I have been trying to read a chapter of the Gospels daily during Lent. My copy is the Navarre Bible, published by Four Courts Press. Recently I was struck by the commentary concerning Mark 15:39, concerning the conversion of the Roman centurion who witnessed Christ’s death on Calvary. The commentary says, “Regarding this passage St Bede says that this miracle of the conversion of the Roman officer is due to the fact that, on seeing the Lord die in this way, he could not but recognise his divinity; for no one has the power to surrender his spirit but he who is the Creator of souls…Christ, being God, had the power to surrender his spirit; whereas in the case of other people their spirit is taken from them at the moment of death.”
This comment has been in my mind during a reading of Via Dolorosa: Meditations on the Via Crucis, by Mgr Florian Kolfhaus (Gracewing £5.99). Instead of meditations seen from the point of view of the author and referring to Christ in the third person, Mgr Kolfhaus has tried to imagine how Christ himself would have thought and acted on the way of the Cross. It is a daring and affecting narrative, but the dangers are there too: how can the human imagination understand what it means to be fully human yet also divine? We can’t – and this is where I sometimes resist Kolfhaus’s meditations.
At the 12th Station, where Jesus dies on the Cross, his humanity is too much in evidence in Kolfhaus’s reimagining of Jesus’ thoughts, which is why I quoted the note above on the relevant passage in St Mark. In his hectic monologue Kolfhaus does not convey the sorrowful majesty of the death of God, his dignity and nobility even at the point of his greatest anguish. Jesus, who saved the soul of the Good Thief in an act of ultimate charity, who entrusted Our Lady to his beloved apostle and who said “It is consummated” at the instant of death, is simply not there.
Of Our Lady at the 12th Station, Kolfhaus writes, “She loves still, despite the waves of bitterness and doubts that are crushing down on her.” Again, despite the supreme agony of a mother watching her innocent son being tortured to death, I do not read the words “bitterness” and “doubt” in Our Lady’s nature. Her own unswerving trust and faith in this moment of overwhelming darkness would have left no room for such negativity. After all, she is the woman who has spent 33 years constantly “pondering” in her heart on the mystery of salvation and its intimate connection to her own destiny; the human suffering she experienced along the way would have intensified it.
Following the note on the passage in St Mark’s Gospel there is a quotation from St Jose Maria Escriva’s popular book, The Way. It seems to me especially relevant to us today, “in the time of Coronavirus” as people now refer to it. He writes, “Don’t be afraid of death. Accept it from now on, generously…when God wills it, where God wills it, as God wills it. Don’t doubt what I say; it will come in the moment, in the place and in the way that are best; sent by your Father God. Welcome be our sister death!”
It is good to remember these words, which should resonate with every Christian, especially when the death toll rises around the world, bleak statistics are constantly repeated, the fear and horror of death, regarded as the greatest tragedy, lie all about us. It isn’t. The ultimate tragedy is eternal separation from God.
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