“Yours ways, O God, are holy,
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders.
You showed your power among the peoples.
Your strong arm redeemed your people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph.” - Psalm 77
In speaking with an old friend earlier this week, I was reminded of how hard Holy Week can hit. It seems like every Lent, our resolve to really put our full effort in preparing for the Triduum is confronted with the reality that we can’t choose our crosses. He commented to me that he felt he was in a good place going into this week, and then boom - Monday happened. Fire, gasoline, explosion - multiple layers of complicated - just to add to the incendiary nature of evil lurking. I often say to myself and to those around me, “It must be Holy Week.” This is no quip, rather a recognition that Jesus knows what we need. He knows what we don’t need. He knows that if there was ever a time to take something to the cross, that time is now: Holy Week. And in this particular historical moment where there seems to be this ever present suffering on scales most of us haven’t seen in our lifetime, it makes me wonder even more…
Do I get to choose my own cross? Do we get to choose what crosses our loved ones can bear? Should we forcefully impede the cross that is divinely ordained to facilitate our growth in holiness?
I want to leave my cross off to the side right now and say it once more, I really love teaching. It has been such a rejoicing and rejuvenating experience to teach the courses I teach. The poor eleventh graders are with me for two of their courses, but I get so jazzed up each morning when I start reviewing the text we are about to discuss - an excitement which evidently alarms them at times. You parents do good work! I am so impressed by how these young people engage in serious dialogue about serious ideas. For example, in Humanities Seminar we are reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Aristotle discusses what he calls “relative goodness” - which is to ask - how do we determine what is good when there are multiple goods involved? All men aim for what is or what seems to be good, and all persuasion is fundamentally an act of selecting the best means by which the good sought after is achieved. And I left class that day so grateful that our students are not numb to these weighty concerns. The world weighs a lot. The cross was so heavy it knocked Jesus down three times. How do we carry this weight around with us?
On another note, I’ve been reading a lot, you see, to prepare for class. More than I’ve read in a long time. And the more I read, the more I see traces of answers in our great tradition. So if you don’t mind, I wanted to give you some notable thoughts surrounding the cross from modern sages.
Whittaker Chambers stepped forward as a witness in the famous Alger Hiss case of 1948, claiming that the high-ranking State Department official had been a spy for the Soviet Union. We read an excerpt from his autobiography in US History III, wherein he writes a letter to his children. This letter is a penetrating analysis of the dangers of Communism, an ideology that rejects God, accepts only the material world, and convinces man that he is both radically in control and in another sense out of control. Chambers claims that the only way a self-professed Communist can fully disavow this inhumane ideology is by letting the screams resulting from the constant abductions shock him out of numbness. His final words to his children are an appropriate reflection for how to deal with the inescapable pain that Communism purports to eradicate from the human condition - without God:
“My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening. In this book, I am giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha - the place of skulls. This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will that life is pain, that each of us hangs upon the cross himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.”
No surprise here: I am now going to quote Benedict XVI, my go to read for Lent. What does it mean to say Christ died for our sins? Well, it means that man’s preconceived notion of control and self-determination fails to make us wise. In one sense, God’s humility is what caused the cross.
“Jesus' death is of another kind: it is occasioned, not by the presumption of men, but by the humility of God. It is not the evitable consequence of false hubris, but the fulfillment of a love in which God himself comes down to us, so as to draw us back up to himself. Jesus’ death is rooted, not in the sentence of expulsion from Paradise, but in the Suffering Servant Songs. It is a death in the context of his service of expiation - a death that achieves reconciliation and becomes a light for the nations.”
And for the final word, Caryll Houselander. Today is after all Spy Wednesday (the sometimes neglected precursor to the Triduum), a day that marks the betrayal of Judas. How do we handle our own betrayals? Isn’t a betrayal just another cross? This prayer speaks to the cross of parenthood, childhood, family life, and our own personal insecurities. We may not get the cross of war, but we still have the cross of our humanity.
“Lord, let me receive the cross gladly; let me recognize your cross in mine, and that of the whole world in yours. Do not let me shut my eyes to the magnitude of the world’s sorrow or to the suffering of those nearest to me. Do not let me shrink from accepting my share in that which is too big for me, and do not let me fail in sympathy for that which seems trivial.
Let me realize that because you have made my suffering yours and given it the power of your love, it can reach everyone, everywhere—those in my own home, those who seem to be out of my reach—it can reach them all with your healing and your love. Let me always remember that those sufferings known only to myself, which seem to be without purpose and without meaning, are part of your plan to redeem the world.
Make me patient to bear the burdens of those nearest at hand, to welcome inconvenience for them, frustration because of them. Let me accept their temperaments as they are, nurse them in sickness, share with them in poverty, enter into their sorrows with them.
Teach me to accept myself—my own temperament, my temptations, my limitations, my failures, the humiliation of being myself, as I am.
Allow me, Lord, all my life long to accept both small suffering and great suffering, certain that both, through your love, are redeeming the world.
And in communion with all men, and above all with you, let me accept joyfully death and the fear of death— my death and the deaths of those whom I love—not with my will but with yours, knowing that you have changed sorrow into joy, and that you have changed death to life.”
In my own prayer life, I find it harder and harder to recall everything I have to pray for - because to be honest - I sense that I have too much to pray for! But even that is not something for me to choose, and so I want you all to know that when I go into that Triduum on Holy Thursday, I won’t forget any of you, nor any of your crosses. I am going to take all of it to the holiest of woods upon which our salvation hung.
I wish all of you a prayerful Triduum and a blessed Easter! The good news is that when we return, we are in the season of Easter for almost the whole remainder of our academic year!
-Derek Tremblay, Headmaster