March 21, 2008

This day, the most solemn in the Christian calendar, is an occasion to avoid any kind of frivolity or mirth. Which makes it a hard day for me to write about. The feast is especially important to wretched, lukewarm sinners like me who spend the whole year trying to wriggle out from under the Cross. Today, it’s standing right in front of us, and we really can”€™t turn away. So let’s take a good long look”€”if only for this one day”€”at the shape divine love takes when it encounters human sin.

The Church’s service today is stark and sober”€”not even a Mass, but only a Communion service, culminating in the veneration of a crucifix. At some parishes, a preacher will give meditations on the Seven Last “€œWords”€ (really sentences) of Christ. We like to attend a Byzantine Catholic service called the “€œBurial of Christ,”€ which ends with parishioners coming up in silent procession to kiss a burial shroud emblazoned with Jesus’s corpse. In fact, since I can”€™t think of anything else appropriate to do today, I try to spend most of it in church. If you find that your company is open today, why not call in sick”€”as in, you”€™re sick of having to work on major religious holidays.

For Catholics, this is an occasion of abstinence and fast”€”a pretty wimpy penance nowadays, allowing you one real meal, two light snacks, and no meat. You might choose to revive the old-fashioned Irish “€œblack fast”€”€”which means consuming nothing but unsweetened black tea. I recall that as I grew up, my parents would turn off the television and radio precisely at noon, and leave it off until three. To a modern kid like me, there was no better way of making me feel like I was on the Cross than making me miss “Underdog.”

This might be a day to unplug the TV, Internet and Game Box altogether, and leave the stereo off. If you really want to serve up the solemnity, you could shroud the entertainment center in black silk, cover the mirrors, switch off the circuit breakers, and insist that everyone huddle by candlelight. That should make the day memorable.

If you insist on electricity, program your home with appropriate music for the day, such as Haydn’s “€œSeven Last Words of Christ,”€ one of Bach’s three powerful “€œPassions,”€ Mozart’s “€œRequiem”€ or some Gregorian chants. If some family members simply cannot get by without moving images on an electronic screen, today’s a good day to rent a movie life of Christ, or a para-Biblical epic such as The Robe. A truly great and fitting film available on DVD is The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Here’s the ancient Western Christian prayer for the day:

Jesus’s Reproaches from the Cross

This prayer pictures Jesus addressing the crowd which called for His death, and it speaks to every sinner. It’s fitting that you feel good and rotten today”€”and the Church is here to help:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you have led your Savior to the cross.
For forty years, I led you safely through the desert. I fed you with manna from heaven and brought you to a land of plenty, but you have led your Savior to the cross.
What more could I have done for you? I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness; when I was thirsty, you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Savior’s side with a spear.
O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me.
I led you out of Egypt, leaving Pharaoh drowned in the Red Sea: but you have delivered me to the chief priests.
I opened the sea before you; and you opened my side with a spear.
I went before you in a pillar of fire: and you have dragged me into the judgment hall of Pilate.
I fed you with manna in the desert; and you have beaten me with fist and whip.
I gave you water of salvation to drink: and you have given me gall and vinegar.
For your sake I struck the kings of the Canaanites: and you have struck my head with a reed.
I gave you a royal scepter: and you have given me a crown of thorns.
I raised you up with great strength: and you have hanged me on the gibbet of the Cross.
O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me.

Adapted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!