The most startling moment in Mel Gibson’s film about the passion. was when the soldier pierced the side of Christ and, as we are told in St John’s gospel, ‘immediately there came out blood and water’ (19.34). I had always imagined it as a trickle but in the film it was a shower, bursting out to wash the faces of those standing at the foot of the cross. It is the saving fountain spoken of in the prophecy of Zechariah (13.1), what the liturgy refers to as ‘the fountain of sacramental life in the Church’ (Preface of the Sacred Heart), presented in the film in the tradition of Baroque art.
The early Dominicans were not afraid of the physical aspects of the passion of Christ. When they prayed their preferred icon was the crucifix. We see this, for example, in the 14th century illustrations of the ways of prayer of St Dominic. Many of the frescoes of Fra Angelico show the blood of Christ flowing from his side in great abundance and pouring down the trunk of the cross to wash and irrigate the earth.
St Catherine of Siena directed her prayer to Christ crucified and had much to say about the power of his blood. The ways in which we dispose ourselves physically in relation to the crucifix express different moments or aspects in our relationship with Christ, she says. We may kneel to kiss his feet in the attitude of the creature and sinner, fearful and still anxious, bowing before her Creator and Lord. Or we may stand to kiss his side. This is the position of one growing into the ‘perfect love which casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18) but still looking to the gifts Christ can give and not yet simply at the giver of those gifts, Christ himself. Kissing the lips of Christ crucified expresses the love of friendship, Catherine says, that we are no longer servants but friends (John 15.15). It represents maturity in the Christian life, when we come to love God no longer out of fear and no longer for what he can do for us, but simply for God himself.
Catherine teaches that if we wish to learn how to make this journey then the school we must attend is prayer. ‘We learn every virtue in constant and faithful humble prayer’, she says. Thomas Aquinas said that he had learned more from gazing at the crucifix than from all the books he had read. In one of his conferences on the Creed he says that ‘the passion of Christ is sufficient in itself to instruct us completely in our whole life’.
One of the traditional practices of Lent is to meditate on the passion and death of Jesus by following the way of the Cross. It is a simple and time-honoured technique, a bit like the Rosary, as we move from station to station meditating on the moments of the journey from his arrest to his burial.
Any wisdom that is worth anything will have something to say about suffering and for us there can be no reflection on suffering, just as there can be no reflection on evil, that by-passes the suffering and death of Jesus. I am sure we will all want to go further and say that there can be no useful reflection on suffering or evil that does not place the suffering and death of Jesus at its centre.
This can be a difficult one to get right. The Christian way at its best is not interested in pain and suffering in a way that is perverted, queer or odd. And yet the Christian way accepts that growth in love can only be by way of the Cross. Very often though, perhaps always, our personal experience of suffering does not seem to fit neatly into the story we preach about it. What I mean is that the cross never comes in exactly the way we anticipate. If it did, it would not be the cross. So we really suffer deeply because we do not see the point of suffering in this way or in that, or because we do not see the point of it going on so long, because it seems wasteful and meaningless, and so on. It never comes in the way we would have chosen for ourselves and often attacks those aspects and qualities in ourselves that seem most valuable.
Jesus suffered for us and left us an example that we should follow the way he took. It is a way that is not in the first place about suffering. In the first place it is about love, but love necessarily entails suffering. To love is to be tender and vulnerable. To love is to be open to the presence of another, giving priority to their concerns. To love is to share the burdens and difficulties of another. And so to love means to leave oneself open to the possibility, the likelihood, we must say to the inevitability of suffering.
If ‘love’ is the first word that discloses the meaning of Jesus’ sufferings then ‘sin’ is the second. The career of Jesus follows the way of the cross not just because it is love but because it is love in a sinful world. It is universal human experience that the wise and just person excites envy, and perhaps hatred and violence in this sinful world. The third chapter of the Book of Wisdom paints a prophetic picture of envy and rejection:
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls (2:12-22).
We believe that Jesus, out of love and obedience, exposed himself to all this and gave his flesh for the life of this sinful world. Any share in the mystery of his sacrificial love is a strange joy for those who believe in Him. Far from setting us one step back from human experience, the following of Christ in his suffering, our attendance at the school of his suffering and death, brings us straight to the heart of human experience, straight to the heart of God.