My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Entering Into Holy Thursday With Venerable Sheen

In roughly 24 hours, the Sacred Triduum will begin. During these three days, the Church commemorates in a solemn manner the Passion, Death, and Burial of her Spouse, Our Blessed Lord. These days are a time to enter into more fervent prayer. For those of us who wonder “Where did Lent go?” and feel that we failed, once again, at keeping Lent, we have an opportunity to enter into the Triduum, to shut out the world, and to meditate on the sufferings of Our Blessed Lord.
I will be entering into the Triduum with Venerable Fulton J. Sheen as company. He devotes 17 chapters of his magnificent Life of Christ to the Last Supper, the events of Holy Thursday evening, the morning of Good Friday, and the 7 Last Words–both the 7 Last Words of Christ, and the “Seven Words to the Cross,” words that those present spoke to Our Blessed Lord. Five of these chapters deal with Holy Thursday alone: the fact of the Last Supper, Our Lord’s humility as expressed in His washing of His disciples’ feet, Judas, Our Lord’s “Last Supper Discourse,” and His High-Priestly Prayer.
To Sheen, the Last Supper is akin to the American Memorial Day: both days commemorate those who lay down their lives for our freedom. Though, there are several differences between the two. First, our Memorial Day commemorates soldiers whose lives are over; the Last Supper is a Memorial instituted by One Who “who would live again after the Resurrection.” Second, the soldiers we commemorate on Memorial Day did not institute a day on which we should remember them; they did not foresee that they would die.  However, Our Lord knew that He would die; more than that, He knew that He “would live again after the Resurrection” (Life of Christ, 273) and He instituted a memorial of His Death and Resurrection: “Repeat! Renew! Prolong through the centuries the sacrifice offered for the sins of the world!” (278)
How many of us stop to think about the matter of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the unleavened bread and the wine that we offer? Our Lord’s choice of bread and wine to become His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity was not a random choice; He chose very significant elements to prolong His Life within us:
Why did Our Blessed Lord use bread and wine as the elements of this Memorial? First of all, because no two substances in nature better symbolize unity than bread and wine. As bread is made from a multiplicity of grains of wheat, and wine is made from a multiplicity of grapes, so the many who believe are one in Christ. Second, no two substances in nature have to suffer more to become what they are than bread and wine. Wheat has to pass through the rigors of winter, be ground beneath the Calvary of a mill, and then subjected to purging fire before it can become bread. Grapes in their turn must be subjected to the Gethsemane of a wine press and have their life crushed from them to become wine. Thus do they symbolize the Passion and Sufferings of Christ, and the condition of Salvation, for Our Lord said that unless we die to ourselves we cannot live in Him. A third reason is that there are no two substances in nature which have more traditionally nourished man than bread and wine.  In bringing these elements to the altar, men are equivalently bringing themselves. When bread and wine are taken or consumed, they are changed into man’s body and blood. But when He took bread and wine, He changed them into Himself. (278)
This Holy Thursday, as we commemorate the institution of two sacraments–the first, the greatest Gift Our Lord gave us, the Gift of Himself, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament; and the second, the Holy Priesthood, which enables that gift to be prolonged, we should remember that suffering, the Cross, is woven into the very fabric of the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ. The bread and wine “suffered.” Our Blessed Lord suffered to give us His Body and Blood. The priest suffers–indeed, he is called to suffer, to be not only a priest but also a victim.  (See Sheen’s Those Mysterious Priests and The Priest is Not His Own.)
Another topic upon which to meditate Holy Thursday is Our Blessed Lord’s humility, which Sheen writes about in the chapter “Servant of the Servants.” He sees Our Lord’s washing His disciples feet as “a summary of His Incarnation”:
Rising up from the Heavenly Banquet in intimate union of nature with the Father, He laid aside the garments of His glory, wrapped about His Divinity the towel of human nature which He took from Mary; poured the laver of regeneration which is His Blood shed on the Cross to redeem men, and began washing the souls of His disciples and followers through the merits of His death, Resurrection and Ascension. (283-4)
Again, Sheen says: “When humility comes from the God-man as it does here, it is obvious that it will be through humility that men will go back to God” (284). Humility is intrinsically linked to sacrifice.  Our Lord laid down His Life (sacrificed Himself) for us because He was humble; He invites us to lay down our lives (sacrifice ourselves) for our brethren, in imitation of Him.
Sheen’s interpretation of Our Lord’s Last Supper Discourse once more rings the note of suffering:
In His Cross, God the Father was glorified.  This was because His Father did not spare His own Son, but offered Him to save man. He put a new meaning into His death, namely, from His Cross would beam forth the pity and the pardon of God. (294)
It is from the Cross–the Cross that He will mount on Good Friday–that He gives us pity and pardon.  Pity, because we are miserable sinners; pardon, because He has mercy on our misery. Sheen draws some masterful relations between suffering and love in his commentary on the fifteenth chapter of John: “Love is the normal relation of branches to one another, because all are united in the vine. There were to be no limits to His love . . . for He came to lay down His life.  . . .  He need not have died at all. No one could take away His life from Him” (297)
Yet we have comfort in our sufferings because we are not alone. No, Our Lord said: “I am the vine and you the branches. He who dwells in Me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). As long as we are united to Him through love (“Love is the normal relation of branches to one another”), His Love will give us support and strength in our sufferings, just as in His suffering, He teaches us how to suffer.
So as we enter into Holy Thursday, let us remember Our Blessed Lord, Who willingly laid down His Life that we might be free from sin–a much greater freedom than that for which our soldiers died. As we adore Him present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Blessed Sacrament, let us remember how much He suffered in order to give us that greatest of all gifts. We adore His humility: He “whom the world cannot contain” chose to be “contained” within the simple, humble elements of bread and wine; to be “contained” within the confines of a Tabernacle–forgotten, ignored by us, who call ourselves “Catholics.” And we adore our God-made-Man, Who suffered for us because He loved us.  Let us ask Him for the grace to offer our sufferings in union with Him…for the grace to lay down our lives for our brethren, as He did.
God Love Y’All!

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