“The whole life on earth of God made man is profoundly mysterious: it is as full of mysteries as it is of days. In spite of assiduous meditation on that life and the light shed on it by the virtue of faith, one always has a sense of being baffled by its mysteriousness and of being but just able to penetrate slightly beneath the surface of what the Evangelists present for contemplation to the christian soul. It is as if one were unable to penetrate beyond the vestibule of a vast edifice which is known to contain many beautiful apartments filled with all kinds of the rarest and most exquisite treasures.
“The few glimpses that sometimes, in the course of absorbed prayer, are vouchsafed to the soul, of the inner sanctuary of the life of Christ, stir up an eager desire to know more and see further. One becomes, as it were, impatient to the limitations of one’s own faith and longs for the piercing intensity and far-seeing power it has in the case of the saints. One would be glad to grasp Christ’s life as they grasped it, to have it mean as much to oneself as it meant to them. The meditative christian who is but at the beginnings of his spiritual course cannot but feel a pang at realizing that to the penetrating gaze of the intimate friends of God are revealed depths in the mysteries of the life of Christ which are completely hidden from him. The pain is all the more bitter because of understanding that the difficulty of vision arises, not because God deliberately, as it were, veils off these things from the common gaze, but because one’s own power of seeing is feeble through the imperfections of one’s faith. It is not to the God-Man’s unwillingness to be seen and understood, but to the imperfect christian’s spiritual short-sightedness, that the inability to see little more than the surface of the mysteries of Christ is to be attributed.
“But if at any time one envies the saints their penetrating vision it is when one approaches the contemplation of the Passion of the Son of God. For there the mystery which envelops all the other incidents of the life of Jesus deepens to such an extent that it is almost impossible not to be seized with a sense of utter powerlessness in face of it. ‘What,’ exclaims the great Pope, St. Leo, ‘amongst all the works of God that tax even to fatigue the efforts of human contemplation, so attracts and yet overmasters the mental gaze of man, as the Passion of the Savior?’ The other scenes and incidents in the life of Christ offer a hold to the imagination. It is not difficult to find for them, at least in their outward historical aspect, some faint parallel in what comes within the range of average human experience. This parallelism is clearer for those who, leading an interior life, draw from what they go through within and without themselves an understanding not only of the exterior incidents of the life of Jesus, but also of the supernatural realities of which these incidents were the sensible expression. But when one penetrates into the obscurity of the great week of the final Pasch, all familiar landmarks disappear.
“All the ordinary laws of the sequence of cause and effect seem to suffer violation — as in a sense they really do. There is nothing in what precedes in the life of the Savior — if we except His own enigmatic hints and warnings — that prepares the mind for the terrible events to take place in the week of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The hatred and jealousy of the conventional priests and princes of the people, and their disappointment as they saw the crumbling of their Messianic dreams in the preaching of Jesus, foreshadow their resolve to bring about His death and thus destroy His influence. The plot against Jesus’ life was to be expected; but expected as one that would be a chance of success. Nothing pointed to such a sudden and catastrophic denouement in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Up to the time of, and even in the very preparation for the Last Supper, Jesus always showed Himself as being with the utmost ease master of the situations in which He found Himself. He met with much hatred and antagonism; He yielded to it at times and retired before it. But whenever He chose to face the conflict, the opposition melted away before Him. As He sat at table at the Last Supper with an unbroken series of triumphs behind Him, nothing indicated to human prevision that before the sun should set on the following afternoon He would be a mangled corpse hanging on the Cross. And even if one could possibly surmise, from the machinations in the camp of the priests and princes of the people, that death would come to Him with a stride ere the festival should close, who could possibly dream of the accumulated horrors and cruelties that should be packed into those few short hours? If death were to come, who could expect it to be attended with such fiendish brutality?
“Who could believe that the world would ever present such a scene of tragic irony as that of the pagan procurator, the worshipper of idols, pleading with the chosen people for the life of their God — the One true God, Who had led them out of the bondage of Egypt and had showered favors on them? What is it that caused the insane choice of this people, in which, for their king, they preferred Caesar to God, rejected the beneficent Christ in favor of the murderer, Barabbas? Pilate clearly was kindly disposed to the inoffensive Nazarene and meant the scourging to be but an excuse for setting Him free. He thought that a disgraceful chastisement would appease the fury of the Jews. He had no desire to inflict any undue suffering. How then came it about that the Roman soldiers, who had nothing whatsoever to stir them up against Christ, should indulge in such an orgy of brutality in the scourging and crowning with thorns and in the gibes and mocking that accompanied these sufferings? Why should the scourging have taken place at all, since it availed nothing towards the purpose intended by Pilate? What could be the reason of this apparently meaningless and yet appalling suffering?
“As has been said, no ordinary moral laws of cause and effect explain these things: one feels one’s mind crushed and overwhelmed in their presence. What is contemplated attains proportions that indefinitely transcend the human. In the darkness in which the reason gropes, aided by the faint light of faith, it is dimly perceived that one is in close contact with the ultimate in things, that is, the ineffable sanctity of the Divinity and the awful horror of its opposite, Sin. It is felt that the titanic happenings of the Passion are the supreme effort to present sensibly to man these ultimate and stupendous realities. It is felt that nothing but the interplay of these ‘ultimates’ could explain events on a scale of such magnitude. It is not astonishing that the soul falters somewhat as it brings itself to the contemplation of the tragic horrors of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Yet, as can be learned from the revelations made to the saints from time to time, Jesus earnestly desires that the faithful should, not occasionally, but constantly, place themselves in presence of this overpowering mystery to contemplate it. His own words, as given to us in Scripture, reveal that He recognizes that the contemplation of His Passion carries with it a divine efficacy to move souls. ‘And I,’ He said, ‘if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all things to Myself.’ And St. Paul, always the faithful echo of his Divine Master, when urging on the faithful Philippians the perfect practice of the true christian spirit, sets before them no more powerful incitement to the exercise of all the christian virtues than the consideration of the sufferings and death of the Savior. He bids them find in the study of the inner spirit of Jesus in His Passion the force to carry his exhortations into effect. ‘For,’ he says to them, ‘let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death: even to the death of the Cross.’
“It is evident that in the mind of Christ the baffling nature of this great mystery of faith does not dispense the Christian from a steady contemplation of it. Of course, if it is only the intellect alone that is brought to bear on the mystery, no fruitful results will be obtained. The heart and the will, as well as and even more than the intelligence, have their part to play in this work. The study of the Passion must be approached in a spirit of compunction, of humility and of earnest prayer to the Savior Himself to vouchsafe to us the great grace of being able to penetrate to some little extent into the secret of His sufferings, so incomprehensible to human reason. The proper attitude of the soul during those solemn days which the Church consecrates to the contemplation of the last hours of the mortal life of Jesus is one of deep interior abasement, accompanied by a sustained inner silence and quiet attention of soul. If the Christian places himself deliberately in these dispositions, he will be bound to experience in the depths of his being the faint stirrings of emotions and thoughts which are not of this world and are certainly not the fruit of what the ascetically writers are accustomed to call human industry. It matters little that these emotions and thoughts defy exact formulation, and still more, outward expression. They are none the less real for all that and produce secret and salutary effects upon a man’s supernatural life.” (Fr. Edward Leen, In the Likeness of Christ, ch. 6)