5th Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion

We continue our Patristic Rosary Project today with the:

5th Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion

We come to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where some traditions held Adam was buried. The New Adam is about to put to right the damage of the old Adam. This time, in defending His Bride from the serpent, the Bridegroom will be entirely faithful, even to the shedding of His Blood.

St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) connect’s Christ crucifixion and Adam’s burial:

The very place of the Cross is in the middle, as conspicuous to all. It is above the grace of Adam, as the Hebrews truly argue. (Mat 27:33; Mk 15:22; John 19:17) It was fitting that the beginning of death occured where the first fruits of our life were placed. [Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 10.114]

Since death entered by a man’s sin, in justice a man had to put it right. However, no man could possible be adequate or proportioned to bridge that gap between the human race and God. Thus, one who is both man and God had to do it.

St. Cyril of Alexandria also comments on the connection between death from Adam and life from Christ:

By becoming like us and bearing our sufferings for our sakes, Christ restores human nature to how it was in the beginning. The first man was certainly in the Paradise of delight in the beginning. The absence of suffering and of corruption exalted him. He despised the commandment given to hm and fell under a curse, condemnation and the snare of death by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. By the very same thing, Christ restores him to his original condition. He became the fruit of the tree by enduring the precious Cross for our sakes, that He might destroy death, which by means of the tree [of Adam] had invaded the bodies of mankind. [Commentary on Luke, Homily 153]

Death is described almost like a parasite, slithering into our innards. Indeed, death is connected to the worm and the skull. We are freed from the eternity of nothingness in the grave by the humble submission of the God Man to the Cross and the tomb. Consider His condescension. The Rosary helps us redirect and fix our gaze on the face of the Crucified Christ.

St. Augustine (+430) considered the intention of the Lord in His Sacrifice:

Look at the Lord who did precisely what He commanded. After so many things the godless Jews committed against Him, repaying Him evil for good, did He not say as He hung on the Cross, "Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing?" He prayed as man, and as God with the Father, He heard the prayer. Even now He prays in us, for us and is prayed to by us. He prays in us as our High Priest. He prays for us as our Head. He is prayed to by us as our God. When He was praying as He hung on the Cross, He could see and foresee. He could see all His enemies. He could foresee that many of them would become His friends. That is why He was interceding for them all. They were raging, but He was praying. They were saying to Pilate "CRUCIFY!", but He was crying out "Father, FORGIVE!" He was hanging from the cruel nails, but He did not lose His gentleness. He was asking for pardon for those from whom He was receiving such hideous treatment. [s. 382.2]

So much is available in this short excerpt for our reflection. Think of it this way. When we are at Holy Mass, we are at the renewal of the event of this mystery: the Crucifixion, the Bloody Sacrifice raised to the Father for our salvation. We participate in this Sacrifice as the Head of the Body (the priest) and the Body of Christ (the congregation), together Christ entire and whole (as Augustine says, Christus totus). We have our roles to fulfill. Our reflection on the crucifixion through the recitation of the Rosary can help us participate more fully at Mass.

Secondly, consider how Augustine makes the distinction that Christ died for all, but that He foresaw that He would have many as His friends. Augustine is sometimes thought to be a pessimist about human nature and, indeed, he is truly pessimistic, but in a realistic way. Still, while Augustine does not say here that "all" would be His friends, neither does Christ say "few" will be His friends.

The word Augustine chose was "many", which is what we find in Scripture. This is what we find in the consecration of the Precious Blood at Mass. At the second of the two-fold consecration, the Sacrifice is enacted, by the separation of the Body and the Blood. In this moment, Holy Church expresses correctly in Scripture and in the liturgical form of the sacrament her proper understanding: Christ died for all but many, not all, will be saved. The Latin says that clearly. And we rejoice to pray that in all the vernacular translations to be issued in the future, we will say "for many" as a fuller and better explanation of the meaning of the moment.

Another thing this wonderful passage from Augustine tells us is that when we pray the Rosary and participate at Mass, nay rather, before Mass, we ought to take stock of how we may have committed wrongs against others and find forgiveness for wrong committed against us. Let’s hear more Augustine, in a sermon on St. Stephen, holds a mirror up to our souls:

But people who are reluctant to carry out the precept [of forgiveness], eager to get the reward, who don’t love their enemies but do their best to avenge themselves on them, don’t pay attention to the Lord, who would have had nobody left to praise Him if He had wanted to avenge Himself on His enemies. So when they hear this place in the Gospel, where the Lord says on the Cross, "Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing," they say to themselves, He could do that as the Son of God, as the only Son of the Father. Yes, it was flesh hanging there, but God was hidden within. As for us, though, are we to do that sort of thing? So didn’t He really mean it when He gave this order [to forgive]? Perish the thought. He certainly mean it. If you think it is asking too much of you to imitate Your Lord, look at Stephen your fellow servant…. [s. 317.2-3,6]

Again, the Rosary redirects and focuses our gaze on the face of Christ, the Priest and Victim. We can use the Rosary to prepare for Mass. Here is another mighty preacher, St. Pope Leo I (+461) on the Cross and the altar we kneel before to receive Holy Communion:

This Cross of Christ holds the mystery of its true and prophesied altar. There, through the saving Victim, a sacrifice of human nature is celebrated. There the Blood of a spotless lamb dissolved the pact of that ancient transgression. There the whole perversity of the devil’s mastery was abolished, while humanity triumphed as conqueror over boasting pride. The effect of faith was so swift that one of the two thieves crucified with Christ who believed in the Son of God entered paradise justified.

Who could explain the mystery of such a great gift? Who could describe the power of such a marvelous transformation? In a brief moment of time the guilt of a longstanding wickedness was abolished. In the middle of the harsh torments of a struggling soul, fastened to the gallows, that thief passes over to Christ, and the grace of Christ gives a crown to Him, someone who incurred punishment for his own wickedness. [s. 55.3]

How much time does it actually take to go to confession?

St. Jerome (410) in his direct and forceful way describes the Cross thusly:

That flaming flashing sword is keeping Paradise safe. No one could open the gates that Christ closed. The thief was the first to enter with Christ. His great faith received the greatest of rewards. His faith in the kingdom did not depend on seeing Christ. He did not see Him in His radiant glory or behold Him looking down from heaven. He did not see angels serving Him. To put it bluntly, he certainly did not see Christ walking about in freedom, but on a gibbet, drinking vinegar and crowned with thorns. He saw Him fastened to the Cross and heard Him begging for help, "My God, my God, why have you foresaken me?"… The Cross of Christ is the key into paradise. The Cross of Christ opened it. He has not said to you, "The kingdom of heaen has been enduring violent assault, and the violent have been seizing it by force"? (Mat 11:12) Does not the One on the Cross cause the violence? There is nothing between the Cross and paradise. The greatest of pains produces the greatest of rewards. [On Lazarus and Dives]

How we have seen some many things happen in the Church which we would rather not have seen. But Christ has permitted them. It is His Church. He permits challenges for the Church and for us. There is no glory without the Cross. Even in the Cross there is, for the Christian, hope. Here is Ephrem the Syrian:

There came to my ear
from the Scripture which had been read
a word that caused me joy
on the subject of the thief;
it gave comfort to my soul
amidst the multitude of its vices,
telling how He had compassion on the thief.
O may He bring me too
into that garden at the sound of whose name
I am overwhelmed with joy;
my mind bursts its reins
as it goes forth to contemplate Him.

[Hymn on Paradise 8.1]

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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