Meditations for the Triduum Mortis

Today is my birthday, and I am wearing black.

You’ve probably noticed this already, but I tend to like to think about suffering. I do not feel strange or maudlin about this, because I think most American Christians don’t think about it enough. In fact, I’ve been thinking about how one would cultivate a church centered around dealing with suffering as the way of life and peace through the cross.

Today, Jared and I are serving at a three-hour Good Friday service. The first hour is hymns and readings from the Old Testament; the second hour is stations of the cross; and the third hour is solemn reproaches, veneration of the cross, and Eucharist.

Growing up, I didn’t really understand the veneration of the cross. I remember attending a service once where we went up and kissed the glazed feet of a crucifix, big enough to be unnerving but smaller than life size. The Jesus hanging on it was about the size of a Halfling. It was odd, but having been raised Roman Catholic, I’m inclined to be accepting of such things.

One night, not too long ago, I was sad about the things I am sad about sometimes. Then Jared shared something with me that changed everything. At a retreat, he had undergone healing prayer – an exercise when you visit painful memories and see where Jesus was in that situation. He had revisited the worst night of our married life.

When he started talking, I expected Jesus’ presence in that memory to be one of comfort – of holding us in our pain, being there with us – the truth being that he hadn’t abandoned us.

That’s not what Jared said.

He saw Jesus suffering with us.

As soon as he said that, I was back at that night in my memory. In that little basement bedroom that barely fit our oddly-shaped bed and dressers. And I saw Jesus – not half-size, but double-size – hanging on the cross. His cross was too big for the room, but it went through the floor and a bit through the ceiling, as if their presence was no obstruction. I can see the thorns cutting into his brow, his skin torn all over from whips, his downcast head bearing the sin of the whole world. That sin which includes all the suffering that proceeds from sin. That suffering which includes all the suffering in that room.

Suddenly, I completely understood why you would kiss a crucifix.

See, there’s this funny idea that Jesus suffered so we don’t have to. That’s true inasmuch as he took our condemnation, that those who believe in him won’t have to follow him to the depths of hell. It’s also true that without Jesus’ work on the cross, our suffering doesn’t mean anything; it just sucks. Even following his example of suffering for others does not, in itself, make us like him – the grace made available through the cross works through those experiences to change us.

It’s more like, Jesus suffered so that we could. At least, that’s what I’ve been thinking lately; I haven’t quite worked out how to articulate it. Jesus made a path through hell so that we wouldn’t end up there, but we still have to follow him through it. Some of that is in service to bring others to Jesus, generally along that same path; some of that is to make us strong enough to do so. Without him, my suffering is meaningless. With him, my suffering still should not have been, but it is in him. Being in him, it puts me with him.

During these three days of death, in Latin called the Triduum Mortis – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday – we particularly remember Jesus’ suffering. In so doing, we sing a lot of hymns about it. Many of them seem to be trying to evoke pity, reminding me to feel bad that Jesus is suffering instead of me. That’s all well and good, and without his suffering in my place, my entire life would be pointless. But increasingly, as we sing these songs, I identify more with Jesus than with my distance from him. On Palm Sunday we sang “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And I found myself thinking, actually, yes. More and more, I was there. Even when I identify with Peter in his betrayal, I remember that he ended up following Jesus to his own cross.

So I’m wearing black on my birthday. We were born through suffering, and that will be true at every step of the way. But it has a point. It has been redeemed. Because Sunday’s coming.

4 thoughts on “Meditations for the Triduum Mortis

  1. Ruth Ann says:

    Happy birthday, Rebecca.

    I have spent the past several years giving a lot of thought to suffering and it’s role in the lives of Christians. I have gone through (and am still going through) some gut-wrenching trials for the past 14 years, and I have instinctively felt that there is a very real purpose in these trials. I must say that the Catholic Church that I grew up in has given me more insights than Protestantism has. It seems that the typical attitude towards suffering in most Protestant circles is that you need to wriggle out of these trials – get counseling – fast more – confess your sin more – sin less -“positive confession” – etc. Pope John Paul wrote an encylical on suffering and insisted that suffering is “salvific” – or redemptive. And two days ago I read a quote from Norman Grubb (a Protestant) about suffering. It said, “Borne rebelliously it ‘works death’; borne courageously it purifies; borne vicariously it helps redeem.”

    I have grown much spiritually through my suffering, sometimes I even embrace it. Jesus gives meaning to it.

    (There are times I long to return to my Catholic roots – especially on Good Friday. I long to get in that long line of saints going up to kiss the feet of Jesus. I long for the reverence displayed during this “Holy Week” of the church. I went to the Maundy Thursday service at our church last night and was one of a handful of people. How very sad.)

    My life verse has become, “My soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:8). I have come to know Him in a way I never would have without the suffering. To God be the glory.

    I just wanted to share these disconnected thoughts with you. I will be with you in spirit on Easter Sunday when it is declared, “HE is risen!” And we reply, “He is risen indeed!” Because of Him, we live.

    Blessings – Ruth Ann

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  2. Seretha Curry says:

    I am reminded of the Gospel Reading for the Daily Office today:
    John 13:36-38 (NRSV)

    36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.

    The Word of the Lord.
    Thanks be to God.

    “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” I think that’s the real message of the New Testament concerning the Cross of Christ. In our flesh, we can’t follow him. We can’t follow him at all until his work is complete in his death and resurrection. But then when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Church at Pentecost, they are empowered to follow Jesus in the way of the cross to bring the good news to the end of the earth. I think that’s the only thing that makes sense of all Jesus’ admonitions to carry our crosses: And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

    I think that’s also why the Gospels talk about the disciples and apostles being sent out as sheep/lambs in the midst of wolves, but that thought is more about how suffering and ministry are related.

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  3. noel says:

    yup.
    “Jesus didn’t just die our death, we actually and truly died with Him.”
    ~Greg Pfeifer, meditation on the 7th word of Jesus, Good Friday 2012

    “The whole church, represented by Mary and the beloved disciple, was in fact, constituted right there at the foot of the cross.”
    ~meditation of the 3rd word of Jesus, Good Friday 2012

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  4. Linda says:

    My mom used to tell me, “When you have children, and they suffer because someone was mean to them, or something or disappointing happened at school or an activity, DO NOT try to make them feel better. Don’t offer them food or try to make it up to them. Just be there with them. Acknowledge their pain; be there with them. Let them GROW through it. I saw the wisdom in this, and my mom was good about letting me experience life without fear and letting me live my own life.

    But of course as a mother myself this was/is SO hard to do. I was not a worry wort, and I did not go over-board on safety issues. But when Rebecca fretted about a friendship, or Leah worried HOW to get a friend, when Hunter wondered why no one ever invited him over, or when Bethany cried over a dead animal, I DID want to comfort them and take away their pain! How to council people??? When do you just sit with them and let them know quietly that you love them? When to give actual advise? When to shake some sense into them? It is one of the trickiest things about parenting/friending.

    I do think that when you allow someone to embrace their pain, it does help us live in less fear. When I finally got the trick of living without worry over failure and pain, I DID live a happier more peaceful life. (Between the ages of 35-45) So yes, following Jesus through His suffering is important and profound. Thanks for expressing your thoughts on a deep topic!

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