by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior
Holy Week Homily: Friday, April 15, 2022
“So marred was His look beyond human resemblance, and His appearance beyond that of mortals. There was in Him no stately bearing to make us look at Him, nor appearance that would attract us to Him.”
The sadness that fell on our hearts when these words were sung in the first reading on this holiest of days testifies to our faith that what Isaiah prophesied was fulfilled in the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Face, once beautiful, now drips with blood and spittle, swarmed with flies. His sacred flesh, once whole, is now torn to rags. The feet that once brought glad tidings and the hands once raised to bless and heal are now pierced and pinned to the wood of the cross. The stench is of sweat and blood and death. All beauty is gone.
We heard the pathetic irony in Pilate’s voice as he cried out, “Behold, the man!” There is a philosophical principle: Corrúptio óptimi péssima. The corruption of the best is the worst. Man was God’s masterpiece of creation. The beauty and nobility he was supposed to have, corrupted by violence and cruelty, yields an ugliness too tragic to behold.
And yet, this song of the Suffering Servant needs to be balanced, reconciled with a later song by the same prophet, also regarding Christ in His Passion: “Who is this one, beautiful in His robe? Why is Your apparel red, and Your garments like those of the wine presser? The wine press I have trodden alone, and of My people there was no one with Me. Their blood spurted on My garments; all My apparel I stained.” The robe of Christ is His flesh, red because of the blood He shed alone, rejected by His enemies, abandoned by His friends. The blood of the nations is upon His robe because He accepted their guilt as His own. And yet, He is beautiful in this robe. How can He be both ugly and beautiful?
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself.”
This crucifix, the quintessential Catholic art recognized throughout the world, no matter what version or size—the image of Christ crucified still draws all men to Himself. It makes proud and sinful man bend his knee. It draws from rough lips, tender kisses; from hearts of stone, cries of remorse; from dry eyes, tears of repentance. When the evening sunlight streams through the rose window, reflects off the floor of the sanctuary, and illuminates this incredible work of art from below, only then you can you really see the blood dripping down His knee against the alabaster tone of His dead skin. It is a most beautiful image of the greatest ugliness. How is such a paradox possible?
To unite those things which are separated and unlike takes power. The more disparate, the more dissimilar, the more opposed they are, the greater the power it takes to make them one. And the greatest of all power unites most intimately and permanently those things which could not be farther apart from each other, while yet preserving the proper nature and being of each.
Thus in Christ, God and man are one without confusion. Humility is exalted by majesty, and majesty is brought low in humility, yet both are present and preserved. He Whose mind is all light became one with a nature whose mind is all darkness. At one end of the scale is His being Who cannot not be; at the other end is one who without the other cannot be at all. The One Who is life itself took to Himself a nature more dead than alive so that God could die like a man and man could live for God. And He Who could never sin accepted the guilt of all sin, assumed the debt of all sin, and paid the price for all sin. He loved for man’s hatred, blessed for man’s curse, and atoned for man’s crime.
Power is but one aspect, one manifestation of goodness. This moment of Christ’s death, presenting at one time both the fullness of His being and the apex of His mission, was the greatest moment of all time. God is said to love more where more of Him is to be found, where He inserts more of His supreme goodness. And although all instants of time are equally present to His sight, this moment, this—when Jesus unites God’s life with man’s death, overthrows the thralldom of Satan, and restores man to divine friendship—this instant God loved more than any other from the dawn of creation to the closing thereof. All goodness, all grace, all pardon, all holiness, all virtue was in light of this moment and made possible by it. It is the instant containing the most of His goodness and power and love.
This is truth. This is the truth. It is the fundamental truth of our religion, of reality. For truth to convey goodness in such a way that it delights us, gladdens us, warms us—that is beauty. We are one with what is good by choosing it, but we are one with beauty by knowing it. Yet it is not a truth that satisfies the mind but charms the heart. The divine truth manifested in the Suffering Servant hanging on the tree fills us with hope, comforts our despair, braces our heart, and makes us God’s beloved. It is beauty saving the world.
If it is true that Corrúptio óptimi péssima, the corruption of the best is the worst, then it is even more true that Reparátio péssimi óptima: Restoration of the worst is the best. There is more beauty in the scars on His hands and His feet than if they were whole. And so, here in Christ crucified we have the deepest, most mysterious beauty of all. We know not only the suffering and death of the Lord but also the power of His goodness and love. He Whose life is sheer happiness freely chose suffering and death as the most fitting and effective conduit for the power of His love to make us one with Him in happiness. He has no appearance to attract us to Him, and yet He is too beautiful in His blood-red robe. Lifted up from the earth, He draws all things to Himself.
The delight of this beauty both fills us with rapture and makes us yearn for more. The heart intuits what the eyes do not glimpse, and our souls are fascinated. There is a mystic love that responds to this beauty, that thrills at it, honors it, enjoys it, desires it. As if we needed an authority to tell us, no less an authority than St. Augustine describes his reaction to this beauty: “Sero te amávi, o Pulchritúdo tam antíqua et tam nova. Sero te amávi.” “Late have I loved You, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved You! You breathed Your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for You. I have tasted You, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.”Our response to divine beauty, to the power of God shining through the death of Christ, is love. Such love changes us from within so that we can be more like the beauty we contemplate in faith. It is a power itself too great to resist, yet in yielding to its strength, and reveling in it, we find peace. Hence even the greatest of pagan poets said,
Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedámus Amóri.
Love bests all; let us too fall to Love.
Or in the verses of Fr. Faber:
O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried;
And victory remains with love:
Jesus, our love, is crucified.
Listen to the audio version below.
Also: Listen to this recording of the Passion of Christ according to St. John by Fr. Edmund Page, O.Praem.; Fr. Joachim Aldaba, O.Praem.; and Fr. Charles Willingham, O.Praem.
Even as his health declined, Fr. Leo continued to orient his life to the service of the altar, recognizing in the Holy Eucharist the source of every grace and heavenly blessing. At that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to be a Norbertine priest, “lifting high the Holy Eucharist over the miseries and errors of this world.”
The Norbertine vocation is essentially Eucharistic. It is true, the Church expects every religious institute to “make every effort to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice daily, to receive the most sacred Body of Christ, and to adore the Lord Himself in the sacrament.”
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