Meditation for Holy Week
The Crucifixion and death of Our Lord
By Fr Charles Hyacinth McKenna O.P.
We now come to consider the last of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and one of the greatest events in the history of our sad and sinful old world.
“This mystery, said Bishop Martin of Paderborn, contains, accentuates and consummates the other four Sorrowful Mysteries. It renews the Agony in the garden, reopens the wounds of the flagellation; the crown of thorns is replaced on the head of our Redeemer; the Cross now bears Him who was forced to drag it to Calvary”1
As soon as the doleful procession of that first Good Friday attained the summit of the mountain, Our Lord, faint and weary, was given to drink wine mingled with myrrh and gall. “But when He had tasted it, He would not drink.”
Then, laying violent hands upon Jesus, His tormentors roughly tore off His garments, to which the flesh of His lacerated body had adhered, thereby reopening all His wounds and causing the blood to flow afresh. What must have been the confusion of our modest Lord, He who is incarnate purity, to be shamelessly exposed for the second time to the derision of that vast multitude! Ah, to what profound depths of humiliation did He not descend for our sakes!
Despoiled of His raiment, He was then rudely thrown upon the cross, and four of His inhuman executioners began the work of nailing Him to it. First, His right hand was fastened to the wood with a rude spike — not a sharp nail, but one blunt and rough, which would mangle and tear the sensitive nerves of the palm of the hand and cause indescribable agony. The left hand was next seized. His sacred feet were then nailed to the cross in the same inhuman fashion — and the bloody work of the crucifixion was completed!
The soldiers then gathered around our Blessed Lord to place the cross in position. Carrying it to the spot which they dug for it in the rock, instead of lowering it gently, they roughly dropped it into the hole, thereby jarring most painfully the whole sacred body, enlarging the wounds in the blessed hands and feet, and causing the precious blood to flow in streams. His malicious enemies now behold their helpless Victim uplifted in His agony.
Is there no heart among them to regret or condemn this terrible immolation of the sinless Lamb of God? Ah, no! Far from being moved to pity for the Just One in His extremity of anguish, the hearts of the spectators seem to grow fiercer and more obdurate, if that be possible. No word of compassion falls from their lips, but priests and soldiers, alike, vie with one another in mocking and blaspheming Him.
Draw near now, faithful souls, to the foot of the cross, and gazing upon this hideous spectacle of your dying Redeemer, learn the malice of sin, as well as the inexorable justice of God, which exacts for it so tremendous an expiation. It was our sins rather than the nails which fastened Him to the rough wood of the cross; it was for the secret sins of the world, especially, that He was thus exposed, naked, to the profane gaze of a rude, reviling rabble.
Let us approach still nearer, and catch the faint words which fall from the livid lips of our Blessed Lord in His last agony. Does He, like other victims of injustice, proclaim His innocence, and call down the maledictions of Heaven upon His persecutors? Ah, no, very different are the sentiments of the meek and forgiving Son of God! He becomes, instead, the advocate of His cruel crucifiers before His heavenly Father. He utters that sublime sentence which should ever find an echo in our hearts and influence our conduct toward those who have done evil to us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
Of the two robbers who were crucified with Him, one was touched by this evidence of divine patience and gentleness, by this tender prayer for mercy for His enemies; and, already believing in Christ’s innocence, by a special grace Dismas, the thief, received faith to believe also in His divinity. Upbraiding his guilty companion for blaspheming Jesus, he turned to the Master and begged Him to be mindful of him in His kingdom. In return for this dying act of faith he had the ineffable happiness of hearing from Our Lord’s lips these consoling words: “This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
In this merciful promise there are grounds of hope for the greatest sinners of the world. The penitent thief, after a life of sin, finds mercy in his dying moments; yet even here we behold a contrast, a presentation of eternal issues calculated to strike the sinner with fear and trembling. Of two criminals in like danger of death and damnation, only one was saved! Reflect well upon this consideration. Both men had the same Redeemer, dying for the world’s salvation, in their midst. The precious Blood of Jesus was flowing close to them, ready to ransom their souls. Both had before them the same example of divine patience; both were offered the grace of the Mediator to do penance — yet one is forever lost; the other saved for all eternity. Have you not, then, O sinner of to-day! less reason to hope than to fear? I exhort you, if you desire to secure yourself in so important an affair, hasten your conversion. Do immediately what the good thief did in his extremity, lest his salvation, which was a miracle of grace, should prove the rock of your destruction, the ordinary chastisement of sinners who forget God during their lives2.
Up to this point, we have said little of the part our Blessed Mother took in Calvary’s tragedy. Present, as she was, during the fearful fastening of her Son to the tree of shame3, she heard the sound of the hammer driving the rude nails into His sacred hands and feet. Alas! those violent strokes were as so many cruel blows upon her immaculate heart. She saw the soldiers raise the cross and drop it roughly into position; she heard the exultant shouts of the multitude as her Son was thus elevated above them the blasphemies that were then uttered by the High Priest and the rabble. As soon as she saw the soldiers withdraw from the cross, she hastened with her companions to take her position at its foot.
With eyes streaming with tears, she gazes upon the agonized face of her dying Son, upon His brow drenched with blood from the thorny crown, upon His eyes dim with the excess of His pain, upon His pale lips, parched with the consuming thirst attendant on His great loss of blood. She would give a thousand lives, did she possess them, for the privilege of putting to His lips a draught of cold water to relieve His fevered mouth and throat; but even this poor consolation is denied her. Jesus knows full well the agonizing desires of her devoted heart; and from His cross He casts upon her a look of tender pity. It is then that, commending her to the care of St. John, He leaves her as a precious legacy to all His followers until the end of time. In that supreme moment she becomes, in truth, our Mother, our mediator, our intercessor with her Divine Son.
Soon after this, Our Lord gives expression to the bitterest anguish of His heart in that piteous cry: ” My God! My God! why hast Thou forsaken me?” These appealing words reveal to us the secret of His intense agony in the Garden of Gethsemani, of His torments on the cross. His keenest suffering is caused by His apparent abandonment by His beloved Father. Unconsoled and unsupported, He is left alone to battle with the powers of earth and hell, at the mercy of the spirits of darkness, only such aid being rendered as is necessary to prolong His life until His sacrifice shall reach its supreme consummation in death. This is that poignant anguish which draws forth the bitter cry: “My God! My God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
Now nature, less insensible than man, commences to manifest her horror at the spectacle of a God crucified by His creatures. The sun begins to withdraw its light from the heavens; an awe-inspiring pall of darkness settles down upon that blood-stained city. Violent convulsions of the earth are felt; Calvary’s rocks are rent; the veil of the Temple, which hides the Holy of Holies from the gaze of the people, is torn asunder, and the dead arise from their graves and appear to many.
The vast multitude on Calvary, who have gathered there to gloat over the death agony of their innocent Victim, hasten to leave that dreadful scene. Hushed now are the blasphemies, the imprecations, the mockeries of the rabble! In terror and confusion, they flee over the quaking ground through a darkness which has now grown intense and awful. A horrible fear assails them. May we not believe that they then began to realize the enormity of their crime, and feeling that they were indeed guilty of deicide, were moved to exclaim with Longinus: ” Indeed, this was the Son of God!” (Mark xv. 39.)
Only a few remained to witness the end of the great tragedy. And now the afflicted Mother and her faithful attendants draw nearer to the cross whereon hangs the world’s Redeemer. Again is heard the voice of the dying Saviour: “All is consummated.” Having commended His soul to His heavenly Father, He yielded up His spirit.
A little later, the centurion pierced Our Lord’s dead body with a lance, and from the wound there issued forth water and blood, thus testifying that the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the ever-flowing fountain of divine love and mercy, was opened to all mankind.
Still later, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took down His sacred body and placed it for a few moments in the arms of His afflicted Mother. Poor Mother! with what looks of silent agony you gazed on the mangled body of your adorable Son! Removing the cruel crown of thorns from His blessed brow, Mary placed it, with the sacred nails, in her heaving bosom, close to her immaculate heart.
Not long after, the dead Christ was removed by Joseph of Arimathea and laid “in his own new monument, which he had hewed out in a rock.” (Matt, xxvii. 60.) A great stone was rolled to the door of the sepulcher, and Joseph went his way, leaving Mary Magdalen and the other Mary sitting beside the tomb.
Thus ends the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery. Here, at the door of Christ’s sepulcher, let us kneel with these holy women and ask of our crucified Lord the grace to bear our crosses unto death in meek resignation to His adorable will. Let us resolve to be ever faithful to His teachings and commandments — to follow closely in His footsteps up the bloodstained mountain of self-sacrifice, and, having died with Him upon Golgotha, merit one day to rise with Him to a happy and glorious eternity.
(From The Treasures of the Rosary, by Fr Charles Hyacinth McKenna O.P., written 1835; edited by P.J. Kenedy and Sons, New York, 1917.)