, still less from a projected regret for the more-severe shortcomings of others, but from the soil of repentance and confession. We may hear Jesus’ word as merciful insofar as it effects our conversion and consequent amendment of life. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24, KJV).
Crucifixion and death. All of which tends to an ineluctable end: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). If there is a thesis concerning the exemplarity of Christ’s sacrifice for all who would follow him, this is it.
Of course, the Passion of Christ is utterly unique and non-repeatable; only the Messiah can, by his death, effect our freedom from sin, from which follows, says Aquinas, delivery from the power of the devil, freedom from debt of punishment, reconciliation with God, and entry into heaven (Summa III 49). The peculiar fittingness of Christ’s Passion, however, also calls forth our “obedience, humility, constancy, justice,” and other virtues displayed by him that we need in order to be saved (ibid., 46, 3 c). Aquinas cites 1 Peter 2:21: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps,” and 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You were bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body.”
The whole history of Christianity and of the Church could, in a sense, be writ with special reference to this point as the center of the gospel: that God in Christ gives his elect supernatural faith, and by the Holy Spirit enables our obedience and perseverance. He does so in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7), who becomes for us not only Savior and Lord but Teacher and Head. Dying, we become his members. Rising, we are called to new life in keeping with his law, which enjoins daily self-emptying (see 1 Cor. 15:31). Until our own end, Christ’s Passion remains the singular source of salvation and holiness — in the sacraments, and in our love of him by acts of penance, reparation, and solidarity.
“Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.