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  • Writer's pictureChurch of St. Mark

From the Heart of the Shepherd

By Fr. David Hottinger, PES - Pastor

From the bulletin for the Palm Sunday (Mar 24, 2024)

Palm Sunday

The missal provides for last Friday’s Mass (5th Week of Lent) a rare alternative collect, which is the prayer said by the priest at the beginning of the Mass (before we sit for the readings): “O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ,” it prays, “grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.”

I couldn’t tell you why the editors provided that second option. Normally, the liturgy nods to the Blessed Virgin on Saturday, not Friday. Perhaps it reflects a longstanding tradition. In any case, how beautiful that on the cusp of Passion Week the Church casts her whole liturgical project in a Marian key: we are contemplating the Passion in imitation of Our Lady (who was among the first to contemplate it, and did so most fruitfully!) in order to cling to Christ more fully and grow in grace. Admiring Christ crucified with Mary at the foot of the Cross! That is what we aim to do especially throughout the sacred days of Holy Week. 

“That we may cling more firmly to Christ.” This is the purpose of our contemplation. Growth in grace will occur automatically, provided we cling to Him who is its fount and source. We don’t meditate on the Passion, therefore, primarily to experience sorrow. Or even to feel bad for having sinned. Naturally, these should be fruits of pondering all that Christ suffered (for us!). We must avoid the case of the wailing women of Jerusalem, who experienced sorrow and compassion but did so, as it were, stationary: we are not told that they followed Him on His way, or took their place at the foot of the Cross with the holy women. Their contemplation (it seems) did not lead them to cling to Christ more firmly. 

How, then, are we to contemplate in such a way that we are moved to embrace Christ (and His cross) “more firmly”? Love is the motor of human action. At least, the most powerful one. Sorrow for sins and fear of punishment can at times motivate us to make a change. But to cling to Christ with all our being and to persevere in doing so despite the cost… this is the work of love alone. Contemplation of the passion moves us to love Jesus when we realize that He endured all that for love of me. St. Paul grasped this when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live,yet  no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:19-20).

Once one begins to fathom the fathomless love Christ has for him or her in particular, the spontaneous response of our hearts (sufficiently softened by grace) is to love in return. “We love,” says St. John, “because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). St. Thomas Aquinas places this first among the saving effects of Christ’s passion: because of it, he says, “man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation” (Summa Theologica, III.46.3.). And Our Lord Himself explained, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…” (Jn 15:13-14). 

Beginning with today’s Gospel reading, we will have ample opportunity this week to contemplate all that Christ did and suffered for us, all that His love moved Him to embrace for our wellbeing. Let’s be careful not to engage the Holy Week rituals in a spirit of routine (“this is what we do each year, this is what the script commands us”) or mere sentimental spectating. I challenge us all to contemplate the Passion in the key of love, as lovers looking for signs of the Beloved’s regard for them. With a little help from the Spirit who leads us into all truth, we will be sure to be overwhelmed by the evidence and brought, with the Blessed Virgin, to embrace more firmly than ever the One who commands us to “remain in His love” (Jn 15:10) so that He might fill us to overflowing with the treasures of His grace and our joy, and His, might be complete!

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