Holy Week: A Labor of Love
In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius of Loyola uses the phrase “God labors for us.” St. Ignatius seemed to understand how hard God works to help us on our spiritual journey. Nowhere is that fact more evident than in our prayer and reflection during Holy Week. During this time we are invited to observe and also to participate with Jesus in some way as He goes through His Passion and death. He asks us to watch and pray; just as the apostles were asked to remain awake in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus begs us to stay awake, entering into the process with Him, staying vigilant to all that might tempt us away from accompanying Him as far as we are able to go. If we are a follower we must go with Him all the way to the foot of the cross, though only He can die in order to secure new life for us. Everything Jesus did during this time was detailed by all four gospel writers, particularly the two which we will hear from on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, (Matthew and John). And in hearing, re-reading, and reflecting upon these gospels and the events they contain, it is clear that to say 'Jesus labored' is quite accurate. At the Last Supper He looked upon the apostles with love, though sadly, since He knew they would flee when things heated up, and He begged them to stay awake during His agony. There was even someone to carry His cross with Him and a few close family/friends that stood vigil at the cross and then at the tomb. But while we remember Jesus’ labors undertaken in great suffering, He still needs us to be with Him. It is not a desire, it is a need. The labor of love which Jesus carried out for us is in need of our response: we must return His labor of love by offering Him ours.
During the seasons of Advent and Christmas we reflected upon what gift we might bring Jesus. We considered what return we might make to the One who left Heaven in order to take on human flesh and weakness so that He might eventually offer us salvation. The coming of the Son of God, made fully human while remaining fully divine, was a cause for great rejoicing because Light shattered the darkness. But in all that rejoicing sometimes we forget that God labored in all of this, too. The Father knew the end of Jesus’ story before humanity did. The holy parents of Jesus certainly did not know the end of the journey for their Son: they could not have known that He would end up on a cross reviled as a criminal. Of course, Mary was told that a sword would pierce her heart, but she did not know exactly when or how badly her heart would be rent.
The question that we pondered at the beginning of the liturgical year is the same one which is asked of us now: what return can we make, that is, what can we give Jesus as He goes through agony, suffering of the most intense magnitude, and death? That one the last things He said while on the cross is “I thirst” ought to speak volumes to us. (John 19:28) What did He desire? The bystanders thought He needed something to drink, but He refused what they offered Him, revealing that He was not referring to physical thirst. Rather, Jesus was thirsting for our response to Him. As He labored intensely to stay the course in fulfillment of His mission, He was thirsting for us to be present to Him, a reminder that we were and are needed in His ministry of building the Kingdom. The question for each of us, then, is what can I offer Jesus as He goes through the Passion? And what can I offer Him as He dies and enters the tomb temporarily, leaving it to continue to labor by descending into Sheol, the place of the dead, in order to free the souls worthy of Heaven?
There is no one answer since it lies in our personal and unique response of love. It is in how we choose to be present to Him in His people, especially those who are suffering abandonment, betrayal, poverty, illness, torture, humiliation and marginalization, grief, despair, terrorism, are in need of forgiveness for their sins but do not know how to ask; also the lonely, the dying, the mourning, the victims of injustice and those who are too weak to speak out against the injustice. We can accompany Jesus by fulfilling His repeated requests to stay awake with Him and to quench His thirst. Just as we accept all the gifts He gives by utilizing them, we must respond to this greatest of all gifts during Holy Week as He labors intensely for us and our salvation. As it unfolds, the price of this exquisite gift is terrible to behold, but He asks that we watch and pray, and then that we accompany Him to the cross and tomb so that we are ready when the stillness is obliterated by the fruits of His labor on that Sunday morning which seems ordinary at first glance, but then turns out to be anything but. The way to accompany Him through it all is to continue to put our love in action for the least of our brothers and sisters and therefore what we do, we do for Him.
For the past six weeks we have been active through our fasting and abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving. We have already been laboring along with Jesus; therefore, during Holy Week we are asked to ‘amp up’ the intensity, especially of our prayer. Everything we have done was also a labor of love on our part; and if we have not thought of it as such up until now, we need to begin to do so. We did not do all that sacrificing as self-torture, as if it has to hurt to be good. (That would actually be a heresy called Jansenism.) Rather, our sacrifices were our way of saying to Jesus that we were willing to walk with Him, accepting His labor of love, and offering our own in loving response. While only Jesus could labor through the agony of the Passion, and only He could take on the sins of the world completely, we can make a response of love by offering even the smallest of intentions and humblest of attempts. What it is about is growing in holiness; and growing in holiness boils down to learning how to love more deeply… like He does.
What we do during Lent is an effort directed at growing in faith, hope, and love, which is how St. Paul describes the greatest of God’s gifts, (given at baptism and renewed at Easter). Paul goes on to say that the greatest of these is love, which is translated from the word 'caritas' or charity. Caritas is not the charity that means giving out of pity, but rather it refers to a chosen way of loving, a self-offering which comes from the heart. We cannot take away the suffering of Jesus, nor can we truly participate in it except to observe and be present to Him. However, something we can do to alleviate His 'aloneness' and quench His thirst is to offer our brothers and sisters the very caritas which He has given us. Like Simon of Cyrene, we can carry part of the weight of the Cross even if just for a few moments. If our hearts have learned anything during Lent, or at least during Holy Week, (it is never too late), we can make a return to Jesus by responding to Him in His most distressing disguise, as St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it. We can help Jesus carry the cross, letting our hearts break open so that there is more room therein for mercy, compassion, and love.
During this Holy Week let us acknowledge the labor of love which was offered by Jesus Christ by letting our hearts break open and expand along with His. We can respond with our gift of gratitude by continuing to reach out to those who are suffering their own version of the Passion, or if it is we who are suffering, we can walk with Him, accepting His labor on our behalf. And because we have done so, we can rejoice with all our brothers and sisters, all the angels and saints, and with the Father and the Holy Spirit, acknowledging the fruit of the greatest of all labors in salvation history when Jesus Christ resurrects from the dead. Our labor of love is to continue the work of the One who continually labors for us.
May we continue to stay awake, maintain our vigilance, and be alert as we enter into the Passion of Jesus during this Holy Week! May we respond in love and gratitude to Jesus’ cry that He thirsts! May we let our hearts be open to greater ‘caritas’ as we continue to labor in love for our brothers and sisters! May we have the courage to continue to work toward the building of the Kingdom, even if we do not think what we have to offer is all that important! (It is.) And after His death may we have the patience to wait out the time of Jesus’ absence, returning to the tomb on Easter morning so that we might cry out in wonder, awe, and great joy: “Alleluia! Jesus has risen!” Let us meet at the empty tomb for that moment of joy! Blessed Holy Week and Happy Easter! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post is on April 24.
1. The first image is a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna called Prayer on the Mount of Olives (1308-11). It is in the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitano del Duomo, Siena, Italy. I chose this image because it shows Jesus begging His three closest friends to stay awake while the rest of the apostles are sleeping. In the corner of the frame we see Jesus during His agony. He is being comforted by an angel after He has been offered the cup of suffering, having finally accepted it. The artist seems to want us to know why Jesus is so adamant that His friends stay awake: He is suffering greatly and needs their companionship. This can be found at http://www.artbible.info/art/large/157.html.
2. This icon is called Weep Not for Me Mother, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I felt like this icon would best speak of the pain which Mary suffered as she went through the Passion with her Son. No one but Mary could have felt the pain almost as much as He did, because only a mother truly loves her child with such intimacy. She felt as much of it as she could endure, though not completely what He felt since only He could take on the sins and suffering of the world in its entirety. This icon depicts the deep suffering of both Jesus and Mary. Her eyes are filled with so much pain that it is almost difficult to gaze upon her for too long. Yet, there is great tenderness in how she is holding her Son, perhaps reminiscent of how she once held Him when He was a child. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this icon you can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/weep-not-for-me-mother-260-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
3. This painting is one of the many works of Blessed Fra Angelico. It is called The Mocking of Christ. (1437) In it you can see the soldiers spitting on Jesus, and also hands hitting Him that seem to be disembodied and suspended in the air. You can also see through the veil over Jesus’ eyes, which is Fra Angelico’s way of depicting His humiliation and degradation. I chose this because His mother and St. Dominic are present to Him, even though neither of them was there when this event took place. They were present through their prayer: Mary was in Jerusalem, but not at the place this happened, and St. Dominic did not live for another 11 centuries, of course, but his deep meditation takes him to the scene. This painting illustrates the point of this post, which is that we need to be present to Jesus during His time of suffering, Passion, and death. http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/fraangelico/mockingofchrist.htm.
4. This is one of my photos, taken in Big Bend National Park on the Ernst Tinaja trail. I chose to use this photo here because while it (symbolically) shows the aridity of the path of suffering and the labor of love which it takes to walk such a path, there is also great beauty present if we care to open our eyes and see it. Just as there is much below the surface of the rock, there is much beneath the surface of each person we meet. Therefore we need to seek the beauty in people as we serve them and not get caught up in hardened exteriors.
5. This is another of my photos, also taken in Big Bend National Park. I chose it as a reminder that Jesus gives living water through baptism in the form of salvation and the great gifts of faith, hope, and love. He thirsts for us, and yet it is He who quenches our thirst for salvation. This water looks refreshing and filled with life. If you look closely you can see a turtle perched on a rock on the right side of the photo. The waters of baptism are full of life, (and new life, especially for those who will receive this sacrament on Holy Saturday).
6 & 7. The first of these two images is one of my photos: it is a painting I saw at the Mount of Olives in Israel.You can see Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem with the palm branches waving and the people putting out their cloaks for His donkey to ride upon them. This photo is cropped a bit to hone in on Jesus. The second is the empty tomb, presumably from a movie. It looks like part of the resurrection scene from Jesus of Nazareth. ~ I chose to use these two photos here so as to close out this entry with the start and finish of Holy Week: the first photo is Palm Sunday and the closing image is the empty tomb at Easter. Again, the empty tomb is not one of my photos, but I found it at the following site: http://augustinecollective.org/empty-tomb/.
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Heart Speaks to Heart