Sermons on the Three Hours’ Agony
The yearly commemoration of the Great Tragedy is a dramatic occasion. No Shakespeare ever wrote a play that can compare with the story of Calvary, in all its stark treachery and tender love. And if the preacher has a spark of drama in him, he will be able to bring out the contrasts without much effort.
Usually the sermons built around the Seven Last Words are nine in number: an Introduction and Conclusion in addition to the seven main talks. Each talk takes about six to ten minutes, varying with the length of the musical selections. It is well to allow for flexibility in the talks. If the musical program encroaches on the speaker's time, he must be prepared to cut his material. If the musical periods are brief, he may have to enlarge his remarks. For the latter emergency, the preacher should prepare by marking in the margin of the manuscript certain ideas which he can expand at will, if necessary.
The Introduction can serve to take the audience back in memory to the night of Holy Thursday. It is the "night in which He was betrayed." Judas leaves the Upper Room, and, as St. John significantly adds: "Now it was night." It was night in the heart of that unfortunate Apostle, and it was night on the path before him. He stepped from the brightness of that sacred banquet, and that step was the signal for the powers of darkness to start moving against Christ. For the Passion of Our Lord is not simply the record of historical incidents attending His death. It is the story of the conflict between Sin and Holiness when the embattled furies of hell struck down the Son of God.
Judas meets the mongrel band of thugs that were to capture Jesus. From now on, the pace of the tragedy quickens: event follows event, each more terrible than the last. Quick flashes of color and bursts of flame! The Arrest—after Our Lord had been praying in agony, sweating blood in the moonlight under the olive trees. Before Annas—the stinging blow in the face; the illegal trial before Caiphas, and then on to Pilate who recognizes His innocence. The Roman seeks to evade responsibility, and sends Christ to Herod, who dresses Him in the robe of a lunatic. What pitiful devices Pilate uses to salve his conscience! But at last, timid and timeserving, he pronounces the "Ibis ad Crucem." Out through the city gates Christ carries His cross to the Hill of the Skull, where He is murdered in the most awful crime in history.
The Introduction can help to fix the proper emphasis. Remind the congregation that the physical sufferings are not the chief point of interest: the important fact is that the God-Man suffered. We can have pity for animals in pain. But it is not merely a wounded body that hangs on the Cross: it is the Salvation of the World that lies there with arms outstretched in a gesture of love. Because that dying Figure is Our Redemption, Christians set apart Good Friday to meditate on the seven last words of the God-Man, spoken in blood and pain and in the shadow of death.
The First Word
The First Word has abundant sermon possibilities: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." A few years ago in downtown Manhattan, a taxicab struck and fatally injured an old priest. At the trial, the Court dismissed the charges of homicide and reckless driving, because the priest, before death, had requested that the driver be not punished. The world needs a forgiving spirit. The lights are on again in Europe, but there are also fires of revenge. "Revenge is sweet," and sweet was the revenge of Christ on His enemies: "Father, forgive them …" They had good reason to know what they did, but the fact was that they didn't and in His mercy He asked the Father to forgive.
In a sense we shall be saved by our ignorance. When the scientist says God doesn't exist because he can't see Him through the microscope or telescope, when the college boy claims that sin is only self-expression, let us hope that in those cases there is the redeeming virtue of ignorance.
Christ could forgive because He looked on no man as an enemy: "Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you." We have had two thousand years of Christianity, and yet we consider forgiveness a naive and nobly impossible ideal. We refuse to pardon even those who are different from us in color or nationality. "Rival" in its Latin origin means the man on the other bank of the river. We hate the other man just because he doesn't walk and talk like us. But if Christ, eternal innocence, could forgive those who were brutally murdering Him, we ought to pass over insults and differences. For by grace we are brothers of Christ and sons of Our Father in heaven, who maketh the sun to rise on the wicked as well as the good.
The Second Word
The Second Word brings out another facet of Christ's mercy: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." Occasionally there is an outcry against the Church because a priest has given the Last Rites to a John Barrymore or a Dutch Schultz. The Church has officially approved a life of crime, so they say—has blessed a public enemy. And yet the priest in these cases has simply followed precedent, the ancient and venerable precedent established by Christ on the Cross.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord had said: "Lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither the moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal." I believe it was Bourdaloue who said that Dismas was the greatest of all thieves, because he broke into the treasures of heaven and stole Paradise. "Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also." Our Lord turning to the penitent robber saw only his heart, purified by contrition.
What happened in the heart of this thief to change his attitude? A few minutes earlier he had been blaspheming. The mock crown of thorns, the title INRI, the bleeding body, all these concealed Christ's divinity. But like a thief Dismas broke through all the barred windows and closed doors of His humanity, and stole into the presence of His divinity by humbly making an act of perfect contrition.
The story of the Good Thief can be a consolation to us as we die. We have all been thieves, stealing pleasures and breaking the laws of God. But if we surrender our affection for these stolen goods and pray with real sorrow, we will hear: "Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise."
The Third Word
The Third Word represents perhaps the tenderest scene in the whole panorama of the Passion: "Woman, behold, thy son!" Christ, looking at His mother through bloodshot eyes, gives her to John who symbolizes all humanity. At Bethlehem she gave Him to the world: now He gives her to the world. Instead of kneeling at the Crib, she stands under the Cross. A third of a century has dealt harshly with her. Since the Prophecy of Simeon she has been seeing the phantom shadow of the coming tragedy. But she is a strong woman now, with features sculptured by pain, far stronger than the politician Pilate or even Peter the Rock. In making her the Mother of all His Christians, Christ places on her shoulders the weight of centuries of human suffering.
A year ago perhaps, the dreaded telegram came from the War Department to a Catholic home in New York, Boston or Chicago. The dear old mother began to say her beads. Only the Mother of Sorrows could soothe her heartache. In Poland a young widow today sees her only child starving to death; "Mother of God, take care of my little one in heaven!" In France a peasant-girl prays for him who will never come back from sea. Call it a sweet delusion, a dream—but the fact is that devotion to the Mother of Sorrows sheds more light on the problem of evil than all the speculative philosophers from Aristotle to Einstein.
These innocent sufferers might have reacted in a different way. They might have rebelled in a spirit of wild terror, like Rachel in Rama refusing to be comforted, or like mad King Lear bewailing his dead daughter in the mountains. But their whole life has been a profession of faith, and they have signed and sealed that profession with a great agony, confident that their Heavenly Mother will take her banished children from a land of mourning and weeping to their happy homeland.
The Fourth Word
The Fourth Word bears a variety of interpretations: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!" No doubt, many a good preacher has skated on thin ice of heresy in explaining these words of Our Lord. The words are from a Hebrew Psalm that was often on Christ's lips. In the Psalm the meaning is: "Why hast Thou abandoned me to the wrath of My enemies?" Christ very probably intended this sense. The general mood of the verse is not one of despair, but of tender and trusting confidence in God.
Trust in God ought to be the theme of any talk on the fourth word. In darkest hours God is never very far away. We may be tempted to doubt that God exists. Can we feel the light of faith slip away and not be depressed? Even the very temptation to doubt plunges a Christian into a cheerless mood.
Doubts about His goodness are as gloomy as those about His existence. Why did my friend die? Why are there infantile paralysis, cancer, leprosy in the world? For answer we read that these are mysteries, which God has not chosen to reveal. Small comfort: we believe but the dejection still persists. At such times we ought to think of Christ and His fourth word. Beaten and wounded by His own people, abandoned by His friends, yet He would not give Himself over to gloom and melancholy. For He knew that His Father was very close, and in the darkness He could see the stars.
The Fifth Word
The Fifth Word presents a fearful physical agony: "I thirst!" A dying soldier may be mutilated beyond description; he may not care whether he lives or dies, but yet one thought may possess him: "I thirst." His face will light up at the touch of a cup of cold water. Like the sufferings of a man on the battlefield, the physical agony of Christ suggests a little water. A bystander raised a vinegar-sponge to Christ's mouth, but He only touched it with His lips.
The lessons of Christ's life have a perpetual meaning. His physical thirst ended in His death, but mystically we can still minister to that burning desire. Our Lord tells us in St. Matthew's Gospel that at the Judgment He will say to those who served Him well: "Come, blessed of My Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me to eat: I was thirsty and you gave Me to drink ... " (Matt., xxv. 34). Then the just will answer Him, saying: "Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee, or thirsty, and give Thee drink?" And Christ will say: "Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of My brethren, you did it for Me."
Pain is sacred, for it is Christ who suffers in His 'brethren. The Christians of the Middle Ages built their hospitals, such as the Salpetriere still standing, like magnificent palaces. The charter of that hospital, for instance, regarded the "unfortunate poor as the living members of Jesus Christ." Today our great state hospitals are built like so many barns to accommodate animals.
How paltry are the sentimental and humanitarian motives that actuate the social workers of today, when compared to the genuine Christian motive for sympathy! The social worker looks down at a sick or wounded human animal. The Saint looks up at his crucifix and sees the Image of all who are in pain. There is a gulf as wide as heaven and earth between the two attitudes.
The Sixth Word
The Sixth Word can sometimes prove a source of very embarrassing confusion. Some booklets for the Three Hours' Agony list "It is consummated" as the Sixth Word, while "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit" is Seventh. Naturally, the congregation will become confused if the preacher chooses the latter as the Sixth Word. However, this seems to be the more usual choice.
As Christ commended His spirit into His Father's hands, the curtain that veiled the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom and darkness folded its sable wings like a vulture over the world.
Jesus taught us to say the last lines of our little drama of life calmly and serenely. In dying, we are not plunging into blind nothingness or merely chemical dissolution. We are simply returning our treasure of an immortal soul into the hands of Our Father.
Two classes of men die unhappy deaths. First, the Christian who knows he has a soul but lives as though he had none. Of such St. Paul said: "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God." They dare not say, "Father," because they have left His house: they cannot commend to Him their spirit because they have killed it. Then there is the unbeliever who believes there is no Father and no spirit to commend. Death, for him, means the approach of an irresistible phantom that sweeps a person into annihilation. It is hard to resign oneself to the prospect of total death.
There is no total death for a good Christian. There is only life—this life transfigured to greater beauty and perfect happiness. A Christian is another Christ. In His death is our death; in His resurrection, our victory. Death can have no terror for us if we die with Him and in Him. For after the last agony Our Father who is in heaven will take the spirit we entrust to Him, and will bless it eternally.
The Seventh Word
The Seventh Word is: "It is finished." "Consummated" may be a more majestic word but I fear that many hearers will waste valuable moments speculating whether the word should be accented on the second or the third syllable.
It is said that Michelangelo, insane with admiration for his marble statue of Moses, struck it and cried: "Speak." Christ has now completed His masterpiece and contemplates it with perfect satisfaction. At Creation, God looked upon the world He had made and saw that it was good. St. Augustine remarks that the Redemption was incomparably more wonderful. More wonderful perhaps, because more difficult. In Creation God rejoiced as a giant. In the Redemption he became the least and most miserable of men. He created the world with a word: He took thirty-three and more years of toil and torture to redeem it.
Christ, as it were, looks down through the orders of created things. How perfect they are! From the exuberant variety of the crystals of a snowflake to the orderly procession of the moon and stars—still higher through the color and pattern of flowers and trees, the speed and grace of swan and deer to the king of material creation, man. But at the summit of all perfection stands the perfect Man united to the Godhead, and in His loving sacrifice on the Cross, beauty reaches its consummation. Here is the supreme achievement; we can dream of nothing greater. Jesus scans the ancient Prophecies, sees that all is complete and cries out: "It is finished!"
Jesus wants us to be perfect as His Heavenly Father is perfect. He has high hopes for us mediocre beings, because He knows the power of His grace. Will we be able to say with a shade of truth at death: "It is finished"—or even the words of St. Paul: "I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith"?
The Conclusion is a challenge to live the good life. There are only two things in the world: love and hate. The battle of Calvary was really a conflict between love and hate. Our Lord won that battle, but it was not the end of the war. It is still going on.
Catholics seldom, consciously hate God. We do not shake our fists at heaven and curse the Lord. Yet, we cooperate all too readily with the forces of hate. They trap us and lure us by a thousand arguments and attitudes. Chief among these is the attitude, born in hell, that religion is not necessary: that brotherly love is enough: "Be decent, be kind, and you will inherit the kingdom." But Love Incarnate taught us that the First Commandment is love of God. Love of God is the source of genuine brotherly love. Without the Fatherhood of God, how can there be a brotherhood of man?
The Christian life is a warfare. Shall we continue the war that Our Lord Jesus declared when He said: "I am not come to bring peace but the sword!" Or shall we appease the million forces of Antichrist and pluck the false flower of comfort? Christ, through the Church, offers us the means of carrying on the war for religion and morality. If we accept these weapons, we shall prove that Christ did not die in vain. We shall make this world a better place to live in, and ourselves a little more worthy of hearing the happy words: "Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you."
1 July, 1945, issue, pp. 740-746.
2 Canon 2215.
3 "Publicae custodia salutis non modo suprema lex . . . " (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum).
4 Vidal, "Jus Penale Ecclesiae Catholicae," p. 110.
5 Canons 1952,1954.
6 Trent, Sess. XIII, de ref., cap. 1, cap. 3; Canon 2214.
7 Chelodi, "Jus Penale," p. 20. n. 18.
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