The Fourth Sunday of Lent [C]
Josh 5:9,10-12 + 2 Cor 5:17-21 + Lk 15:1-3,11-32
March 6, 2016
Of all the seasons of the Church year, Lent is the most athletic. Lent is a time for stretching ourselves—challenging ourselves—spiritually and morally. This stretching may take many forms. For example, a man (more so, I’d be willing to say, than a woman) might find it a stretch to reflect on the importance of emotions in his moral life and prayer life. On average, men are less successful than women at integrating their emotions with the other dimensions of their lives, including the spiritual life.
In this regard, one of the great treasures of our Catholic Faith is a work written by the Catholic husband, father, statesman and martyr, Saint Thomas More. He wrote this work, titled The Sadness of Christ, in the Tower of London before he was executed. In this work, he meditates on the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
One of St. Thomas More’s most striking questions in this work concerns the contrast between the range of emotions that Jesus experienced during His Passion, and the experience of many of the Church’s martyrs as they faced their impending executions. Those holy martyrs joyfully rushed to their deaths, eager to be torn to pieces by lions or the like. Jesus, on the other hand, felt “the most bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”. Given this contrast, Jesus appears much weaker than the martyrs. But how could Jesus—our Lord and our God—be less holy than His own saints?
The answer, of course, is that Jesus was not less holy than His saints. The problem lies in our falling into the trap of thinking that feelings make one weak, or that some feelings are superior to others. This trap is set for us all the time by movies and advertisements that present a false picture of human nature. One falsehood that’s often presented about human life is that we’re meant always to pursue pleasure, and always to turn away from suffering. This is false. In fact, to think that you’re always meant to pursue pleasurable feeling, and always to turn away from suffering, is a poison. The Crucifix is the antidote.
Nonetheless, many people use this so-called “pleasure principle” to guide the decisions of their adult lives. A famous example would be the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel passage. The difference between the Prodigal Son and so many of us today is that the son at last came to his senses. He realized that pleasurable emotions, as good as they are, are not ends in themselves, and because they’re not, they cannot lead you to lasting happiness.
Reflecting back, then, on the contrast between Jesus in His Passion and those joyful martyrs, the martyrs seem more virtuous or holy than Jesus because of the positive emotions they experienced in the face of death. But here you need to ask two questions. Why did the martyrs experience joy in the face of death? And why did Jesus experience such seemingly negative emotions—and to such a profound degree—in the face of His death, so much so that He sweat blood?
Those joyful martyrs were gifted saints. That is to say, they were given an extraordinary gift of grace. Like all gifts that are given to saints, it was not given them for their own sakes. Their own reward would come after death, not as they faced death. Their gift of joy was given them so that their joy might inspire others who could see in their joy their faith in the power of Jesus over death. This gift of joy was extraordinary. It is not given to all martyrs, or even to all saints to such an extraordinary degree. What is given to every saint is the gift of faith. This faith is faith in the saving power of Jesus’ Cross. That Cross of Jesus is what you need to pursue throughout life, not pleasure.
So, given that those martyrs received extraordinary grace, what can we say about Jesus’ sorrowful Passion? Why did Jesus experience such “bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”? In the writings of the Church’s saints about Jesus, there’s an old saying: “What was not assumed, was not redeemed.” You see, in the early Church there were heretics who promoted the false ideas that Jesus was not a real human being, or that He had some human qualities but not a full human nature. After all, these heretics reasoned, what would Jesus need with a human mind when He had divine Intelligence? What would Jesus need with a human will when he possessed the divine Will? Why would He be cursed with the negative emotions?
To the contrary, the Church declared that Jesus had a full and complete human nature: He possessed a human mind, will, intellect, and experienced the full range of emotions. Had he not possessed these elements of human nature, they would not have been redeemed by His death and Resurrection. Jesus could, of course, have chosen always to work through His divine Will. Sometimes He did: when, for example, He walked on water or multiplied the five loaves of bread. But why didn’t He use that divine Power to free Himself from the nails of the Cross? Why didn’t He rescue Himself from the Cross? Why? What is the answer? The answer, of course, is “you”: He suffered betrayal, torture and death for you, not for Himself.
It’s in this light that we look on Jesus suffering His Passion and death, especially when we pray the Stations of the Cross, or read one of the four Passion accounts from the Gospel. Through this light we see Jesus choosing to suffer the emotions that St. Thomas More describes as “the most bitter feelings of sadness, fear and weariness in His mind”. Jesus could have chosen to experience the same joy as those martyrs who rushed to their deaths. But Jesus chose to experience the emotions that you and I, poor ordinary sinners, feel when experiencing betrayal, torments, and suffering of all sorts. Jesus chose to identify with us: to experience weakness, even though He could instead have experienced the joy that comes from divine grace.
Christ did this to redeem our emotions. Emotions, in and of themselves, are not choices, and therefore cannot be sins. In the Sacrament of Confession, people often confess the “sin of anger”, but the emotion of anger in itself cannot be a sin. It certainly can be a sin to nurture anger, or to provoke it unnecessarily, or to use anger as leverage or as a motive for an unjust response. But in and of itself, no emotion can be a sin.
Anger, of course, is one of those emotions that’s commonly considered a “bad emotion”. But Jesus Himself experienced the emotion of anger in the Temple, when He saw the money-changers profaning His Father’s House. Furthermore, Jesus acted from His anger, but He did so justly. His action in driving out the money-changers was just because all His emotions—including His anger—were rightly ordered. It’s entirely possible for a person’s anger to be dis-ordered (for example, Person A says something that triggers anger, but the anger was caused by Event B that happened while Person A was somewhere else entirely). In such a case, actions that follow such anger may possibly be sinful. But even in such a case where an emotion is dis-ordered, it’s still an emotion which as such is not the matter for sin. What may be matter for sin is what follows.
The graces of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection are manifold. They not only have the power to “aim” and “order” our earthly lives towards Heaven. They also have the power to bring about order within us. Jesus chose to experience the poverty and weakness of our fallen human nature in order to redeem our fallen humanity in every aspect and dimension of human life, including our emotional lives. The graces of Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection are the wellspring of every true and lasting joy in life. So we rejoice that we have so great a Savior, and that He’s calling us—beckoning us—to worship Him at the foot of His Cross.
 Thomas More, The Sadness of Christ, 15.