Meditations On The Life Of The Blessed Virgin For Every Day Of the Month, Suitable for all seasons and especially the month of May.
THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE PASSION— THE BLESSED VIRGIN MEETS JESUS ON THE WAY TO CALVARY.
"If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself am,d take up his cross daily, and follow Me" —St. Luke ix. 23.
The time was accomplished: the voice of the Good Shepherd had been heard throughout Israel, and many had come to hear Him. Almost every page of the Gospel tells us of the flocks gathered round Jesus; for them the loaves were miraculously multiplied in the desert; on them the most luminous teaching, the most touching parables, and the most striking miracles were lavished: but in spite of all this, wonder, doubt, and fear filled the greater number, and only the few were touched to the heart. Out of ten lepers, whom our Lord healed, nine went their way without returning thanks; one only prostrated himself at His feet, and he was a stranger, and not of the sons of Israel. Out of all that multitude whose infirmities and sicknesses Jesus had cured, there were, alas, but a very small number who followed His footsteps. If a soul is to hear the word of God, human passions must not speak too loud; if a heart is to be capable of thankfulness, the poison of selfishness and pride must be absent from it. Whilst the little troop of chosen ones was being formed under the eye of our Saviour, men with false, proud, and cruel hearts were rising against Him; men who thought themselves saints because they followed slavishly the letter of the law, without practising its spirit; who rebuked the disciples for gathering ears of corn to satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath day, and the Saviour Himself for healing the sick on that day of rest; but who did not scruple to hate their brethren, and to persecute the innocent; Pharisees and doctors of that law every page of which announced the coming Saviour, all these were plotting His death. By their artifices they had deceived and stirred up the people, and even among the most beloved disciples of Jesus, in the small number of those chosen apostles, who for three years had dwelt in the constant rays of His light, and had tasted the wonderful charm of His love, they had found a man with a heart so base as to betray his Saviour and his God.
The Pasch was approaching, and this time it was the true Lamb who was to be sacrificed, and Jerusalem saw the sunset which introduced that week, called by all succeeding centuries Holy Week, the yearly return of which every Christian hails with a mixture of sorrow and of joy; for he knows that his sins have caused the death of his Saviour, but that that death is the source of all his hope. Six days before the Pasch, our Saviour reached Bethania, a little village close to Jerusalem. There Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus had called to life from the tomb, lived with his sisters Martha and Mary. Mary was that sinful woman from whom, the Evangelist St. John tells us that Jesus had cast seven devils, and who from that time believing in Him, had left all to hear His words, had washed away the shame of a guilty life with her tears; she was the model of all penitent souls, the beloved daughter of Mary, and the devout handmaid of Jesus. Although the Gospel does not say so, pious writers suppose that our holy Mother was at Bethania, in the house of Martha and Mary Magdalen. (St. Bonaventure's Meditations on the Passion; The Foot of the Cross. Faber.)
A supper was prepared for Jesus in the house of Simon the Leper, one of the inhabitants of Bethania, "and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of them that were at table with Him. Mary, therefore, took a pound of ointment, of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was about to betray Him, said: Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein." (St. John xii.) It is easy to see that the avarice and covetousness of this unit faithful servant, were the first cause of his fall. He stole the little treasure, the care of which Jesus had confided to him, and he Warned Magdalen's pious action, because he wished to steal the money of the poor. He afterwards sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. Let the thought of the abyss of sin into which he was led by his first theft, teach us all to respect the goods of others. But Jesus said: " Let her alone, why do you molest her? She hath wrought a good work upon Me. For the poor you have always with you, and whensoever you will you may do them good; but Me you have not always. What she. had she hath done; she is come beforehand to anoint My Body for the burial. Amen, I say to you, wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she hath done shall be told for a memorial of her." (St. Mark xiv. 6.)
Jesus spoke of His burial. His disciples heard Him with sorrow. In the heart of the traitor the divine tenderness of Jesus was pleading against avarice and pride; the holy voice he had heard for three years was sounding in his ear. What did he do ? The Gospel says: " Then went one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, to the chief priests, and said to them, "What will you give me, and I will deliver Him unto you ? But they appointed him thirty pieces of silver. And from thenceforth he sought opportunity to betray Him." (St. Matt. xxvi. 14.)
The day which was witness of this shameful deed answers to the Saturday before Palm Sunday with us. "And it came to pass when He was come nigh to Bethphage and Bethania, unto the Mount called Olivet, He sent two of His disciples, saying, Go into the town which is over against you, at your entering into which you shall find the colt of an ass tied, on which no man ever hath sitten, loose him and bring him hither. And if any man shall ask you, Why do you loose him? you shall say thus unto him, Because the Lord hath need of his service." (St. Luke xix. 29.) The disciples obeyed: they brought the humble beast, and spreading their garments upon it, they made Jesus sit on it. And the Gospel tells us all this was done that the word of thfi prophet might be fulfilled : Fear not, daughter of Sion. Behold thy King cometh sitting on an ass's colt."
And on the next day, "a great multitude that was come to the festival day, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet Him. And many spread their garments in the way, and others cut down boughs from the trees, and strewed them in the way. And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Blessed be the kingdom of our Father David, that cometh. Hosanna in the highest !" (St. John xii.)
Those who were with Jesus when He called Lazarus from the tomb, and raised him from the dead, gave testimony of this miracle, and this was what made the multitude gather round Jesus. When He was coming near the descent of Mount Olivet, the whole multitude of disciples, filled with joy, began to praise God in a loud voice, for all the wonders they had seen, and they cried, "Blessed be the King who cometh in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven and glory on high." And some of the Pharisees said one to another, "Do you see that we prevail nothing? Behold, the whole world is gone after Him." Other Pharisees, who were amongst the crowd, annoyed at the acclamations of the people, said to Him: " Master, rebuke Thy disciples" He replied to them: " I say to you, that if these hold their peace, the stones will cry out."
Whence is this triumph? Are the wicked overcome, and will the world be spared the murder of its God ? Will not Christ be the Man of Sorrows, and is the Son of David about to enter into His inheritance, received at last by those to whom He is come to bring salvation ? The Gospel goes on: "And when Jesus drew near, seeing the city, He wept over it, saying, If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace, but now they are hidden from thy eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee. And they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone. Because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation." (St. Luke xix 41.)
No; these streets of Jerusalem, strewn with the palms and garments thrown under the feet of the most gentle of kings, were not on that day in their true clothing. Soon another triumph began. Instead of the devout hosannas of the multitude, cries of death resounded. Instead of being strewn with palms, the streets were stained with the Blood of the Just One, which flowed freely as He passed. Even on the threshold of those guilty houses, in which the few good were hiding themselves in their cowardly fear, and from which issued the furious crowd of the wicked, even on them the Blood of the true Lamb flowed, but this time it was to mark them out for the vengeance of God. And yet His Blood is so mercifully shed for the salvation of all, that even the wretches who drag the Sacred Victim to His death have only to be converted in order to be saved by that same death; and there is nothing so impure or so guilty but it may become white as snow in the Blood of the Lamb. This way of sorrows, which begins at the tribunal of Pilate, and ends on Calvary, opens to us all the way of salvation, the way that ends in heaven, the royal way of the holy cross.
Here we shall once more meet our" Mother. We are told nothing of her, when, in the evening of Palm Sunday, Jesus raised His voice to His Father, in the presence of the wondering multitude, praying to Him to glorify His Name in His Son, and the voice of God replied : " I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." We are told nothing of her again on the Monday and Tuesday, when Jesus drove the buyers and sellers from the temple, in the majesty of His divine wrath; when He confounded the Pharisees, who tried to ensnare Him in His speech; and when He reiterated His last instructions to His disciples, like a father who is about to die. We do not even find her in the supper room, when our Saviour, by the most wonderful miracle of His love, gave to His Apostles His Body for food, and His Blood for drink. But on the way to Calvary behold her once more.
In the evening of Maunday Thursday, when the treason of Judas had just been committed, as a devout author tells us, "With the brave and gentle Magdalen, she goes forth into the streets. She tries to gain admittance, both to the houses of Annas and of Caiphas, but is repulsed, as she was at Bethlehem, three-and-thirty years ago. She hears the voice of Jesus; 0 she hears also, the blows given to her Beloved. Jesus is put in prison for the night, and St. John comes forth and leads our Blessed Mother home, to the house in which the last supper had been eaten. At the horrors of the morning, she is present. She hears the sound of the scourging, and sees Him at the pillar, and the people around Him sprinkled with His Blood. She hears the gentle murmurs, the almost inaudible bleatings of her spotless Lamb. She hears them, and omnipotence commands her still to live. In spirit, if not in bodily presence, she has seen the guards of Herod mock her everlasting. She had beheld the ruffians in the guard-room celebrate the cruel coronation of the Almighty-King. She has seen the eyes of the All-seeing, bandaged, and the offscouring of the people daring to bend the knee in derision before Him who is one day to pronounce their endless doom. She has looked up to the steps of Pilate's Hall, and has beheld, beautiful in His disfigurement* Him, who was a worm and no man, so had they trodden Him underfoot, and mangled Him, and turned Him almost out of human shape by their atrocities. She heard Pilate say, "Behold the Man" and verily there was need some one should say that He was a man, who if He had been only Man, could never have survived the crushing of the wine-press, which the threefold pressure of His Father, of demons, and of men had inflicted upon Him. Then rose over the crowded Piazza, that wild yell of blasphemous rejection by His own people, which still rings in our ears, still echoes in history, still dwells even in that calm heaven above, in the Mother's ear who heard it, in all the savage frightfulness of its reality. Now the Magdalen leads her home, whither John is to come with news of the sentence when it is passed. St. John at length returns to the house with the news of the sentence, and other information. Our dearest mother, broken hearted yet beaming, as with divine light in her tranquillity prepares to leave the house with Magdalen and the apostle. The latter, by his knowledge of the city, will lead her to the end of a street, where she can meet Jesus on His road to Calvary. Everywhere the streets are thronged with multitudes setting in one tide to Calvary. Heralds at the corners of the streets, blow their harsh trumpets, and proclaim the sentence to the people. Mary draws her veil around her. John and Magdalen lean their broken hearts on hers, for they are faint and sick. "What a journey for a mother! She hardly takes note of the streets, but with their shadows they fling into her soul dim memories of the Pasch twenty-one years ago, and three bitter days that followed it. She has taken her place silent and still. She does not even tremble. Some tears flow, as if spontaneously from her eyes. But her cheeks are red ? Yes—her tears were blood. The procession comes in sight. The tall horse of the centurion shows first and leads the way. The trumpet sounds with a wailing clangour. The women look from the lattices above. She sees the thieves, the crosses, everything—and yet only one thing, Himself. As He draws nigh, the peace of her heart grows deeper. It could not help it. God was approaching, and peace went before Him. Never had maternal love sat on such a throne, as that one on Mary's heart. The anguish was unutterable. God, who knows the number of the sands of the sea, knows it. Now Jesus has come to her. He halts for a moment. He lifts the one hand that is free, and clears the blood from His eyes. Is it to see her? Rather that she may see Him, His look of sadness, His look of love. She approaches to embrace Him. The soldiers thrust her rudely back. O misery! and she is His Mother too ! For a moment she reeled with the push, and then again was still, her eyes fixed on His, His eyes fixed on hers, such a link, such an embrace, such an outpouring of love, such an overflow of sorrow ! Has He less strength than she ? See ! He staggers, is overweighed by the burden of the ponderous cross, and falls with a dull dead sound upon the street, like the clank of falling wood. She sees it. The God of heaven and earth is down. Men surround Him like butchers round a fallen beast. They kick Him, beat Him, swear horrible oaths at Him, drag Him up again, with cruel ferocity. It is His first fall. She sees it. He is her Babe of Bethlehem. She is helpless. She cannot get near. Omnipotence held her heart fast. In a peace far beyond man's understanding, she followed slowly on to Calvary. Magdalen and John beside themselves with grief, but feeling as if grace went out from her blue mantle, enabling them also to live with broken hearts." (Foot of the Cross, ch. v. 245.)
What a picture is this, and yet, as the writer himself says, it is only the outside. No human soul, however holy, is able to measure the grief of Mary; and we can only cry out with the prophet: " To what shall I equal thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Sion! for great as the sea is thy destruction." Not that the sea is its true measure, but because, as the sea incomparably surpasses all other waters in depth and extent, so Mary's sorrows surpass all other sorrows. (Hugh of St. Victor, quoted by Nicolas.) But in the midst of this ocean of sorrows we may, well believe, that one of the most bitter, is the flight of the Apostles and Disciples, who are dispersed as a flock, whose shepherd has been struck, and who weep far from Jesus and Mary.. All their enemies are there, and of their friends, there will be on Calvary only a few faithful women, and one disciple, John, the beloved disciple, whose love is stronger because the love of Jesus for him has given him strength. " Only John is there, drawn by his Saviour's love of him rather than urged by his own love of Jesus." t Even Peter, the ardent generous Peter, the chosen chief of the new Church, Peter has denied his Lord, at the voice of a servant maid. That which wounds the heart of Jesus more than any torture, is the treason of Judas, the faithless apostle, fallen like Lucifer from the height of God's friendship, and above all, the thought that sufferings so great will avail nothing to so many souls, who will refuse to be saved. And as Mary's broken heart ever vibrates in unison with that of her Son; that also is her chief sorrow. Shall we renew it? Shall we be with the cowardly disciples who hide themselves and weep, or with those holy women who follow after Mary, with His faithful disciple John, and the holy Magdalen, the personification of love and repentance? Those trembling disciples and Apostles were not yet ransomed by the Precious Blood, which, for them and for us, was about to flow even to the last drop. Healed by the sufferings of their Master of the plague which sin had brought upon the human race, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we know what they became, heroes, saints, and martyrs. Would they have abandoned Jesus and Mary on the way to Calvary, if they had been at that time what they afterwards became ? We are ransomed by the blood which ransomed them, we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit Who made them heroes. We then should have no excuse if we abandoned Jesus and Mary on the way to Calvary. Let us follow their steps: the way trodden by Jesus and Mary is assuredly the way that leads to heaven.
But the way is difficult, and our Saviour well knew that as soon as they entered upon it, His servants would hear, within as well as without, many voices calling them back. Thus He tells us, in nearly every page of the Gospel, that this way is the only one that leads to Him. He has also caused it to be pointed out to us by all the Apostles, whom He has inspired, and for centuries He has caused all His saints to walk in it before us. " If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me." ( St. Luke ix. 23.) And farther on: "Unless a man take up his cross and follow Me, he cannot be My disciple."
This way it was which St. Paul showed to the first Christians of Corinth, when he preached to them, instead of the soft divinities of Greece, " Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness."(I- Cor. i. 23.) He himself bravely trod it when he said to the Christians of Galatia: God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. vi. 14.) and to the Christians of Jerusalem: " Laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us. Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, Who having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God." (Heb. xii. 1, 2.) The glorious apostle St. Andrew was drawing near to the end of this same road, when, seeing from afar the cross on which he was about to die like his ,Master, he stretched his arms towards it, crying with a wonderful burst of joy, " O beloved cross, so dearly loved and so long desired!" Walking in the footsteps of their Master, the Apostles and disciples of those days almost all went, like Him, to torture and death. As the centuries went on, trials changed their character. But let us read the lives of the saints, and see if we find a single one in which the cross does not master everything else, in which suffering bravely accepted or voluntarily sought for, does not conduct the elect of God in the footsteps of their Saviour, in the way to. Calvary. Lives the most distinct and separated from one another are united in this, and on the throne as in the cottage, in the cell of the religious as in the open fields, all the servants of Jesus Christ have borne the cross. And how have they borne it ? By suffering humbly and bravely their daily pains. Truly there are some who have borne it so high that we should be tempted to pronounce ourselves incapable of such an effort, we who are bowed down to the earth by the least burden. But God proportions the weight of the cross ta the strength of His servants. What we must do is to accept willingly, those crosses which He sends us, and carry them, whatever they may be. If we cannot, like the great Apostle, run to meet the combat which is proposed to us, let us at least walk towards it without shrinking, let us walk towards it, as he says, through patience ; and if ever we feel ourselves crushed under the weight of this saving cross, let us remember that it was the will of our sweet Saviour to bear one so heavy as to cause Him to stagger and fall under its weight.
How would our sufferings be lessened if we always saw in them the cross of Jesus Christ! We should accept them as the glorious marks by which His servants are recognized on earth, and by which He Himself will recognize them at the last day. When we see from afar the cross shining on the summit of any building, however humble, we say to ourselves, " It is the house of God." When we look upon a human life, however humble, in which suffering has been sweetly and patiently borne, we can say to ourselves, "God is there;" and whilst pitying the sufferings of our brother, we can console him by the hope of an eternal reward, and endeavour ourselves to suffer like him in order to merit the same reward.
Let us love the cross, for it is the first sign with which the Church signed us in baptism, when she adopted us as her children ; and it will be the last with which, she will sign us when she recommends to the mercy of God our soul, about to appear before Him. Let us love the cross, for while leading us to heaven, it will enable us to find on earth true peace in duty performed. The divine Blood which flowed on that cross reconciled all things, the Apostle tells us, on earth and in heaven. ("Pacificans per sanguinem crucis ejus, sive que in terra sive quæ in coelis sunt."—Coloss. i. 20.) Through the cross there is no more rebellion in grief, with the cross no more despair j for it shows us heaven through our tears. And when we bear it bravely, may we not say that we are consoling the Heart of Jesus, that we spare Him, in our own case, the grief caused Him by the un-availingness of His Passion to so many souls, who refuse to profit by it; and thus we take from Him something of His heavy burden, like that man of Cyrene, who, passing on the road to Calvary, had the wonderful honour of bearing on his shoulder one end of the cross of our Saviour.
Let us love the cross. And when in the country, at the entrance of the villages, at the corners of the roads, and at the end of the fields, we perceive this sign of our salvation, let us hail it devoutly.
Let us rejoice to meet it often on our way. Let us raise again those crosses which our fathers planted, and when a little trouble would prevent them falling, let us not refuse this work to our Saviour Jesus, of whom they speak to us. In a land where the cross is often seen* the traveller at every step is recalled to good thoughts, just as the witness of a devout life is himself incited to good. And thus everything is in harmony outside our earthly dwellings, as well as in our souls. And as our God in His liberality has adorned for us with so much beauty the fields, the woods, and the mountains, we, in spite of our weakness, shall have added to this beautiful nature an austere and touching ornament, which will clothe it in the livery of our Saviour.
Let us love the cross. Let us put this ' holy sign in all our homes, and over the cradles of our children; and, above all, let it be received into the depths of our hearts, at the same time that it hangs on our walls. Let a glance towards that cross temper all our joys, silence all our complaints, and awaken all our hopes; and in evil days, when we are weary with suffering, let us raise ourselves by this thought, that it is the cross of Jesus, that wounds our shoulder, and that we are bearing it with Him along the way that leads to heaven. The devout author of the "Following" says : " If thou carry , the cross willingly it will carry thee, and bring thee to the desired end, namely, to that place where there will be an end of suffering, though here there will be no end. If thou carry it unwillingly, thou makest it a burden to thee, and loadest thyself the more, and nevertheless thou must bear it .For even our Lord Jesus Christ Himself was not for one hour of His life without the anguish of His Passion. 'It behoved' said He, 'that Christ should suffer, and rise from the dead, and so enter into His glory.' How then dost thou seek another way than this royal way, which is the way of the holy cross?" (Following of Christ, bk. ii. 12.)
O holy Virgin Mary, thou whom the Church at once calls Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Mercy, in whom the sufferings of the Passion have opened an inexhaustible source of mercy, even for those whose salvation has cost thee so dear, give us a deep sympathy for thy sorrows, and have mercy on our ingratitude. Ask of thy divine Son that all our crosses may appear to us light in comparison with His; that we may bear them willingly in order to follow thee on the way to Calvary, and that, pondering on that cross which was the salvation of the world, we may look upon our crosses as instruments of salvation, and means of following our Redeemer. O holy Mother, obtain for us the courage to follow thy footsteps closely, and not basely to fly from thee in sorrow, since we aspire to be with thee in glory; to draw from the remembrance of thy sufferings a just appreciation of our own, and that resignation which softens them on earth, by rendering them meritorious in heaven.
To love the holy exercise of the way of the cross; and to meditate while performing it on the sorrows of Jesus and Mary, with a firm desire of accepting our sufferings for the lore of them.