Five Days of Sorrow
Reflections for Maundy Thursday:
The Carrying of the Cross
"We need such saints now more than ever! Just as surely as Our Lord's body fell under the weight of the cross, so His Mystical Body, the Church, also trembles under the weight of Her own Passion in our age of crisis. Take up that cross, on behalf of Mother Church, and like Simon of Cyrene, rejoice that you are called to assist in the salvation of the world."
And bearing his own cross, he went forth to the place which is called Calvary, but in Hebrew Golgotha ... And going out, they found a man of Cyrene, named Simon: him they forced to take up his cross. (Composite of Matthew 27:32 & John 19:17).
In what seems to be the most hideous act of cruelty and unreasonableness, the soldiers press Our Lord, having been beaten, deprived of sleep, deprived of food, scourged almost to the point of death, and now wearing a painful helmet of thorns, to carry His own cross to the place of execution. He has already suffered too many punishments (He was not guilty, after all) - and He is already sentenced to die the most excruciatingly painful death. Why force Him, now, to carry His own cross?
Indeed. Why? And why do we, knowing of these things and being moved with pity, still go out and sin against Him? Has He not suffered enough in His Passion, that we must now add insult to His injuries, as St. Paul says, "crucifying again ... the Son of God and making him a mockery?" (Heb. 6:6).
That is what these meditations are intended to fortify us against. We may be moved with sympathy and compassion for Our Lord, but what good is it to shed tears (as many of you, no doubt, did while watching Mel Gibson's movie) if we then turn around and do the very things which caused Him to suffer this Passion in the first place?
He carries His cross now, down the Via Dolorosa - that is, in Latin, the "Way of Sorrow" (not the "Via Della Rosa," as some recent reviews of The Passion have misprinted - that would be "The Way of the Rose," which is a primrose path far removed from what Our Lord traveled on that dreadful day).
According to Dr. Barbet, whose work we have been utilizing in our meditations, it was not the full cross that Our Lord carried. Rather, the upright beam would have already been in place at Calvary, fixed in the ground. Thus, Our Lord would have only carried the horizontal beam - but this is not to make us imagine that His journey was any less difficult. On the contrary, carry the beam this way would have been more difficult, since it had no cross-beam to anchor it to the ground. This means that it would have taken even more strength and skill for Our Lord to keep it balanced on His shoulder, and no doubt, the heavy imbalance of this beam is what caused a few of His falls.
Dr. Barbet affirms, from his study of the shroud, that there are signs of "exoriations at the level of the back and the knees ... [o]n a rough uneven road, with many scattered stones, such falls would not take place without excoriation, especially at the level of the knees." (Barbet, pg. 88)
It was said by one saint (whose name escapes me at the moment) that Our Lord had revealed that the worst wound He suffered during the Passion was the wound to His right shoulder. Barbet gives us a good reason to believe this:
"On the right shoulder, in the outer part of the sub-scapular region, there is a broad excoriated area, which is in the form of a rectangle of about 10 x 9 centimetres ... the numerous wounds of the flagellation ... seem to be as it were bruised and widened ... [i]t would appear that some weighty body, and one with a furrowed surface and which was badly fastened, must have lain on this shoulder and have bruised, reopened and widened the wounds of the scourging through the tunic." (Barbet, Pg. 88)
We cannot help but cringe at the very thought ... we forget that even Our Lord's shoulders were flayed and shredded during the scourging at the pillar, and we forget just how painful every step to Calvary must have been for Our Lord, carrying a crude beam of wood on His already-wounded shoulders.
Barbet continues, describing the details of the falls of Our Lord:
"The man who stumbled against a stone, through not lifting his foot, would usually fall on his knees and, as Judica pointed out correctly, would fall on the right knee if he was right-handed ... [h]e would then sprawl forwards and leave go of his beam so as to fall on his hands.
Now, the beam would already be oblique behind, pointing downwards and to the left. It would thus overturn, rising up in front, and would slide obliquely down the back, flat against it. Having rubbed the skin off the right scapular region it would do the same on the left, but lower down near to the point of the left shoulder-blade, grazing the spinal column on the way ... [i]n brief, it would tear the clothes and cause excoriations on all the bony protrusions which it would pass on its way, from the right shoulder down to the left [pelvic] region." (Barbet, pg. 90)
From everything we have read from Barbet thus far, we have, in summary, a grotesque picture of Our Lord's body: hardly a shred of skin is left on Him after the scourging, His face and head are lacerated and swollen from thorns and being beaten with a stick, His legs are bruised and bloodied from the falls, and His right shoulder in particular is ripped open from carrying the cross - to all of which Barbet rightly applies the words of Isaias: "From the sole of the foot unto the top of the head, there is no soundness therein: wounds and bruises and swelling sores: they are not bound up, nor dressed, nor fomented with oil" (Is. 1:6).
What might we learn from this account of the carrying of the cross?
The Church has preserved for us a far more detailed account of the Carrying of the Cross, and the gospels are in accordance with this account. Our Lord, having carried His own cross as far as He could on His own strength, fell thrice under the weight of the burden, finally relinquishing the cross to be carried by Simon of Cyrene. In this humiliating act, Our Lord gives Simon the Cyrenian the chance to demonstrate by his actions that which the Holy Apostle later instructed: "Bear ye one another's burdens: and so you shall fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6: 2).
From another standpoint, we may also see that Our Lord does not intend for us, in carrying our own cross, to make the earthly pilgrimage in isolation, keeping Him alone as our sole companion. Rather, He instructs us to follow His example, and share the burden with the willing souls who would help us. If even Our Lord relied on the shoulder of Simon for assistance, do we imagine that we are made of stronger stuff, so that we may boast of our own strength? By His own life, Our Lord shows us that we may share in His work, and be participants in the ministry of salvation - not only our own salvation, but also that of our brothers and sisters.
Reflect for a moment how our many "sins, offenses, and negligences" cause the cross to weigh heavy on the shoulder of Our Lord. We all participated in adding to the weight of the cross; in the same way, we must all bear the responsibility of relieving that weight by our sufferings and penances.
Along the way to Calvary, Our Lord met his Blessed Mother, where she followed Him to the foot of the cross - in this meeting, as we commemorate in the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, she feels the pain of the sword that pierced her own soul. Consider the Holy Virgin: she shared in the work of God by bearing Christ to the world. But does she stop at this? No, she continues her work by accompanying Our Lord to His shameful death.
We may reflect upon this mystery, and take our place beside our Mother - follow alongside her as she follows after her Son, and weep with her as she suffers the full force of the sword in her soul. Mel Gibson gave us a unique opportunity to do exactly this: did not his presentation of the Virgin in The Passion teach us how to feel the sorrow of Our Lord's sufferings in a completely unique way? Speaking personally, The Passion presenting the suffering of Our Lord to me through the eyes of His mother - a vision that none of us can really possess without first getting close to her. I had reflected on the Passion before, but never in so effective a way: in a way that only a mother could understand. In that sense, Gibson's most richly Catholic message in the entire movie was also the most subtle - Our Lady plays a mediative role for us in that movie, mediating to us a deep understanding and sorrow over Our Lord's suffering.
Do not seek to avoid the pain, you who are privileged to have Mary as your mother, but rather, rejoice that you have been called to assist her in mourning. If we first weep with her here on Good Friday, we will surely also rejoice with her at the sight of the empty tomb on Easter morning.
Or have you not heard that we who are in the Church are all one Body? (Rom. 12:5) Hear the words of the St. Paul, "And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). You will do well if you meditate upon this truth, and let it permeate your every thought and deed. If you cause Our Lord grief by your sin, do you not know that you also cause all the saints to suffer as well? Seek, then, to sow according to the Spirit, in prayers, thanksgiving, almsgiving, fasting, and other good deeds, that all of us who are Christ's Body may rejoice with you.
What a gift we have been given, that we are so firmly made a part of Our Lord, sharing in His flesh and blood in the Most Holy Eucharist. By virtue of this, we are truly united to one another as well! Do you venerate and rejoice in the lives of the many Holy Saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, Ss. Peter and Paul, and others? You do well. Only now be firmly convinced that you may be no less an asset to the Body of Christ than these Holy Ones, if only you persist in seeking after immortality by your obedience to Our Lord.
We need such saints now more than ever! Just as surely as Our Lord's body fell under the weight of the cross, so His Mystical Body, the Church, also trembles under the weight of Her own Passion in our age of crisis. Take up that cross, on behalf of Mother Church, and like Simon of Cyrene, rejoice that you are called to assist in the salvation of the world.
Now watch Our Lord slowly walk out of our sight, over the hill called Calvary. In a moment, He will be nailed to that awful cross and give up His life for our redemption, and we will shortly join Him there to reflect on His sufferings. But now, stop and approach St. Veronica, standing there with His Holy Face imprinted on her cloth. Venerate His royal image, and say to Him:
"Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy."
"O mi Jesus, remitte nobis peccata nostra, custodi nos ad igne inferi, attrahe omnes animas ad Caelum praecipue illas maxime egentes misericordiae Tuae."
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