Holy Week is a powerful time to meditate on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout the world, millions of faithful Catholics will likely turn to the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary, hoping to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s death.
The sorrowful mysteries cover more than just the death of Christ, however. In these five mysteries of the Lord’s suffering and death, we are brought deep into the five pains of humanity which Christ humbled himself to experience — desolation, mortification, humiliation, exhaustion, and death.
The agony in the garden
Depression. Despair. Desolation. “He was in such agony…that his sweat became like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).
The first pain of the Passion isn’t physical. Rather, it’s so intensely mental and emotional that it causes physical reactions.
What is perhaps most distressing is that, in the Lord’s moment of desolation, he’s faced with profound loneliness. His closest friends — Peter, James, John — have fallen asleep, inattentive to the pains of Christ. So total was Christ’s desolation, he was forced to experience it alone. At the same time, he addresses his source of strength in the desolation. “Not my will, but yours be done,” he prays (Luke 22:42). The desolation has not left. The tears and sweat have not dried. The friends have not yet returned. What is offered is not a way out, but an example of the strength to persevere.
Christ promises us more than mere strength, however. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he preaches at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4).
The promised comfort is not merely eschatological, reserved for the end times. Rather, it’s a promise that we will be comforted today as we mourn, and a challenge for each of us to act not as the sleeping disciples but as a true and active comfort to all those who are in mourning.
“And to strengthen him, an angel from heaven appeared to him” (Luke 22:43).
The scourging at the pillar
Who of us have not experienced physical pain? Following the intense emotional pain of the agony, in some ways the pain of the scourging almost seems easier.
Such relativity doesn’t make the scourging easier to watch, however. Of all the scenes in Mel Gibson’s famous “The Passion of the Christ,” the scourging seems the most visceral and the easiest to empathize.
We empathize because the scourging is truly Christ empathize with us. He accepts mortification in our stead, experiencing the penance meant for us. He accepts the physical pain in mercy so that we, in justice, need not experience it.
“You and I cannot speak,” St. Josemaria Escriva wrote, in his meditation on the second sorrowful mystery. “— Words are not needed. — Look at him, look at him…slowly. After this…can you ever fear penance?”
The crowning of thorns
Humiliation is a potent pain. For most of us, the pain of humiliation comes as a fault of our sin, like the pain of a pulled rotten tooth. When we are prideful, humiliation purges us of that deadly rot.
However, there are those examples of sinless humiliation, like that faced by Jesus, true King of Kings. “They clothed him in purple,” the color of royalty, “and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it in him” (Mark 15:17).
Christ is ridiculed not for his pride, but for his identity. He truly is king, and is belittled for this fact. He’s forced to wear a dismissive costume, one both insulting and physically painful.
By his humiliation, Christ experiences the pain of all those who are chastised merely because of their being. More than experiencing the pain, he glorifies it — today, we celebrate the crown of thorns as a relic and cheer that it was saved from destruction! What was once filled with malice now is filled with Christ’s glory.
The carrying of the cross
Three times Jesus falls.
Such repetition is no mere redundancy. Rather, tradition attempts to offer a glimpse into the pure exhaustion which Christ felt as he made the journey to Golgotha.
One could focus on the metaphysical cause for the exhaustion, but without the blessing of mysticism, “the weight of the world” seems only a poetic saying.
“When Jesus reached this spot, his strength was perfectly exhausted,” wrote Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich in her “Dolorous Passion of Jesus Christ.” “He was quite unable to move; and as the archers dragged and pushed him without showing the slightest compassion, he fell quite down against this stone, and the cross fell by his side.”
If nothing reminds us that Jesus was truly human, made of muscle and bone, then this exhaustion must. How frequently do we tire from a mere chore? But to face the exhaustion of execution, compacting the desolation, mortification, and humiliation already felt — that his muscles could bear a single step, even with the aid of Simon of Cyrene, is itself a heroic feat.
The pain of death.
In some ways, this pain seems the most obvious. We know Jesus died — it’s an integral part of “Jesus died for our sins.” But, what does it mean, in totality, that Christ experienced the pain of death?
Death, of course, is not merely the pain of fatal mortification. Yes, Christ felt the pain of the nails, the pain of suffocation, all of the physical pains of the cross. But, in many ways, that pain is no different, no more painful than the pain of the flagellation.
At the cross, however, Jesus experiences a new pain. Looking down to the foot of the cross, he sees John and Mary and he knows that they have a future in which he, dead, will no longer participate. All he can do is make provisions for their futures to the best of his ability: “Behold your son. Behold your Mother.”
One might call it the pain of the will; the knowledge that no longer will we have the ability to assist in the lives of our loved ones. So, in that heartbreak, we do what we can to make our last act of assistance, a last will and testament of support for those we love.
Additionally, Jesus once again feels the pain of loneliness. His friends have all but scattered, unable to share these last moments with him. We are reminded in a harrowing way of that corporal work of mercy, to visit the dying, lest they feel the pain of a lonely death as did our Lord.
The Passion before the Resurrection
Why meditate on these pains? It may seem almost foolish — yes, Jesus experiences these pains, but we now know that they all culminate in a glorious Resurrection. But that knowledge should not overlook the pain and death of Good Friday.
The Passion isn’t sanctified by the Resurrection. It is in and of itself holy. Christ doesn’t defeat death by his resurrection, but by his death: “Dying you destroyed our death,” reads a poetic translation of the Memorial Acclamation. “Rising you restored our life.”
Yes, Easter is coming, but we still have pain and death to face. But because of the Passion, we can face it in the confidence of Christ, who shared in all our pains and by his dying destroyed our death: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
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