Lent & Holy Week: April 2009 Archives

Holy Saturday

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Descent into Limbo.jpgLET me tell you right now,
No one suffered more on Good Friday
And deserves a rest today
Than the King of the Jews-

And right now he's in hell.

He descended into hell
Where he is right now.
And right now he is being himself,
He's being his God-from-heaven-descended self,
And I'll bet you that it's a real blast in hell
With him there
And I'll bet he's in there
And having a ball.
He's redeeming hell
By his sky-high dream-drawn scheme
Of simply being himself
And accepting selves' selves
And offering himself to God-on-high for them.

There was a day when Nietzsche was right: God was dead, the Word was not heard in the world, the body was interred and the tomb sealed up, the soul descended into the bottomless abyss of Sheol." This descent of Jesus into the kingdom of the dead "was part of his abasement even if (as St. John admits of the Cross) this supreme abasement is already surrounded by the thunderbolts of Easter night. In fact, did not the very descent to hell bring redemption to the souls there?" It prolonged in some manner the cry from the Cross: Why have you abandoned me? "Nobody could ever shout that cry from a deeper abyss than did he whose life was to be perpetually born of the Father."

Descent into Hell Duccio.jpgBut there remains the imitation of Christ. There is a participation, not only sacramental, but contemplative in his mystery. There is an experience of the abandonment on the Cross and the descent into hell, and experience of the poena damni. There is the crushing feeling of the "ever greater dissimilarity" of God in the resemblance, however great, between him and the creature; there is the passage through death and darkness, the stepping through "the somber door". In conformity to the mission he has received, the prayerful man then experiences the feeling that "God is dead for him". And this is a gift of Christian grace -- but one receives it unawares. The lived and felt faith, charity, and hope rise above the soul to an inaccessible place, to God. From then on it is "in nakedness, poverty and humiliation" that the soul cries out to him.

Those who have experienced such states afterwards, more often than not, in their humility, see nothing in them but a personal purification. True to his doctrine which refuses to separate charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the ecclesial mission, and individual mysticism, von Balthasar discerns in it essentially this "Holy Saturday of contemplation" by which the Betrothed, in some chosen few of her members, is made to participate more closely in the redemption wrought by the Spouse. We have arrived at a time in history when human consciousness, enlarged and deepened by Christianity, inclines more and more to this interpretation.

The somber experience of Holy Saturday is the price to be paid for the dawn of the new spring of hope, this spring which has been "canonized in the rose garden of Lisieux": "is it not the beginning of a new creation? The magic of Holy Saturday ... Deep cave from which the water of life escapes."

Reading so many passages where this theme is taken up, we discern a distress, a solitude, a night -- of the quality, in fact, as that experienced by "the Heart of the world" -- and we understand that a work that communicates so full a joy must have been conceived in that sorrow.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac on the work of Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar

"I called to the Lord, out of my distress,

Crucifixion Velaquez.jpgand he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, 'I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?'

The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"
(Jonah 2:1-9)

There was darkness over the whole land...while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." [Luke 23:44b-46a]

Crucifixion Weingarten Missal 13thc.jpgBut what Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the "going down into the pit" of the Old Testament, it became "being in paradise tomorrow". Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order "to be with the Lord" (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: "If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord" (Rom 14:8).

But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God "made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God's eyes" (2 Cor 5:21).

Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the "wonderful exchange" between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his "enemies" (Rom 5:10).

Maundy Thursday icon.jpgIt is customary to visit the special altars created for the reserved Eucharist after the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, the birth of the holy priesthood and the giving of the Eucharist as the supreme gift Love to the Church. There we spend time in prayer for ourselves and for those we've promised to pray. Keeping watch is an act of love and penance with the goal of remaining close to the Lord. From time immemorial we learn how to keep vigil by making visits to three or seven nearby churches as a "mini-pilgrimage." Tradition tells us that Saint Philip Neri is credited with popularizing the Roman practice of a pilgrimage to seven churches to keep people attentive to the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, plus to keep them out of trouble. The point of this pious and noble exercise is to keep vigil with the Lord as the disciples tried to do so in the Garden of Gethsemani before the Lord's arrest. I will be visiting at least three perhaps seven churches. One can't always find the churches open into the night even on Holy Thursday.

Qui, pridie quam pro nostra omniumque salute pateretur, hoc est hodie, accepit panem: [Who, the day before he suffered for the salvation of us and of all -- that is, today -- he took the bread:] these words we shall pray today in the Canon of the Mass. "Hoc est hodie" ["That is, today"] - the Liturgy of Holy Thursday places the word "today" into the text of the prayer, thereby emphasizing the particular dignity of this day. It was "today" that He did this: he gave himself to us for ever in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. This "today" is first and foremost the memorial of that first Paschal event. Yet it is something more. With the Canon, we enter into this "today". Our today comes into contact with his today. He does this now. With the word "today", the Church's Liturgy wants us to give great inner attention to the mystery of this day, to the words in which it is expressed. We therefore seek to listen in a new way to the institution narrative, in the form in which the Church has formulated it, on the basis of Scripture and in contemplation of the Lord himself.

Last Supper.jpgThe first thing to strike us is that the institution narrative is not an independent phrase, but it starts with a relative pronoun: qui pridie. This "qui" connects the entire narrative to the preceding section of the prayer, "let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord." In this way, the institution narrative is linked to the preceding prayer, to the entire Canon, and it too becomes a prayer. By no means is it merely an interpolated narrative, nor is it a case of an authoritative self-standing text that actually interrupts the prayer. It is a prayer. And only in the course of the prayer is the priestly act of consecration accomplished, which becomes transformation, transubstantiation of our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. As she prays at this central moment, the Church is fully in tune with the event that took place in the Upper Room, when Jesus' action is described in the words: "gratias agens benedixit - he gave you thanks and praise". In this expression, the Roman liturgy has made two words out of the one Hebrew word berakha, which is rendered in Greek with the two terms eucharistĂ­a and eulogĂ­a. The Lord gives thanks. When we thank, we acknowledge that a certain thing is a gift that has come from another. The Lord gives thanks, and in so doing gives back to God the bread, "fruit of the earth and work of human hands", so as to receive it anew from him. Thanksgiving becomes blessing. The offering that we have placed in God's hands returns from him blessed and transformed. The Roman liturgy rightly interprets our praying at this sacred moment by means of the words: "through him, we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice". All this lies hidden within the word "eucharistia".

Crucifixion Giotto.jpgHow marvelous, and at the same time amazing, is this mystery! We can never meditate this reality sufficiently. Jesus, though being God, did not want to make of his divine prerogatives an exclusive possession; he did not want to use his being God, his glorious dignity and power, as an instrument of triumph and sign of distance from us. On the contrary, "he emptied himself" assuming our miserable and weak human condition --in this regard, Paul uses a quite meaningful Greek verb to indicate the kenosis, this descent of Jesus. The divine form (morphe) is hidden in Christ under the human form, namely, under our reality marked by suffering, poverty, human limitations and death. The radical and true sharing of our nature, a sharing in everything except sin, leads him to that frontier that is the sign of our finiteness  --death. But all this was not the fruit of a dark mechanism or a blind fatality: It was instead his free choice, by his generous adherence to the salvific plan of the Father. And the death which he went out to meet --adds Paul-- was that of the cross, the most humiliating and degrading that one can imagine. The Lord of the universe did all this out of love for us: out of love he willed to "empty himself" and make himself our brother; out of love he shared our condition, that of every man and every woman. In this connection, Theodoret of Cyrus, a great witness of the Eastern tradition, writes: "Being God and God by nature and having equality with God, he did not retain this as something great, as do those who have received some honor beyond their merits, but concealing his merits, he chose the most profound humility and took the form of a human being" (Commentary on the Letter to the Philippians, 2:6-7).

Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday General Audience, 8 April 2009, excerpt

Ambrose.jpgSaint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, reminds us of this: 'We must observe not only the day of the Passion, but the day of the Resurrection as well. Thus, we will have a day of bitterness and a day of joy; on the one let us fast, on the other let us seek refreshment...During this Sacred Triduum...Christ suffered, rested and rose from the dead. Of that three day period he himself says: 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up'' (Epistle 23).

Our Lenten observances, indeed our whole life of faith, have been a preparation for this celebration of the Lord's Paschal Mystery, our redemption from sin. May all of us bear witness to this joy in our daily lives; not only now but all through the year. And may our celebration of the Triduum be a time to reflect on our redemption through Christ, the eternal gift to us sinners from God the Father.

Spy Wednesday

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Kiss Of Judas Giotto.jpgToday we recall the words Jesus spoke to Judas at the Last Supper, "The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." (Matthew 26:24). Judas has become is synonymous with the act of betrayal. In the Inferno, Dante places Judas in the very lowest circle of Hell, being devoured eternally by a three-faced, bat-winged devil:



When we had gotten far enough along
that my master was pleased to let me see
the creature who was once so fair of face
he took a step aside, then brought me to a halt:
'Look there at Dis! And see the place
where you must arm yourself with fortitude.'
Then how faint and frozen I became,
reader, do not ask, for I do not write it,
since any words would fail to be enough.
It was not death, nor could one call it life.
Imagine, if you have the wit,
what I became, deprived of both.
The emperor of the woeful kingdom
rose from the ice below his breast,
and I in size am closer to a giant
than giants are when measured to his arms.
Judge, then, what the whole must be
that is proportional to such a part.
If he was fair as he is hideous now,
and raised his brow in scorn of his creator,
he is fit to be the source of every sorrow.
Oh, what a wonder it appeared to me
when I perceived three faces on his head.
The first, in front, was red in color.
Another two he had, each joined with this,
above the midpoint of each shoulder,
and all the three united at the crest.
The one on the right was a whitish yellow,
while the left-hand one was tinted like the people
living at the sources of the Nile.
Judas Bottechelli.jpgBeneath each face two mighty wings emerged,
such as befit so vast a bird:
I never saw such massive sails at sea.
They were featherless and fashioned
like a bat's wings. When he flapped them,
he sent forth three separate winds,
the sources of the ice upon Cocytus
Out of six eyes he wept and his three chins
dripped tears and drooled blood-red saliva.
With his teeth, just like a hackle
pounding flax, he champed a sinner
in each mouth, tormenting three at once.
For the one in front the gnawing was a trifle
to the clawing, for from time to time
his back was left with not a shred of skin.
'That soul up there who bears the greatest pain,'
said the master, 'is Judas Iscariot, who has
his head within and outside flails his legs
'As for the other two, whose heads are dangling down,
Brutus is hanging from the swarthy snout --
see how he writhes and utters not a word! --
'and from the other, Cassius, so large of limb.
But night is rising in the sky. It is time
for us to leave, for we have seen it all.' (Canto XXXIV)

Judas tree.jpg 

According to the pious legend, the tree upon which Judas hanged himself was the Cercis siliquastrum, also called the "Judas Tree." It is a beautiful tree, native to the Mediterranean region, which produces brilliant deep pink flowers in the spring; the flowers are said to have blushed in shame after Judas's suicide.

Of that branch in ancient garden,

branch cross crown.jpgdid thy Father make thy tree,

on that tree with thee uplifted,

let us triumph, Lord, with thee.

On that tree with thee uplifted,

let us triumph, Lord, with thee.


By thy words on road to passion,

Words that set thy children free,

Thou the Vine and we the branches,

let us triumph, Lord, with thee.

Thou the Vine and we the branches,

let us triumph, Lord, with thee.


To thy Father be all glory,

Equal glory, Lord, to thee,

By Spirit's equal glory,

let us triumph, Lord, with thee.

By Spirit's equal glory

let us triumph, Lord, with thee.

Sermon on Palm Sunday

Blessed Guerric of Igny (d. ca. 1157)


When Jesus entered Jerusalem like a triumphant conqueror, many were astonished at the majesty of his bearing; but when a short while afterward he entered upon his passion, his appearance was ignoble, an object of derision. If today's procession and passion are considered together, in the one Jesus appears as sublime and glorious, in the other as lowly and suffering. The procession makes us think of the honor reserved for a king, whereas the passion shows us the punishment due a thief.


palm sunday2.jpgIn the one Jesus is surrounded by glory and honor, in the other "he has neither dignity nor beauty." In the one his is the joy of men and women and the glory of the people, in the other "the butt of men and the laughing stock of the people." In the one he receives the acclamation: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes as the king of Israel"; in the other there are shouts that he is guilty of death and he is reviled for having set himself up as king of Israel.


In the procession the people meet Jesus with palm branches, in the passion people slap him in the face and strike his head with a rod. In the one they extol him with praises, in the other they heap insults upon him. In the one the people compete to lay their clothes in his path, in the other he is stripped of his own clothes. In the one he is welcomed to Jerusalem as a just king and savior, in the other he is thrown out of the city as criminal, condemned as an imposter. In the one he is mounted on an ass and accorded every mark of honor, in the other he hangs on the wood of the cross, torn by whips, pierced with wounds and abandoned by his own. If, then, we want to follow our leader without stumbling through prosperity and through adversity, let us keep our eyes upon him, honored in the procession, undergoing ignominy and suffering in the passion, yet unshakeably steadfast in all such changes of fortune.


Lord Jesus, you are the joy and salvation of the whole world; whether we see you seated on an ass or hanging on the cross, let each one of us bless and praise you, so that when we see you reigning on high we may praise you forever and ever, for to you belong praise and honor through all ages. Amen.

All glory, laud, and honor
Passion Sunday.JPGto thee, Redeemer, King!
to whom the lips of children
made sweet hosannas ring

Thou art the King of Israel,
thou David's royal Son,
who in the Lord's Name comest,
the King and Blessed One.

The company of angels
are praising thee on high;
and mortal men and all things
created make reply.

The people of the Hebrews
with palms before thee went;
our praise and prayer and anthems
before thee we present.

To thee before thy passion
they sang their hymns of praise;
to thee, now high exalted,
our melody we raise.

Thou didst accept their praises;
accept the prayers we bring,
who in all good delightest,
thou good and gracious King.


(Theodulph of Orleans (ca. 750-821), ca. 820; Trans. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), 1854)

Although the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance, yet since few have the virtue for that, we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the negligences of other times.

And this will be worthily done Monk3.JPGif we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.


During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service, as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink. Thus everyone of his own will may offer God "with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6)
something above the measure required of him.

From his body, that is he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting; and with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter. Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval.

For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward.

Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.


Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 49

O sacred head, surrounded

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O sacred head, surrounded
Crucified Lord Meister Francke.jpgby crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding head, so wounded,
reviled and put to scorn!
Our sins have marred the glory
of thy most holy face,
yet angel hosts adore thee
and tremble as they gaze

I see thy strength and vigor
all fading in the strife,
and death with cruel rigor,
bereaving thee of life;
O agony and dying!
O love to sinners free!
Jesus, all grace supplying,
O turn thy face on me.

In this thy bitter passion,
Good Shepherd, think of me
with thy most sweet compassion,
unworthy though I be:
beneath thy cross abiding
for ever would I rest,
in thy dear love confiding,
and with thy presence blest.


(asc. to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, 1091-1153)

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.



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This page is a archive of entries in the Lent & Holy Week category from April 2009.

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