March 27, 2022 –
The Fourth Sunday of Lent [C]
“But now we must celebrate and rejoice ….”
St. Thomas More wrote a work titled The Sadness of Christ in the Tower of London while awaiting execution. In this work, he meditates on the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
St. Thomas More’s most striking question in this work concerns a contrast. He contrasts the range of emotions that Jesus experienced during His Passion against the experience of many of the Church’s martyrs as they faced martyrdom. Those holy martyrs joyfully rushed to their deaths, eager to be torn to pieces by lions or the like.
Jesus, on the other hand, felt “the most bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”, St. Thomas More wrote. Given this contrast, Jesus appears much weaker than the martyrs. But how could Jesus—our Lord and our God—be less holy than His own saints?
The answer, of course, is that Jesus was not less holy than His saints. The problem lies in our falling into the trap of thinking that feelings make one weak, or that some feelings are superior to others. This trap is set for us all the time by movies and advertisements that present a false picture of human nature.
One falsehood that’s often presented about human life is that we’re meant always to pursue pleasure, and always to flee from suffering. This is false. In fact, to think that you’re always meant to pursue pleasure, and always to turn away from suffering, is a poison. The Crucifix is its antidote.
Nonetheless, many people use this so-called “pleasure principle” to guide the decisions of their adult lives. A famous example would be the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel passage. The difference between the Prodigal Son and so many of us today is that the son at last came to his senses.
Reflect back, then, on the contrast between Jesus in His Passion and those joyful martyrs. The martyrs might seem more virtuous or holy than Jesus because of the positive emotions they experienced in the face of death.
But here you need to ask two questions. Why did the martyrs experience joy in the face of death? In turn, why did Jesus experience such seemingly negative emotions—and to such a profound degree—in the face of His death, so much so that He sweat blood?
Those joyful martyrs were given an extraordinary gift of grace. Like all gifts that are given to saints, it was not given them only for their own sakes. Their ultimate reward would come after death, not as they faced death. Their gift of joy was given them so that their joy might inspire others who could see in their joy their faith in the power of Jesus over death.
So given that those martyrs received extraordinary grace, what can we say about Jesus’ sorrowful Passion? Why did Jesus experience such “bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”?
In the writings of the Church’s saints about Jesus, there’s an old saying: “What was not assumed, was not redeemed.” In the early Church there were heretics who promoted the false belief that Jesus was not a real human being, and the false belief that He had some human qualities but not a full human nature.
These heretics asked: what would Jesus need with a human mind when He had divine, omniscient Intelligence? What would Jesus need with a human will when he possessed the divine, omnipotent Will? What need at all would He have to experience “negative” emotions?
To the contrary, the Church declared that Jesus had a full and complete human nature: He possessed a human mind, will, intellect, and experienced the full range of emotions. Had he not possessed these elements of human nature, they would not have been redeemed through His death and Resurrection.
Jesus could have chosen to experience the same joy as those martyrs who rushed to their deaths. But Jesus chose instead to experience the emotions that you and I, poor ordinary sinners, feel when experiencing betrayal, torments, and suffering of all sorts. Jesus chose to identify with us by experiencing our weakness.
The graces of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection are manifold. They not only have the power to aim and order our earthly lives towards Heaven. They also have the power to bring about order within us. The graces of Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection are the wellspring of every true and lasting joy in life.