God Comes to Redeem Mankind
Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
During his general audience on April 8, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the Easter triduum, which celebrates the central events of our redemption. On Holy Thursday, we recall the institution of the Eucharist and priesthood, the supreme sign of God’s love for us. On Good Friday, we contemplate the full meaning of his sacrifice for us on the cross. Holy Saturday finds us waiting in silent hope for the Easter Vigil, when we break forth in a song of joy at the Lord’s resurrection. The celebration of the paschal mystery recalls the depth of God’s love for us.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Holy Week, which for us Christians is the most important week of the year, offers us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in those events that are central to our redemption and to relive the paschal mystery, the great mystery of faith.
Beginning tomorrow evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, these solemn liturgical celebrations will help us to meditate in a more heartfelt manner on the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord during the holy days of the Easter triduum, the hinge on which the entire liturgical year turns. May God’s grace open our hearts to understand the invaluable gift of salvation that Christ’s sacrifice obtained for us.
The Gift of Salvation
St. Paul describes this immense gift in a marvelous way in a famous hymn found in the Letter to the Philippians (see Philippians 2:6-11), upon which we have meditated several times during Lent.
Paul retraces in a way that is as essential as it is effective the entire mystery of salvation history, referring to the arrogance of Adam, the first man, who, not being God, wanted to be like God. He contrasts the pride of the first man — which we all feel to a certain extent in the depths of our being — with the humility of the true Son of God who, becoming man, did not hesitate to take upon himself all the weaknesses of the human being, except for sin, and even ventured into the depths of death.
This descent to the ultimate depths of suffering and death was followed by his exaltation — the true glory, the glory of a love that gives to the very end. It is fitting, therefore, as Paul says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).
Here, St. Paul is referring to Isaiah’s prophecy, where God says, “I am God. ... To me every knee shall bend in heaven and on earth” (see Isaiah 45:23). This, says Paul, also applies to Jesus Christ.
Truly it is Jesus who, in his humility and in the true greatness of his love, is the Lord of the world, and truly before him every knee bends.
God’s Immense Love for Us
How marvelous and, at the same time, how amazing is this mystery. We can never meditate enough on this reality.
Jesus, though he was God, did not wish to make an exclusive possession of his divine prerogative. He did not want to use the fact that he was God — to use his glorious dignity and his power — as an instrument of triumph and a sign of the distance between him and us. On the contrary, “he emptied himself” and assumed our frail and weak human condition.
Here, Paul uses a Greek verb that is rich in meaning in order to indicate this kenosis, this descent by Jesus. The divine form (morphe) is hidden in Christ under the human form, that is, under our reality, which is marked by suffering, by poverty, by our human limitations, and by death.
Sharing in our nature in a truly radical way, sharing in everything except sin, led him to the frontier that is the sign of our finiteness — to death. But all this was not the fruit of some obscure mechanism or of blind fatality. Rather, it was his free choice, out of generous adherence to the Father’s plan for salvation.
The death that Jesus encountered, Paul says, was death on the cross, the most humiliating and degrading death imaginable. The Lord of the universe did all of this out of love for us. Out of love, he willed “to empty himself” and become our brother.
Out of love, he shared our human condition, the condition of every man and every woman.
Theodoretus of Ciro, a great witness from the Eastern Christian tradition, wrote the following in this regard: “Being God and God by nature, and having equality with God, he did not consider this of any importance, as do those who have received some honor beyond their true merits; but hiding his own merits, he chose the most profound humility and took the form of a human being” (Commentary on the Letter to the Philippians, 2:6-7).
As a prelude to the Easter triduum, which will begin tomorrow with the thought-provoking evening celebration of Holy Thursday, the bishop celebrates the solemn Chrism Mass with his priests in the morning, during which they renew together the priestly vows that they made on the day of their ordination.
It is a gesture of great value, an occasion that could not be more propitious for priests to confirm their fidelity to Christ, who chose them as his ministers.
Moreover, this gathering of priests takes on a particular significance at this time, because it is somewhat like a preparation for the Year of the Priest that I declared on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the saintly Curé of Ars, which will begin on June 19.
During the Chrism Mass, the oils for the sick and for catechumens will also be blessed, and the chrism will be consecrated. These rites symbolically represent the fullness of Christ’s priesthood and the ecclesial communion that should inspire the Christian people, who have gathered together for the Eucharistic sacrifice and who have been given a life of unity through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
During the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the evening, the Church commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, the ministerial priesthood, and the new commandment of charity that Jesus left to his disciples.
St. Paul offers one of the oldest testimonies regarding what happened in the Upper Room on the eve of our Lord’s passion. “The Lord Jesus,” he wrote at the beginning of the 50s, based on a text that he had received from Our Lord’s own circle, “on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also, he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
These words are full of mystery, yet clearly manifest Christ’s desire. In the form of bread and wine, he makes himself present in his body that he has offered and in his blood that he has shed. It is the sacrifice of the new and final covenant, offered to everyone without distinction of race or culture.
Jesus appointed his disciples as the ministers of this sacramental rite, along with all those who would follow them in this ministry over the course of centuries, and entrusts it to the Church as the supreme proof of his love.
Thus, Holy Thursday is the renewal of the invitation to give thanks to God for the supreme gift of the Eucharist, which is to be received with devotion and adored with life-giving faith.
For this reason, the Church encourages us after this holy Mass to keep vigil in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, recalling the sadness of the hour Jesus spent in prayer and solitude at Gethsemane before he was arrested and then sentenced to death.
And so we come to Good Friday, the day of the passion and crucifixion of Our Lord. Every year, as we come in silence before Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross, we realize how the words he said the previous evening during the Last Supper were filled with love: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (see Mark 14:24).
Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice for the remission of the sins of mankind. Just as the mystery of the Eucharist is unfathomable to reason, so too is the mystery of the passion and death of Jesus on the cross. We find before us something that humanly might seem absurd: a God who not only becomes man with all the needs of man, a God who not only suffers to save man by taking upon himself all the tragedy of mankind, but who also dies for man.
Christ’s death reminds us of the accumulation of sorrows and evils that has beset mankind throughout the ages: the crushing weight of our dying, the hatred and the violence that continue to spill blood upon the earth in our day.
The Lord’s passion continues in the suffering of mankind. As Blaise Pascal rightly wrote, “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world. We must not sleep during this time” (Pensées, 583).
Even though Good Friday is a day full of sorrow, it is for that reason at the same time the most appropriate day for reawakening our faith and strengthening our hope and our courage, so that each one of us might carry our cross with humility, trust and abandonment to God, certain of his support and his victory.
As we sing during the liturgy for this day, “O Crux, ave, spes unica. Hail, O Cross, our only hope.”
The great silence of Holy Saturday nourishes this hope, as we await the resurrection of Jesus. On this day, the churches are stripped bare and no special liturgical services are provided. The Church keeps vigil in prayer like Mary, and together with Mary, shares her feelings of sorrow and of trust in God.
For obvious reasons, it is recommended that we maintain an atmosphere of prayer throughout the day that is conducive to meditation and reconciliation, and the faithful are encouraged to approach the sacrament of penance in order to be able to participate in a truly renewed spirit in the Easter celebration.
The silence and meditation of Holy Saturday lead us that night to the solemn Easter Vigil, “the mother of all vigils,” when a song of joy for Christ’s resurrection breaks forth in every church and every community.
Once more, the victory of light over darkness and of life over death is proclaimed, and the Church rejoices in its encounter with the Lord. Thus, we enter into Easter — into the Resurrection.
In Union With Mary
Dear brothers and sisters, let us prepare ourselves to experience the sacred triduum in a powerful way so that we may participate more profoundly in the mystery of Christ.
May the Blessed Virgin accompany us on this journey. It was she who followed her son Jesus up to Calvary in silence and who took part with great sorrow in his sacrifice, thereby cooperating in the mystery of redemption and becoming the mother of all believers (see John 19:25-27).
Together with her, let us enter into the Upper Room, stand at the foot of the cross, and keep vigil next to Christ who has died, as we wait with hope for the dawn of the radiant day of his resurrection.
With this in mind, I express to all of you, as well as your families, parishes and communities, my most heartfelt wishes for a joyful and holy Easter.
- April 26-May 2, 2009