Thursday, March 28, 2013

Great and Holy Thursday: Usque ad Mortem Obediens Factum

Usque ad mortem obediens factum—"obedient unto death," words constantly repeated in the Divine Office today and tomorrow.

There are two ideas that catch our attention today: (1) a sadness over the impending loss of a loved one, the One and (2) the choice of accepting what Christ offers us.

First, the sense of loss is one made in the Roman rite through subtlety, something not well known in the Eastern rites, where dramatic and symbolic gestures dominate the liturgy. At Tenebrae, Mattins and Lauds sung in a progressively darker setting the night before the particular day, we sang the ferial psalms with three sets of lessons. The first set of lessons, taken from the Lamentation of the Prophet Jeremias, begins with the words Quomodo sedet sola civitas, "How sits the lonely city." The Lamentation is full of morose imagery: widows, weeping, tears, gates broken, and "remembering the days of her affliction" (lesson 2). The Prophet is staring at the great city of Jerusalem, where God's chosen people lived, in utter desolation some time after being sacked in the sixth century before Christ, a tragedy which saw the Temple of Solomon destroyed.

At the time of the Last Supper the Crucifixion had not yet taken taken place, but two millennia later It has, and we can look back to it it with the same same fascinated macabre through which Jeremias looked at the "lonely city." More importantly, Jerusalem was not a city with a temple. It was a temple with a city attached to it. Everything about Jerusalem revolved around the temple and the promises God made to the Jews through it. Similarly, Christ likens Himself to a temple, which he challenges the Jewish priests to destroy and which He will rebuild within three days (John ch. 2).

At Mass the finest vestments are worn and the altar is prepared as it would be for the greatest of feasts. The Gloria is sung de tempore for the first time since in two months, with organ and bells blaring. It is  a time for celebration and for joy. Yet, the organ stops and is not heard again. The word "alleluia" is still absent and the Gloria Patri.... ("Glory be to the Father....") prayer is missing from the Mass. What a quiet contrast. If I may be crude, I think of the initial joy followed by liturgical starkness as representative a great party for a friend who you love, but may never see again. You want to sing, dance, eat, and cry with this person, yet your heart and mind still cannot be satisfied because you know your friend will be gone in a few hours and you have no control over his fate. That friend is our Lord today.

The second theme of the day is accepting what Christ gave us. Many in our Roman tradition emphasize the ordination of the Apostles, though the "form" throws the Thomists a real curve, or the institution of the Eucharist. Yet, reading St. John's Gospel from chapter 12 until the Passion begins, one cannot help but notice everything is one continuous discourse. After washing the feet of the Apostles Christ tells them that His commission and His commandment for them is love of one another. He continues to clarify that He is of His Father, and that only through Him and His love will anyone see His Father. The Apostles are humanly confused at the moment, but our Lord promises them the "Paraclete," the Comforter, who will illuminate them and preserve them in Truth at the appropriate time. Yet by the time Jesus says these things Judas has gone, being told "What you must do, do quickly." The Apostles cannot fully understand what is transpiring before them. My own poorly-formed opinion is that their sins and lack of grace impedes them from seeing Christ as He truly is. Yet, Jesus allows them to hear His entire message that night and prays to His Father in heaven for unity among them.

Judas does not hear the message. Is he included in our Lord's prayer? It is unclear.

Caravaggio's Betrayal of Christ
Judas is a case study is turning away from God and losing one's soul to the abyss. We find intimations in the Gospel that Judas had an eye for money, accosting the sinful woman for pouring valuable perfume on Christ's feet (John ch. 12). Perhaps he thought he could start a revolution. Perhaps he was disappointed in the sort of Messiah Jesus was. Perhaps he was simply greedy. Either way, Judas did not lose his soul in any one instant. It was a gradual decay of his faith in Christ. Yet our Lord allows this betrayer to eat at His table and partake in Holy Communion. How welcome are we to approach then! How kind God is! Yet, we must be careful with this kindness and approach it worthily, as Judas also illustrates the compounding effect of sin wrought by an unworthy communion.

For his sins, although He knew Christ in a more human way than anyone who has lived since 33 AD, Judas was excluded from Christ's discourse on union with His Father, on love, and on the comfort God grants. Judas removed himself from all these things.

We cannot gerrymander with God. We must accept what Christ offers us, everything, even if His message, His commands, His actions, and His precepts for living discomfort us, as they should. Judas tried to pick and chose what of Christ he wanted, mainly a miracle-worker who would eventuate some desired effect. But this is wrong, both for Judas and for us.

Christ's love is so complete and so perfect that we lose our souls by not embracing it when it is offered to us. Take it, all of it. Much like the Eucharist....

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