Holy Week lessons from “The Passion”

George Weigel

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.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!