by Massimiliano Anselmi, CP
1. The Memory of the Passion and Meditation on the Passion
St. Paul of the Cross wrote to his religious on October 19,1751 warning them that “many have forgotten the most blessed Passion of Jesus” and God is offended because of this. He asked them to increase their dedication to promote a grateful memory of the Passion for two reasons, because it’s not right “that such an evil ingratitude and forgetfulness remain in the world” and because it’s been shown that those who meditate on the Passion receive blessings of every kind, especially the blessing of union with God that leads to holiness.
It’s clear from his words that the latin expression “memoria passionis,” in English “the memory of the passion,” means simply to meditate or think on the passion of Jesus.
Anyone who keeps the memory of the passion, who is sensitive to, remembers, keeps present, thinks on, considers, reflects on, contemplates and deeply meditates on what the Messiah, the Lord, has done and suffered, aims at growing in him and not dying, as the gospel of John says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3,16-17)
The memory of the passion requires prior acceptance of divine revelation, but once divine revelation is accepted something more happens, even in baptized believers. We must bring forth that memory and proclaim it. There must be, first, the desire, then the conviction of its importance, and then the decision to cultivate the grateful remembrance of what the Lord has done and suffered for us. This depends on preaching and develops with an awakening faith. In other words, when we look on the One who is pierced on the cross for us ( Zachariah 12,10) we look on with Christian faith, which the apostle Paul says comes “from what is heard.” (Romans 10, 14,17)
2. The Mystery of the Passion: A Way of Life
In the New Testament, especially in the teaching of the apostle Paul, the word “passion” brings us into the mystery of our Lord Jesus, who allowed himself “to be handed over to sinners.” (Luke 12,1-8; Luke 8, 44) He identified with them and even became “sin.” (2 Corinthians 5,21; Romans 3,20-26; 5, 6-7; 8, 1-4; Galatians 3,22) It’s important to see the word “passion”, not only as a story of suffering but a way of life that’s embraced. Vowing to contemplate the passion not only calls us to keep the mystery of the passion in mind, but to grow in willingness and readiness to enter this mystery. This powerful memory calls us to imitate Christ, to cooperate in his Redemption, as we also identify with those who are lost, to rescue them from darkness and the shadow of death.
3. Keeping the Memory of the Passion Changes your Life
The memory of the passion changes the lives of those who practice it and places them in a world and time that is particularly Christological. They become messianic disciples, following and imitating Jesus, who was sent by the Father, not to condemn the world but to save it. Keeping the memory of the passion, in theological terms, means living by the words of Jesus, who reveals God as Father and infinite Love. (cf. John 3, 16-17) Living by the words of the gospel makes them messianic and like Jesus they are conscious they are in this world, not to judge it but to save it by revealing God as Father who loves us all. They join in creating and forming Christian communities, as well as social and cultural units where the children of God live together as one.
From this we see that those who keep alive the lasting memory of the passion of Jesus will enjoy lasting communion with God and a life filled with peace and radiant hope.
4. Meditation on the Passion and the Paschal Mystery
In this world we can distinguish two Passovers (or Easters). One is a human Passover which brings about the renewal and improvement of the human condition through work, suffering and commitment. The other is the Passover of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the Cross and his resurrection promises a transformation of the world through liberation from all those dehumanizing elements that threaten life and human dignity–sin, evil, sickness, poverty and death. We celebrate the Passover of Jesus sacramentally through the Holy Eucharist. As Christians we need this sacramental Passover to reach our goal.
For the human Passover, work, progress, all that contributes to the human improvement is decisive.
Meditation on the passion has as its objective to connect these two Passovers so that, as the psalm reminds us, the great efforts of humanity do not end in futility. “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” (Psalm 127,1)
5. Meditation on the Passion as a Paschal-Eucharistic Journey
Meditation on the passion can be a gospel experience that leads us into ourselves and the presence of Christ within us. Our complex, changing society, with its array of images and messages, makes it difficult to approach life in any unifying vision. Meditation can help us on our paschal journey. Meditation on the Passion of Christ, in particular, can be a unifying principle for our journey.
We’re tempted in modern society to live without Christ, to go it alone, to live in a world without him. This is a dangerous temptation, because it leads us as Christians to lose confidence in who we are. To battle this temptation, we need to appreciate and be confident in our being in Christ. The world falls into sin and error, rejecting Christ and causing his suffering and death. Each generation, every individual must take care to avoid this sin. We’re reminded of Christ in every Sunday and weekday celebration of the Eucharist, who was unjustly condemned to death. If we abandon the Eucharist, do we not also abandon building family and society?
Abandoning the Eucharist for any length of time can lead to the belief that spiritual experiences are all alike. Losing the support of the Eucharist, we can become convinced of our own convictions and impressions of the moment. The father away from the Eucharist we get, the more our spiritual life declines.
Authentic meditation on the passion must be rooted in the Eucharist.
6. Meditation on the Passion does two things–it nourishes faith and creates disciples
Meditation on the Passion takes place in two contemplative moments, the first deepens our intellectual understanding of the mystery of faith, the second is a moment of intimacy and prayer. The two are distinct, but complementary.
Generally, when we speak of keeping in mind, or remembering we mean thinking about it and deepening our faith. It’s necessary to do this, but reducing meditation on the passion to knowing and understanding the historical narrative of the Passion is not only insufficient in itself but also does not express the heavenly wisdom and knowledge, the grace and holiness found in this meditation. Besides knowing about it we must remain silent before the passion of Jesus, loving and pondering it, as friends of Jesus, true disciples.
Prayerfully contemplating the passion of Jesus is supremely important, because it “frees and heals us of everything. “ Prayerful contemplation brings us beyond pure thought. Thinking about the passion of Jesus wont bring us to understand it. Because of that, we can’t think of meditation on the passion as an act of comprehension or getting something out of it. As a prayer, or better as prayerful contemplation, it annuls any attempt to understand or explain it. As a prayer, it is not understanding. Rather it is the annihilation of that attitude, the attempt to understand. The goal of meditation on the passion is to not understand anything about it.
Experience shows that by meditating on the words and actions of the Messiah in his passion, even spending a lifetime reflecting on them, does not begin to reveal the mystery. We will not understand it; our minds are paralyzed before it. Jesus himself is silent. He no longer is a teacher who speaks, but a teacher who is silent. God calls those who meditate on the passion to be like the disciples who accompanied Jesus, to have the heart of a mother and a friend: Mary, his mother and Mary Magdalene. They did not understand why.
To limit ourselves to meditation on the passion from the perspective of the historical narrative can lead to weariness, and even to abandoning it. Our minds gets tired reasoning. The Master was silent in his passion.
Limiting meditation on the passion to an imaginative exercise also limits our experience of this mystery, which is a mystery of love. We need to see the passion of Jesus not only in him, but in ourselves. Seeing his passion in ourselves, in all the different ways suffering is present in us, makes this meditation always current, relevant and new. The passion of Jesus the Messiah is also our passion, which we experience“ within the deepest part of the interior desert,” as St. Paul of the Cross said, and we reach the highest level of contemplation when we see it without images, in pure faith and holy love.
7. Approach the Passion as the new “Burning Bush.”
How can we discern if our meditation is bringing us closer to the passion of Jesus? What conditions bring us close? We must approach the thorns, like Moses who drew close to the burning bush, St. Paul of the Cross said. (Exodus 3, 1-22, especially 2-5) At the core of the passion narratives, particularly the passion of John, we see Jesus, the Messianic King, crowned with thorns. ( Mark 15:16; Matthew 27, 29; John 19:2; 19:14-15; 19:19) If the passion of Jesus is a “burning bush” we must approach it in a certain way, not superficially, but convinced that God who is holy has compassion for his people and draws us into the great and difficult mission of liberating those in suffering and slavery, until they reach the “Passover.”
8. There is No Revelation of God Beyond the Cross
Encountering the passion of Jesus doesn’t lead to pessimism, but takes away disappointment and hopelessness. When pain strikes we may think God does not exist, since God is the God of joy and not pain. To find him, it’s not necessary to be freed from suffering, but to make it radiant, to suffer in joy. The cross is not contrary to joy, as some think, but a sign of reality. Joy comes from acceptance of the cross.
Encountering the passion revolutionizes our image of God and how we achieve union with him. Still more, it revolutionizes the way of victory over evil and sin. So many think that, to take away evil, we need only a technique for relaxation or psychological counseling, a better organization of things–the blood of bulls or ashes or acts of sacrifice. ( cf. Hebrews 9, 11-14) This is a forgetfulness of the passion, according to St. Paul of the Cross. It’s not by gold or silver or precious objects that humanity has been liberated from sin and death; it’s by the immolation of the Messiah, Jesus, by his death on the cross. (1 Peter 1,18-19)
9. Testing Our Meditation: do we encounter the sufferings of the present time?
The decisive event in meditating on the passion of Jesus is his historical passion, but we must also see “the sufferings of the present time” the apostle Paul suggests. (Romans 8,18) Encountering the passion of today revolutionizes the way we meditate on the passion, turning it into a living event of great importance. Facing the “suffering of the present time” is a test that our meditation is authentic.
It is not enough to think about the passion of Jesus; we should also think each day of the passion of humanity. By this, we will see, not only the evil of the world, but also the love that exists. Each day so many give themselves to others, care for and sacrifice for their families. Great is their suffering, and yet great is their love. By seeing the “sufferings of the present time” we see a love that prevails.
10. The Impossibility of Forgetting
Eucharistic celebration keeps alive the memory of the passion and death of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 11), but beyond the sacrament there must be a contemplative experience. Great mystics like St. Paul of the Cross recognized that it is not enough to remember it but to have the passion of Jesus engraved in our hearts and remain there, continuing as a living reality within us.
11. The Passion Brings a Grace
Many consider the passion of Jesus something sad, but actually it is a gift of grace in time, bringing joy. This is hard to understand, especially when we hear someone like St. Paul of the Cross speak of “naked suffering.” Yet, we all meet, sooner or later, the hard, bitter suffering of loneliness, sadness and abandonment. Without grace, those times can lead us to hate life. It’s precisely then that faith and the grace of God sustain us. We find support in the presence of the Virgin Mary and the prayers of many, many people.
Instead of this grace, some may seek “auto-salvation,” trying to be righteous before God on our own, through our own resources and strength. But we cannot be righteous before God on our own. The memory of the passion encourages us to remember there is grace in our world, which brings salvation and holiness.
12. The Critical Role of the Memory of the Passion
Because the passion of Jesus is good news for the poor and persecuted of the world and bad news to those who exploit them, the memory of the passion helps us understand what happens in our world. As the new “burning bush” it represents God’s judgment on this world. In it we see God freeing humanity because of his love. God has sent his Son into the world as the Redeemer of humanity. “Now is the time of judgment on this world, now the ruler of this world will be cast out.” ( John 12,31)
When we remember the passion, even in the coldest and most careless way, Jesus is enthroned as Lord of the world. Something great takes place: all the powers of heaven and earth, yes even Satan himself, is taken from their thrones of power. Satan, of course, will not accept this but try to prevent this memory in any way he can.
13. Organizing Meditation on the Passion
When meditating on the passion, methods of meditation can distract us. What can we say about this?
Methods of meditation can be compared to the people who were present at the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. (Luke 23,49) There were those “who kept their distance,” and were not like the intimate disciples. Methods are useful, but keep them at a distance. Let’s approach meditation with an overall vision.
First. Let’s not think of ourselves and our own thoughts, but of God’s will. Let’s turn to God, to thoughts of God, to God himself. Let us turn to God in faith, as disciples of the Lord. It’s is not enough to think or even profess our faith doctrinally, by rote, but let us turn to the will of God as it is revealed in the gospel. Let us turn to God unselfishly, leaving our own egos aside.
Second. Let’s look on the passion of Jesus as the power that saves. We look at all that is weak, all the weaknesses of humanity, all its terrible failures. From all this we may want to “look away” and “hide our faces.” (Isaiah 53, 2-3) But with courage, let us fix our attention on the weakness of humanity and commit ourselves to heal it. Let us look on weak humanity in the One who was “crucified out of weakness.” ( 2 Corinthians 14,4)_Let us remember, too, “not to look upon injustice too long, and never without praying. “ ( Bernanos, G. Diary of a Country Priest.)
Third. Let us place ourselves under the revealing influence of the passion to come to the truth. It is a fountain of God’s revelation. It brings about a dying to all that is not God, to the falseness of our own thinking, even our thinking about God. The passion influences those who say they cannot change; they can be changed from sin to virtue. It changes us to see in a divine way instead of human way. (cf. Matthew 16.23) It becomes a Pentecostal feast, a brooding outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It brings us knowledge of Christ and fullness of love.
Fourth. Meditation on the passion is a time of grace and sanctification. St. Paul of the Cross said he would rather be torn to pieces than to abandon it. He was grateful for it and repeatedly thanked God for it. “Thank you, Lord, for dying on the cross for my sins.”
His thanksgiving was not a form of acceptance of suffering but of mystical love. He saw it as a memory that calms, brings joy, strengthen and fills us with tender love.
The memory of the passion is a reality that grows in us. It helps us mature. The more we abandon ourselves to the Messianic passion, the more it becomes living in us. It transforms us into witnesses of the Crucified One, who day by day makes us grow. It becomes a seed in our lives. Our lives change. Like Paul the Apostle we can say, “I have been crucified with Christ, now I live no longer, but Christ lives in me. Now as I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Galatians 2,19-20)