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Holy Saturday, the still center of all Creation

I think in many ways Holy Saturday is my favorite day of the Sacred Triduum, chiefly because of this ancient homily, which is traditionally read on the morning of this day. Try reading this aloud in a church that has been stripped of its sacred appointments, and devoid of the Sacred Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament – it will send ripples of awe down your spine.

Homily on The Lord’s descent into hell

by St John Chrysostom

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory.

At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.

Illumination, Christ rescuing the souls of the death from the mouth of Hell
“Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

“See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

“The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

While the apostles and other disciples, Mary and the other women, and you and I mourn the loss of Jesus, he is not lying idle in the grave. He is busy with the work of salvation, fulfilling the hope of those who looked forward to His coming and those who hardly dared to hope, even our first Parents.

The Divine Word creates birds and fishes

The Word, living and true, has been active from the beginning of Creation.

He is always busy – I AM is Being Itself, but He is also eternal activity, creating, sustaining, saving. Today is a good day to remember that we must not lose hope, even for those who have departed this life. In God’s eternity, we may hope that even now our prayers can help them.

The mystery of Holy Saturday is revealed in the celebration of the Easter Vigil, when the Light of the World is restored in the Easter fire and the whole of Salvation history is rehearsed in the many Scripture readings and psalms – to remind us that what happened on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter morning not only sets the past to rights but also points to the future culmination of all things. And Holy Saturday is the still center of that cosmic Event. Enjoy the stillness, and then attend the Easter Vigil. The whole meaning of life is to be found therein.

Learn more about the implications of this ancient homily for us all in “Good Holy Saturday,” by Matthew Hanley on The Catholic Thing.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Words worth pondering: the Passion of Christ

This week, in deference to Holy Week, I’m taking a break from ancient epic to consider the Passion of Christ. I’ll start by asking two leading questions, the first of which is a kind of riddle: How is the Passion of Christ like a deponent verb? That one’s rather obscure, so I’ll answer it last. Let’s begin with a somewhat easier question: Has it ever occurred to you that when we speak of the “passion of Christ,” we are using the word passion in a way that we rarely (if ever) do in any other context?

When we speak of “passion” in ordinary conversation, usually we mean something like “an overriding desire or interest,” as in “riding dirt bikes is my passion.” I’ve had many students tell me that they wanted to choose a major that they were “passionate” about, meaning simply something they are really interested in.

Two kinds of “passion”?

Captain Kirk, raging
Captain Kirk, in an alternate universe,
was ruled by his passions.

This idea of “passion” as an interest is a kind of watered-down version of an older meaning of the term — passion as an overwhelming emotion, such as anger or lust or jealousy, something that happens to us, that can take control of us and make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. We used to hear references to “crimes of passion,” meaning crimes committed in the heat of the moment, when a person acts under the impulse of overwhelming emotion that temporarily shorts out rational control — a kind of “temporary insanity” that diminishes moral culpability. That idea seems to have lost its force in the legal sphere, and it probably never held much sway in the moral sphere.

If you look for the term “passion” in the Bible, you’ll find that only once is this word used to refer to Christ (perhaps not even once, depending on which translation you use).

To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3, RSV-CE) 

Every other reference to passion uses the term in the sense of overriding impulses or desires (almost always to be resisted), as in Proverbs 14:30, which counsels against rash anger (“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.”) or Romans 6:12, which refers to the passions as ruling our fleshly nature (“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”).

The passions (all kinds of strong emotion or desire) have been of concern to anyone interested in moral living since ancient times. Greek and Roman philosophy advised that our rational faculties should govern our actions, rather than letting the passions get the upper hand. In fact, this ability to be governed by reason rather than the passions was considered the key way that humans are different from, and superior to, mere animals. The Christian view, which recognizes free will as another distinguishing factor, agrees with this philosophical idea. Paragraph 1761 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the passions :

In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.” It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.

In the Catholic understanding, then, we cannot passively give in to our passions. We have to exert our self-control to keep them in check.

This idea of passion still seems to have little to do with Christ’s Passion. If we picture Christ in the final hours of his life, we won’t see a man behaving “passionately.” In fact, what is remarkable is how meekly he accepts being betrayed, arrested, subjected to a series of monkey trials, beaten, insulted, spat upon, made a public spectacle, and finally tortured to death. Anyone else surely would have put up some kind of a fight or at least denounced his accusers “passionately.” Yet Jesus did not. “As a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.”

So what’s going on with this word, passion? Maybe these two uses of the word are false cognates — they look like the same word, but are unrelated etymologically? Actually, no. Rather the opposite is true — they are the same word, with the same essential meaning, but because of the way attitudes toward “the passions” (emotions) have changed over time, the connection between the two has gotten lost.

Digging around the roots

the flagellation of Christ
Traditionally, art depicts Christ
enduring patiently, impassively.

To see the connection, we need to get back to the etymological root from which this term sprang. But since doing so involves some discussion of Latin grammar that will probably make your eyes glaze over, I’m going to spend a little time digging around the roots to aerate the soil a little first.

It may help if first we think about some words that are closely related to “passion,” starting with “passive.” Someone who is passive lets things happen to him, but doesn’t do anything to affect what’s happening (such as giving into his passions). We often think of passivity as a negative trait — if someone is too passive, don’t you sometimes want to provoke them, just to see if you can get a reaction?

You may remember from your school days (if you were lucky enough to have been taught grammar) that there are passive verbs and active verbs. With an active verb, the grammatical subject is also the person or thing causing the action expressed by the verb: Bob reads (Bob is the grammatical subject and also the agent or doer of the action the verb expresses). With a passive verb, the grammatical subject is not the doer, but is the person or thing being done to: The book was read by Bob. Here, “the book” is the grammatical subject, but it is not doing the reading; rather reading is being done to it (by Bob). So we can see that passivity in a grammatical sense is similar to passivity in a literal sense.

Here’s another word that is closely related to passion, although the connection is not readily apparent: patience. Here again, our perception of what this word means has degraded over time. Most people probably connect the word patience with waiting: when a child pesters his mother for something, she replies, “In a minute! Just be patient.” But patience doesn’t really mean waiting at all, it means being willing to put up with something that irritates you (such as a child having to wait for something he wants). This is why “patience is a virtue.” (I’m pretty sure no one ever said “waiting is a virtue.”) And if we’re really patient, we may also be impassive (unmoved by what we have to endure).

Now we’re getting closer to the root meaning that patience and passion share. But before we get to that (another little reprieve from Latin grammar), I’d like to remind you of another word whose meaning has been degraded to such an extent that its original meaning has almost been lost: to suffer. When we hear reference to suffering, we probably think immediately of pain. Pain, of course, is something that we want to avoid at all cost, isn’t it? But the meaning of this word does not have primarily (or originally) to do with pain. Let me hint at its real meaning by reminding you of a rather old-fashioned use of the verb, to suffer, found in the English version of the prayer called the Anima Christi:

Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.

It’s pretty clear in this context that “suffer” means to allow or to permit: Don’t let me be separated from you.

So “to suffer” can mean to allow to happen something that we’d prefer didn’t happen. This meaning is still preserved in the derivative term, sufferance. We might say, “His pig-headedness is beyond sufferance,” meaning we just can’t stand it. Or we might say, “The property owner reminded him that he was at the private beach on sufferance and could be kicked out at any time,” which implies that the owner is allowing something that normally he would prohibit. It’s easy enough, I think, to see how the idea of suffering, in the sense of putting up with something that we’d rather not endure, gradually came to mean, specifically, undergoing pain, which nobody wants. But what we need to remember is that suffering simply means putting up with anything that we might prefer not to happen.

Sneaking up on the Latin grammar

Notice, if we suffer something in this sense, we are being patient. And if you’ll be patient just a bit longer, I’ll get around to tying all this together. I’d like, first, to go back to the Latin version of “Suffer me not to be separated from Thee”: Ne permittas me separari a te. Separari is the passive form of the infinitive separare, “to separate.” We’ve already talked about passive verbs, so it won’t surprise you to realize that separari means “to be separated.”

I mention this because the term we’re interested in, passion (as well as patience) is derived from a special kind of Latin verb known as a deponent. The present infinitive is pati; the present participle is patiens (whence cometh patience) and the past participle is passus. “Passion” is an Anglicized form of the Latin noun passio, which you can see is related to passus (so is “passive”).

Now, before I tie all this up in a nice bow, let me just mention how I got interested in this verb, pati. I came to the study of Latin somewhat late in life, after many years of studying modern romance languages. I knew that Latin would be more complicated than French or Spanish, but I was happy to find that much of what I had learned about the grammar of these modern languages was reflected in Latin grammar. The tenses of verbs (present, future, perfect and imperfect, etc.), the moods (indicative, subjunctive, etc.), the voices (active or passive) were familiar enough. But then I ran into something called a deponent verb, which messed with my mind. Why? Because a deponent verb is “passive in form but active in meaning.” Reading Latin is hard enough without running across a verb that looks like a passive but makes no sense if you try to translate it that way. Even more irritating, there are quite a few of these deponents, which means there are lots of opportunities for being confused.

But then I discovered the deponent, pati, and it all started to make sense. Why? Because pati is the perfect exemplar of deponents — what the grammar does is what the word means. What does the word mean, then? It means to undergo without resistance something that you’d rather not. It means to be patient, to be passive. In other words, it means to suffer, in the sense of undergoing something involuntarily.

How the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb

The Taking of Christ, detail, Caravaggio
While his disciples resist passionately, Jesus submits willingly.

Are you wondering why I took such a circuitous route to get to the meaning of the word “passion” as it relates to Christ? Perhaps even now you are thinking with disgust, “What’s the big deal? I could have told you to begin with that Christ’s passion means his suffering.” But perhaps by suffering you would only have meant that he underwent pain and humiliation. There’s more to suffering than that — it’s not merely something that happens to you, willy-nilly. In Christ’s case, at least, it is something he does, even though it looks like he is doing nothing. Passive in form, active in meaning.

Jesus suffered as a man, but he was almighty God. That means that, unlike you or me, he knew exactly what was in store for him — think of how many times he tried to warn his disciples, “but this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” Think of the hours he spent on the Mount of Olives contemplating what was about to happen, agonizing, sweating blood — all because he knew what was coming and chose not to avoid it. “Let this cup pass from me … yet not my will but Thine be done.”

His human will was crying out for it not to happen, but his Divine will permitted it. The betrayal, the mockery, the confusion, the spitting, the humiliation, the cruelty, the torture, the death. Because, despite appearances, this was what would turn everything right. This, ultimately, was the point of it all. He was the man born to die. His purpose was fulfilled by willingly submitting to all the cruelty and indignity that the world could heap on him. He suffered himself to be betrayed by Judas, he suffered himself to be doubted and denied by his closest associates, he suffered himself to be stripped and bloodied and executed among thieves and murderers. He continues to suffer himself to be misunderstood by believers and reviled by unbelievers.

So, yes, his Passion is his suffering. But we must understand what it meant for Christ to suffer. And we must think about the strength of will required for that suffering. If we do so, we will better appreciate the Anima Christi when we pray:

Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.

And now you know how the Passion of Christ is like a deponent verb: Passive in form, active in meaning.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Celebrate the Year of Faith with Free Catholic Books!

Some kind soul has created a web site for free Catholic devotionals and spiritual reading, available for download in PDF format. When you take a look, just keep scrolling down the page — there are LOTS of books, including some of the Fathers of the Church.

Books= good! Free=Good!! Catholic=GOOD! Free Catholic Books = what more could you ask? In the Year of Faith, plan to do some reading that will help you grow to an even deeper appreciation of your Catholic faith. These free books will help you do that.

By the way, you will also find free holy images (scanned prayer cards) that you can download in zipped folders.

Book Review: 21 Ways to Worship, by Vinny Flynn

21 Ways to Worship, Vinny Flynn, MercySong

I thought I would start reviewing the books I picked up recently at the Catholic Marketing Network’s trade show. I’m starting with Vinny Flynn’s 21 Ways to Worship: a Guide to Eucharistic Adoration (published jointly by MercySong and Ignatius Press), because I began to use it almost as soon as I got it. After the New Media conference ended on Friday, I headed over to my parish church (which fortuitously is just a couple of miles from the conference site) to spend some time in Adoration, and I took Flynn’s book with me.

Now, at our church (and maybe at yours, too), on days when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for Adoration, a collection of Holy Hour books is made available in the narthex so that people can have some devotional material to use during their time before the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t know how many people avail themselves of this resource, but probably most of those who adore regularly have gotten tired of just reading the same devotions over and over. Many people, however, don’t know how to spend their time alone with the Lord, and others may find they have fallen into a “prayer rut.” 21 Ways should be helpful to both groups, and really to anyone who wants to deepen their personal relationship with Christ.

precious blood of Christ

The first thing I noticed is that the book is very attractively designed. While this is not essential, it is helpful. So many devotional books are full of such dense, ugly type that it is a kind of mortification to read them. You can see from the cover image above, this is a book that does not want to look intimidating. Inside there is an attractive layout on cream colored paper (not stark white), with attractive typography and enough “white space” to make the book easy on the eye. But, lest the graphic treatment seem too zippy for more traditional tastes, each chapter is illustrated with traditional devotional black and white images taken from old missals and prayer books, similar to those you see here.

Christ cleansing the temple

The text also nicely balances being fresh and accessible while drawing from the wellsprings of traditional devotional practice, in such a way that even the most venerable devotional practices take on a new sheen. Flynn writes in a conversational style, and each chapter title is a friendly exhortation: “Evict the Tenants!” (dispel distractions), “For God’s Sake, Shut Up!” (be silent and allow the Lord to speak), “Go to the Office!” (pray the Liturgy of the Hours),  twenty-one in all. Throughout, the author is encouraging you to try new things, none of which are really new at all but may be unfamiliar or untried. There is nothing “iffy” about the author’s advice: all is tried-and-true, taken from long Catholic traditions of prayer and meditation, just re-packaged to make it appealing and fresh to contemporary readers.

This book has gotten kudos from people such as Jeff Cavins, Fr. Larry Richards, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, and others who will be familiar to most Catholic readers, and it deserves their praise. I think this book should get as warm a welcome from those experienced in meditative prayer as from those who feel that they should spend more time before the tabernacle but don’t quite know what to do when they get there. I know I will be getting lots of inspiration from 21 Ways to Worship — and I may even have to buy an extra copy for the narthex table.