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Retreat on the Credo

Faith in the Passion of Christ

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

"I believe in Jesus Christ…Who suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried." We divide this article into four parts, namely, the Passion of Christ under Pontius Pilate, Christ's crucifixion, His death, and His burial.

First the Passion. The Latin 'passio' means exactly what our English 'suffering' means: it implies that pain is imposed on someone from outside of himself, here imposed on Christ. Our English adjective 'passive' derives from the same Latin root. It is something that is caused from outside of the person. What strikes us immediately is that Pontius Pilate should alone be identified as the one under whom or because of whom Christ suffered. This is strange because others were also and in fact more responsible : the Scribes and Pharisees whose envy of Christ's success made them hate Him; the Jewish high priests who saw their authority going in Christ's direction; the Sanhedrin that had borne false witness to have Christ unjustly convicted; and of course Judas Iscariot.

Yet Pontius Pilate is immortalized to make the Creed and by now to have had his name mentioned countless millions of times as the man under God responsible for putting God to death. We might then ask why Pontius Pilate? There are several reasons. First of all it was under Roman law that only the Roman Procurator had a right to condemn anyone to death. One of the limitations on the Jews as a conquered people was they had no right to inflict capital punishment even on their own criminals. Again, the Jews who hated Christ, but especially the Pharisees who were such sticklers for the law, wanted to make sure that they crucified Christ legally.

This September I had the privilege of preaching at the annual "Red Mass" in Chicago, concelebrating with Cardinal Cody/with the Catholic lawyers and judges in the Cathedral. "We’ve come to a point in American history," I said "where because something is legal it becomes moral." How deceitful can you get! Pontius Pilate stands for all times as the symbol of the law invoked to commit crime.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit guiding the Church and therefore her creeds, wanted to emphasize/and built right into the fundamental creed of Christianity that what began on Good Friday will continue to the end of time: Caesar in conflict with God. This is a conflict that has been going on for two thousand years and has never been more virulent than today. Caesar under the guise of civil authority, committing all kinds of injustices of which in this year's figure will approach one and half million unborn children murdered in the United States under the law.

One more comment. Christ is said to have suffered, and so He did, in body by being scourged and crowned with thorns, in spirit by being mocked by His enemies and abandoned by His friends. I'm not sure whether among all the pains that Christ endured the most painful was not being abandoned by His friends. Yet even as we say that Christ suffered, we must quickly affirm He wanted to suffer: He chose to endure pain; that's why He was born. Natus pati - born to suffer. That's our God.

The Crucifixion. Christ was crucified, which remarkably was not the original and for centuries the favorite means of executing criminals among the Romans. This is one thing the Romans learned from the Eastern people they conquered. Roman writers of that day exhaust the Latin vocabulary in describing how awful this form of capital punishment was. It was the most excruciating, the most prolonged and the most humiliating. Since the time of Christ the Cross has become the symbol of Christianity.

One of the great things I read in the Novitiate was the story of the North American martyrs. How it thrilled me to read about Issac Joques, his fingers cut off, but with the stump of his bloody hands managed to trace the cross on the ground before he died.

By crucifying the Savior the enemies of Christ thought they could best venge themselves upon Jesus Who claimed to be the Messiah and had the gall to say He was nothing less than the Son of God. So as He was bleeding to death, they mocked Him. The key word that described the crucifixion is humiliation. When St. Paul years wrote his letter to the Philippians urging humility on the early Christians, he told them to imitate Christ, Who being God emptied Himself, taking on the form of a man, and suffering even to the Cross. He was humiliated by His nakedness; He was humiliated by His helplessness; He was humiliated by the publicity of being killed for alleged crimes; He was humiliated by His human body twisting, contorting, struggling, weakening the Son of God; and the crowning humiliation of dying between two notorious thieves.

Christ's death. It is remarkable that the Apostles' Creed distinguishes between Christ's crucifixion and His death. "Crucified, died." Why not just say He died? Or why not be satisfied with saying "crucified?" It has to be both. Why? To make sure that for all ages Christians would never forget that their God not only died but how He died. Christ's crucifixion beyond His death is specified to emphasize that Christ was not only crucified but actually died. He died on the Cross. What actually happened, as faith and theology explain, once Christ died? His body and soul were separated. Saying this however we must immediately add, although His body was separated from His soul, but His divinity was not for a moment separated from either. Christ's divine nature remained hypostatically - that means personally - substantially united with both the death body and the disembodied spirit. So much so that in the early Middle Ages when their speculation was sometimes very minute, the question arose among theologians: "What happened to the divinity of Christ the moment He expired on the cross?" It takes a believing theologian to speculate about that. The theologizing got so serious that the Church had to define the doctrine. So we now happily know on faith that the moment Christ died His body remained united with His divinity, His Blood remained united with the Divinity. How much of His Blood? Every drop of it. And His soul too. Every drop of Blood that fell from Christ's naked Body on Calvary was the Blood of God united with the divinity. This death was caused by those who killed the Savior, but it was willed by Christ Who allowed Himself to die. What He said before: "I lay down My Life," that's Calvary. "I take it up again," that's Easter Sunday.

Theologically God took on Himself the penalty He Himself had imposed on mankind for their sin. In God's original plan none of us was to have died. Happy, now impossible thought. But God was not satisfied with imposing the penalty. He decided to expiate man's sin by suffering the penalty He Himself had imposed. This we believe is God's highest proof of love, to become like us not only in birth or in life but also in death. He wants to make sure, you might say, that there is nothing human about us sin alone excepted that God did not take upon Himself to show how much He wants to be like us.

Finally the burial. There is a special fitness for having the burial of Christ included in the Creed. It is first of all proof positive that Christ had really died. Because remember after His death the lies that were being spread? You don't bury a living human being; you bury a corpse. Second, this too is part of God's great desire to be like us.

I've been reading Gayon's "Secrets of the Saints." I finished with the Little Flower's last hours. They brought her coffin into her bedroom as she was dying.

Christ wanted to be like us not only in death but in what happens after death. Third, the burial became the place and the occasion for the crowning miracle of our faith. It's from the tomb that Christ rose. Fourth, this gave Christ His last chance to witness to poverty. Remember how He came into the world? There was no room for Mary and Joseph in the Inn so Christ had perforce to be born in a barn. And after His death it had to be a stranger's tomb. Finally, it showed that those who buried Christ did not really expect Him to rise. Their skepticism helps our faith.

Now some implications. The most obvious implication is the value of suffering in our lives. Whatever else Christianity teaches us it is that everything in life has a meaning including what is humanly least intelligible. What's the meaning? It is through pain that God showed how much He loves us and it is through pain that we show how much we love Him. And that is an article of faith.

Moreover, suffering is not only the infallible evidence of love. Love will go far, but unless it is very deep it will stop at the brink of suffering. But this suffering of Christ's is not only His great manifestation of love for us, it is also the divinely instituted means of redeeming the human race. When we make the Stations of the Cross and declare "By Thy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world," that's it. Everything else prior to the Cross was a preparation for that final act of redemption. Correspondingly, no less than Christ suffered on the Cross to gain the merit we need to be saved, remember however, that Christ's death alone would not have redeemed us, because it is not only Christ suffering, it is also we suffering with Him.

Second motivation. There is no higher motive God could have given us for loving Him than the fact that He became Man to evoke our responsive love in return. God couldn't have invented a more extreme means, we may say, to draw us out, to make us want to love Him than by suffering and dying for us. Even this.

Sanctification. God wants us not only to save ourselves but to become holy, and there is no surer or more effective way to sanctity than the Cross. I just hope you have become familiar with those beautiful sections in the Imitation of Christ on the Cross. This means not only being ready and patient in enduring what we do not like; that is the cross, that is a means to sanctification. But it further means positively choosing what is harder just to be more like the Savior. Understandably but inadequately we think of our free wills as mainly given us to choose, as we should, between good and evil. Now we should choose the good and choose to avoid evil. But that's not all; that will get us into heaven, that won't make us holy. This same free will can choose not only between the good and the bad and avoid sin, this same will of ours can choose between the good and the better, when there is no question of sin.

Now what's the better? For all practical purposes, provided it is according to God's will, the better is the harder. I repeat, our lives are filled with options, when we can choose the easier or we could choose the harder. And no one has to tell us what we spontaneously choose by nature. We choose the easier.

Sanctification consists in a large measure in allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit. We don't have to look for hardships, we don't have to look for trials, we don't have to look for people, nudge them: "Won't you please offend me? How about saying something that will pain me?" No need. This in large measure is the divinely ordained means of our sanctification.

Finally, the Mass. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass faith tells us is a representation of Calvary. It is the Cross continued until the end of time. But as we've been saying, this Apostles' Creed is not just to be believed, it is to be lived. We are to live Calvary, which means live the Mass. We assist at Mass physically once a day. Faith tells us there is in the Mass the selfsame, identical Son of Mary on the altar and He just as truly and totally offers Himself to His Heavenly Father on the altar as He did on Calvary. (Both prepositions fit.) There is a real human being on the altar with a real human will. The double consecration is meant to signify Christ's sincerity in wanting, were He able to do so, to die, and die, and die again. But HE can no longer die, but we sure can. And we are supposed to. Either we keep dying to ourselves day after day after day or the deep meaning of Calvary has only minimally touched our soul.

Lord Jesus, You became a Man like us so that You could suffer and die for our salvation. Give us the wisdom never to run away from the Cross in our lives. Give us the strength to bear the trials You send us. Above all, give us the love to give You our hearts every moment of the day so that You may give us Your pierced Heart now and for all eternity. Amen.

Conference transcription from a retreat
that Father Hardon gave in December, 1980 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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