We are entering into the season of Passiontide – the “home stretch” of the Lenten season that includes the last full week of Lent leading into Palm Sunday and the Holy Week it begins. The stark visual reminder of this season is the traditional practice of covering all of the statues and images in the church with violet-colored draping.
This short but beautiful season leads into the liturgical highlight of the Church’s year: the three-day celebration of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil of Easter. Taken together, they are called the Sacred Triduum (that’s just Latin for “three days.”) I talked last Thursday about the significance of these days and how to get the most out of Holy Week, reflecting on the mystery of the Eucharist and the Priesthood; the saving death of Jesus on the Cross and of course the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But today, I want to back up just a little and think about why the Lord did these things.
One way to look at is to remember that Jesus’ high priesthood is for three things: healing, forgiveness, and mercy. The physical healings of the Lord are self-evident. The Gospels are chock-full of stories of Our Lord healing the blind, the lame, the mute, the deaf. All of these ailments are the result of sin — not necessarily the sin of the individual, as Jesus makes clear in the story of the healing of the blind man read in some parishes this weekend – but because of the weight of sin of the whole human race, all the way back to Adam. What is harder to see is the healing of the heart. Our Lord came to heal not just the body, but first and foremost hearts hardened by pride, indifference, hatred and greed.
That healing comes primarily through forgiveness of sin. But there’s a “catch.” To be forgiven requires that we acknowledge the sin before the Lord. The Lord knows our sins, of course (He is our creator and Divine Lord Who can read our hearts) but will still not forgive unless we ask. This is reflected for example in Luke 18:40-42, the story of Jesus healing the blind man. Our Lord asks the poor blind man what he wants him to do. That might seem obvious – wouldn’t any blind man want to have his sight restored? – but it points to the reality of sin, which is not always immediately visible to others and so something that we attempt to hide from them and even sometimes ourselves. Going to confession is akin to the blind man saying, out loud to the priest, “Lord, let me see again!”
One simple way to define the Lord’s mercy is that it is His gift of something we don’t deserve. This is core to our faith. Until we come to the point where we believe in our heart of hearts that we have no claim on the Lord’s love – that He did not have to die for our sins – that we don’t deserve the happiness of Heaven – then the liturgies of Holy Week and even Easter Sunday will seem like so many empty rituals.
There is a common thread among the writings of the saints: almost without exception, they focus on the undeserved gift and grace of God’s love for them. The mercy of Christ powerfully hits home in the Gospel of the woman caught in adultery (read at some parishes today at Mass). Then as now, adultery was a serious offense against God and His holy law. The difference is that in modern Western legal systems, while it remains an offense against God, it is not punishable as a crime. The woman caught in adultery deserves punishment – but because the Lord comes to heal and forgive sins, with His command to “sin no more” He gives her the power to overcome that sin precisely by her relationship of receiving His divine love and returning it in the newfound desire to be in right relationship with Him and to obey His commandments.
The Magnificat devotional magazine for this month (March 22nd) has a beautiful reflection by Dr. Mary Healy, a seminary professor from Detroit. She comments on the parable of the unforgiving servant who is forgiven by his Master but refused to extend that same forgiveness to his servant (Mk. 11:25). There, she notes that the greatest block to healing is unforgiveness of another person. The Lord’s power to heal is unlimited – but He will not work through obstacles we put in His way. In that parable, the servant desperately wants to “shake down” the lesser servant for the money owed. Why? So He can pay back his master – to whom he owes an amount impossible to repay. He simply can’t stand being in debt to him.
That has profound meaning in our own spiritual lives. The forgiveness of Christ through the power of His death on the Cross is a debt we can’t repay. We could never eke out enough good works, spend enough hours in prayer, finance enough charities to “pay back” his love. That doesn’t mean that we just sit by passively or idly, of course. Good works, prayer and almsgiving are an important part of our spiritual life year-round, not just during Lent. But they only help if we recognize that they are reactions of gratitude to the mercy that pours forth from the pierced side of Christ.