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Holy Week lessons from “The Passion”

For fifty-one years, a life-size crucifix has hung in my suburban Washington church – first on the apse wall, now above the renovated sanctuary. It’s as familiar as anything the parish has ever known, the “signature” piece that defines this space as our parish.

Yet during Holy Week this year, I expect that thousands of parishioners will look at that crucifix and see something new. Why? Because they’ll bring to their gaze images from “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps some, whose mind’s eye had never imagined the brutality of the sorrowful mysteries, will find it difficult to look at that familiar crucifix, or to venerate the cross during the Good Friday liturgy. Far more, I expect, at home and around the world, will live a richer encounter with the crucified Christ because of the experience of “The Passion.”

I hope, for example, that many Catholics live Holy Week 2004 with a renewed appreciation of the centrality of the cross in the Christian life. H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous critique of liberal Christianity – “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ with a cross” – has been cited frequently during the debate over “The Passion,” but it deserves repeating. There is no Christianity without Good Friday because there is no Easter without Good Friday. Good Friday and Easter, together, constitute the mystery of liberating obedience and redemptive suffering that stands at the heart of the Christian proposal. Those who remember Jesus in “The Passion” getting up, time and again, to embrace his suffering in obedience to the will of his Father will “see” Good Friday differently this year – and will have a more powerful, joyful experience of Easter.

Then there is the Marian dimension of “The Passion.” Maia Morgenstern, descendant of Holocaust survivors, will be the image of Mary at the foot of the cross in tens of millions of Christian minds this Holy Week. “The Passion” shows us Mary as “Mother of the Church.” It also shows Mary as the pattern of all Christian discipleship: Mary, whose spoken fiat at the Annunciation– “Be it done unto me according to your word” – is completed by her silent fiat at the foot of the cross, immortalized by Michelangelo in the Pieta. In a culture of delayed commitments and exit strategies, Mary’s unambiguous “yes” invites us to stake everything on the God who keeps his promises to the last generation.

Many Catholics will approach Holy Thursday differently this year because of the profoundly eucharistic imagery of “The Passion.” In recent years, Catholics may have forgotten that the Eucharist is (as the Catechism puts it), “the sacrificial memorial of Christ and his Body.” In “The Passion,” the juxtaposition of the lifting up of the cross and the lifting up of the bread at the Last Supper is a powerful reminder that every Mass is a memorial of Good Friday, as well as a celebration of the Risen Christ’s eucharistic presence to his Easter people. To accept the Lord’s offer of his Body and Blood in holy communion is not just a question of good manners, of saying “yes” to a gracious host; to say “Amen” to the declaration, “the Body and Blood of Christ,” is to embrace the sacrifice of the cross, present for our salvation in the Eucharist.

Finally, I expect that many Catholics will celebrate Holy Week this year with a deeper appreciation of Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:22: “Salvation is from the Jews.” The story of Holy Week is a very Jewish story and makes no sense outside the context of God’s revelation to his chosen people. Those of us from the “wild olive tree” of the Gentiles who have been grafted onto the “cultivated” olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:23) should reflect with gratitude this year that the savior whose redemption we commemorate and celebrate is a Jewish savior, who lived and died a faithful son of Israel, with the psalms on his lips as he commended his spirit to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

All of which will, I hope, take us from debate to prayer, and from contention to contemplation, in Holy Week 2004.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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