As we enter into Lent this year, we should make a renewed effort to contemplate the mysteries of Jesus’ passion. With this objective in mind, I recommend that we examine the Mass readings for Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent and consider how they relate to Christ’s suffering and death. After all, Lent is meant to be our preparation to participate in Christ’s passion, which we commemorate in Holy Week.
Let the spiritual battle begin!
The Church gives us a reading on Ash Wednesday from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus exhorts his disciples to a renewed practice of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These are three spiritual practices from the Judeo-Christian tradition which are weapons for spiritual battle against the three temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, or as St. John says, the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). It is imperative that we foster these practices as we prepare to enter into the mystery of Christ’s passion, for we too are entering into spiritual battle.
First Sunday of Lent: If you are the Son of God …
The Gospel proclamation for the First Sunday of Lent is about Jesus’ temptation in the desert immediately after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11). Notice how two of these temptations begin: “If you are the Son of God … ” Satan questions Jesus’ divine Sonship and whether Jesus’ filial trust in his heavenly Father is sufficient to endure this wilderness trial. This event anticipates a more intense testing of Jesus’ filial trust during his Gethsemane and Calvary agony.
At Gethsemane, in the face of his approaching arrest, mock trials, torture, and death, Jesus endures an agony that is spiritual, and deeply psychological and physical. Aware of his imminent suffering, Jesus kneels to pray:
“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”Luke 22:42
Faced with the reality of this impending agony, Jesus manifests his complete filial trust in his heavenly Father.
Jesus’ suffering was so intense that scholars say he suffered the very rare clinical condition known as hematidrosis for “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). This condition is sometimes considered to be part of the “flight or fight” response, and is often caused by extreme distress.
Instead of fleeing from the approaching suffering, Jesus surrendered to the Father’s will, and embraced the Cross. After praying he arose and met the betrayer, Judas, with his band of soldiers who came to arrest him. Such resolve in the face of looming suffering could only come about because Jesus had immense trust in his heavenly Father. Jesus lived on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). This is a call to us to enter into the Scriptures, to hear the Word of God anew, and to trust in God’s fatherly care even in the midst of our sufferings.
Second Sunday of Lent: This is my beloved Son …
On the Second Sunday of Lent, the Church proclaims a somewhat surprising Gospel in Jesus’ glorious transfiguration on the mountain (Matthew 17:1-9). Perhaps as our spiritual mother, the Church desires to strengthen us for the spiritual battle ahead in Christ’s passion by giving us a glimpse of Jesus’ future resurrection glory. In this narrative, God the Father declares from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” We will hear this echoed again at the crucifixion when, at Jesus’ death, the centurion declares, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
What is curious about St. Luke’s transfiguration narrative is that Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah speaking about his imminent “departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). The original Greek word translated as “departure” is “exodon”, from which we get “exodus”. So Jesus was speaking about his imminent exodus that would begin at Jerusalem.
Jesus was about to usher in a new and greater Exodus than that of Moses. He would do battle with, and defeat, the ultimate oppressors of God’s people: sin, death, and Satan. The result of Adam’s sin was death and a relative slavery to Satan—a condition transmitted to all Adam’s offspring.
The strange narrative of Jesus cursing the fig tree at the beginning of Holy Week (Matthew 21:18-22) speaks volumes about the mystery of the Cross in its relation to Adam’s sin. Presumably the fruit that Adam ate was a fig since he covered himself with a fig leaf after he sinned. The fig tree, then, is the symbol of destructive force of evil that Adam’s sin unleashed upon creation. When Jesus curses the fig tree, saying may it never bear fruit again, he is foretelling the imminent coming of his death on the Cross in which he turns Adam’s sin on its head.
The great Christian paradox is that Jesus destroyed the power of death, for all who believe in him, by entering into death itself, and on the third day rising from the dead. For this reason, many early Christian icons, particularly in the East, depict the Anastasis in which Christ rises out of the grave grasping the hands of Adam and Eve. Effectively, this depicts the Savior who storms Satan’s dominion of death and plunders his spoil, that is, all the faithful departed in Sheol and secures them for a heavenly journey.
Third Sunday of Lent: Behold your son …
The encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan women at the well (John 4) is the Gospel proclamation for the Third Sunday of Lent. In this narrative we discover the divine Bridegroom re-wooing his fallen bride back into nuptial communion. It is a story of reconciliation, forgiveness, and life-giving love. It is the anticipation of Jesus’ passion, in which his eros for his bride is fully revealed on the Cross.
From the Cross, Jesus says to his mother, “Woman behold your son!”, and to the beloved disciple, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27). The Blessed Virgin Mary is the icon of the Church, the new Eve, the faithful disciple, standing at the foot of the Cross, bringing life to the world. Christ the Bridegroom lays down his life for his bride to save her from evil, which bears fruit in Christian children.
Vatican II teaches:
“it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth ‘the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.’”Sacrosanctum Concilium, 5
St. John Chrysostom also saw this nuptial image of Christ and his Church, stating:
“As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church.”Catecheses, 3, 13-19; SC 50, 174-177
From another perspective, Jesus identifies himself with the beloved disciple, who becomes the Son of the Woman. As Christians we are to die to ourselves so that the life of Christ may flow through us. This is the reciprocity of a nuptial relationship: the spouses pour themselves out in love for their beloved. With St. John the Baptist we endeavor to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Mary, our mother, is our greatest help in drawing closer to Christ for she sees her own son in us through faith.
Fourth Sunday of Lent: Truly this man is the Son of God!
The Fourth Sunday of Lent makes us reflect upon our own spiritual blindness. In the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41), Jesus reveals to us our own spiritual state: we are blind to the reality of our own sinful condition; we are in need of a savior. If we are to recognize who Jesus is, we must be healed of our blindness.
Jesus is the light of the world; whoever follows him will have the light of life (John 8:12). The world is living in darkness due to Adam’s sin: we stumble and fall into sin and despair when we live apart from God. This spiritual darkness is evident in the hardness of heart of the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and Herod, who seek to destroy Jesus in their mock trials and interrogations.
Jesus is the light who reveals the way back to God the Father. Jesus endured the suffering and shame of the Cross without retaliating or accusing his enemies of the crimes they committed. He is the lamb led to the slaughter who does not open his mouth in opposition (see Isaiah 53:7). He shows us that the way to overcome our own sinfulness is by the total gift of self in love.
Is Jesus a mere prophet, or more than a prophet? Once cured, the blind man initially believed Jesus to be a prophet. But in a personal encounter with Jesus, the man made an act of faith in Jesus’ true identity and worshipped him. Do we see Jesus on the Cross as a mere prophet, or perhaps a failed prophet? Or do we see beyond external appearances, and perceive the true meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death? Can we stand at the foot of the Cross and say with the centurion, “Truly this man is the Son of God!”? Through the light of faith we can perceive that the true Son of God is the one who pours out his life for many, holding nothing back.
Fifth Sunday of Lent: I am the resurrection and the life!
On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Church proclaims the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45). This incredible story reveals the glory of Jesus, the Son of God, because it anticipates Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
Jesus’ beloved friend, Lazarus, has died yet Jesus waits four days before appearing at the place of mourning. Lazarus’ bereaved sisters, Mary and Martha, confront Jesus in their different ways, both declaring their belief in Jesus’ power to heal, yet questioning why he wasn’t there to save their brother:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”John 11:21
Jesus wept in seeing their suffering, and no doubt in appreciating the depth of human misery under the curse of death.
“I am the resurrection and the life”, said Jesus to Martha. What hope! What joy! Yet, what strange words! Again the paradox of the Christian life is revealed in Jesus’ words:
“he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”John 11:25-26
Jesus will go to his death on Calvary. His disciples abandon him, one betrays him, while another denies knowing him. Are we like any of these disciples? Through fear, greed, pride, or disbelief like them, we may also have abandoned him.
Despite the failure of his disciples, the mystery of Christ reveals that his death transforms death into the path to eternal life. Death no longer has power over us. Death’s finality is no more! We need only have faith in Christ to participate in this saving event. We must look beyond mere appearances, and see the inner meaning of Christ’s suffering, shame, and death to discover his total outpouring of love for us.
Most of the apostles who ran away on that fateful night later returned and were restored to friendship with Christ. They learned the truth of Jesus’ words, “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Most of them became martyrs for their faith and now live forever in Christ.
My hope is that this brief reflection on some of the aspects of Christ’s passion, guided by the Lenten liturgies, will help us prepare to journey with Christ in his passion and death this Holy Week. I draw the reflection to a close here because with great reverence and trembling I peer into the mysteries of Holy Week and silently await the Spirit’s work within me. Let’s hope that our Lenten almsgiving, prayer, and fasting will enable us to go deeper into these mysteries than ever before.
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Dr. Christine Wood teaches theology and philosophy for Catholic Distance University in West Virginia. She is also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, Australia, and the director of the Office of Evangelization & Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Hobart, Australia, where she lives with her husband. Christine is currently a member of the executive for the national RCIA body, Christian Initiation of Adults Network, in Australia. She has also been involved in helping women to discover their identity in Christ through small group communities, Bible studies, and faith formation.
Featured image, “Set of paintings of Christ’s passion, by Kosheleff, in Russian Hospice, Jerusalem. Christ led to the Praetorium” sourced from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons