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Week One - Christ Crucified: Compassion Poured Out
Read John 19: 28-37 (Online Bible Resource)
We begin this time of retreat by coming to the foot of the cross. Prayer with this scene as described by John the Evangelist has a rich heritage in our Christian tradition. For centuries Christians have reflected on the image of the piercing of the side of the crucified Jesus and the flow of blood and water from his side. Great theologians and spiritual writers have understood these words of Scripture to speak to us on many levels. In a special way they have come to see this Scripture text as communicating the life that comes to us from the crucified Christ.
At the precise moment that seems absolutely lifeless and godless, the life of God flows through Jesus to us. This is a moment that is infected with death. John recounts the brutal action of a soldier in thrusting a lance into the side of Jesus. Nevertheless, water in the Gospel of John is symbolic of the new life that Jesus offers to those who put their faith in him. It is symbolic of the Spirit that is poured forth at the death of Jesus. The stream of blood and water is no longer to be viewed as a horrific sign of death, but as a sign of the life that the death of Jesus brings.
In a thoughtful commentary on this Gospel scene (The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of John), Scripture scholar Donald Senior reflects on the final verse in this passage: “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”This verse is a quote from the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 12:10). In the Old Testament, this passage was connected with an outpouring of a spirit of compassion on the House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Senior points out that the citation of this prophetic verse suggests to you and to me that those who look on the crucified Jesus and see the flow of life-giving water and saving blood from his side will experience an outpouring of God’s compassion (p. 128). The compassion of God has been poured out upon us in the pierced Christ.
As I reflected on this Gospel scene, the face of a man whom I met when I was a college student came back to me. His name was George, and I got to know him when I was a college freshman at the University of Richmond. During my freshman year, I became involved in some volunteer work with people who lived in a poor, rooming house district of Richmond. George was a disabled person with a long list of challenges in his life. He suffered from a severe case of epilepsy that the doctors had difficulty controlling with the correct blend of medications. He was legally blind, though he could see well enough to get around and was able to read Braille. George also had some mental deficits, though he was sharper and more in touch than most people realized.
George lived month to month on a very limited disability income, barely managing to survive at some points. He never had anything extra in his pocket. He had also experienced the darker, more cruel side of life and human behavior. Years before I met him, as George was selling newspapers on a downtown street corner, someone robbed him of a few dollars. The thief hit George over the head with a pipe. That injury left lasting scars and made his epilepsy worse.
But George was also a real friend of God – a person of very deep faith in Christ. George was a churchgoing Methodist who would ride the bus downtown to his church each Sunday. He would dress up in his best shirt, pants and sports jacket, which usually did not match very well. (George never looked like he walked off the cover of GQ ). He would often tell me stories about his church. For example, he related to me a story about a time when his church was having a fund drive (Catholics are not the only ones who have fund drives!!), and he was somehow able to come up with $50 to donate to his church for a new pulpit light. He was so proud of that gift and happy to see that light every time he went into his church. He must have told me that story twenty-five times, but always with the same enthusiasm. When I would go to visit George, I would often find him sitting on the edge of his bed reading the New Testament from the large Braille volume that he kept in his room.
George kept up a regular conversation with the Lord throughout his life. Sometimes he would tell me about those conversations. Much of his prayer included praise and thanksgiving, despite the terribly difficult circumstances of his life. He would often say to me, “We need to praise the heavenly Father.”
George would also talk to me about “The Savior.” The Savior. That was his way of referring to Jesus in his often cryptic manner of speaking. He would talk about “the love of the Savior” on the cross, the love of the One who gave himself for us. This was simple, heartfelt language, unadorned by all of the theological subtleties in which I would be later schooled in graduate courses. George had great trust in Jesus his Savior. He often brought himself to the foot of the cross to speak to the crucified Christ. And his prayer beneath the cross seemed to give him life. George was a person who made many visits to the foot of the cross. He was someone who discovered the life and compassion that are poured out through the crucified Christ.
For a nineteen-year-old college student like me, George’s vibrant faith and his ongoing conversation with God made a lasting impression. I continued to visit George through the years when I would go home after I joined the Passionist community and was ordained a priest. George died about ten years ago. He was someone who knew firsthand the reality of the passion of Jesus in his own life. He experienced it in his body and his spirit. He was a person who came to the foot of the cross again and again to find new life. He discovered the compassion and care of God in his own life at that sacred place. George is part of my own spiritual journey, part of my vocation as a Passionist priest, and he will always have a place in my memory and my heart.
Each of us comes to this retreat with our own personal concerns and burdens. Each one of us has our own experience of the passion of Jesus in our lives. We bring with us those matters that weigh heavily on our hearts and minds – problems in our families, issues in our relationships with friends, concerns about school or work, decisions about our life paths, painful experiences of loss and disappointment. I invite you to begin this online retreat by coming to the foot of the cross and meeting the Lord Jesus at that place. Speak to the crucified Christ about those concerns and place them there, at the foot of his cross. Some years ago, Bishop Robert Morneau wrote a wonderful little article on prayer in which he enumerated ten principles of prayer. One of the simplest but most important principles was: “We must come as we are to the living God.” We are invited to come to the living God, and to come to Christ, as we are . Not as we hope to be some day, when we have it all figured out. Not as we think we should be. But as we are. So today come to the foot of the cross as you are.
I invite you, then, to begin this retreat by rereading John 19: 28-37. Use your imagination to place yourself at the cross and to picture this scene. As you do, speak to Christ in your own words. Tell him about what is on your heart and in your mind these days. Where is it that you need the new life offered by the crucified Christ? Where is it in your life that you are in particular need of Christ’s compassion? Speak to Christ about these concerns. And allow some quiet time for quiet with Christ. Listen to him; listen to the One through whom the compassion of God is poured out upon us.
Reflections for the week
Online Bible Resource: http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/
Tuesday – Pray Psalm 103. Read it out loud slowly, a couple of times. Spend some time with verse 13: "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Allow this image of God as a father or mother who cares for their children, to speak to your heart and mind. Pay attention also to other words or verses in this psalm that strike you. Ask God for a deeper insight into his compassion for you.
Wednesday – Read Ephesians 3: 14-21. Pay attention to the words:“and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Who are the people in your life who have helped you catch a glimpse of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”? Give thanks to God for these people. Ask Christ for a fuller knowledge of the depths of his love for you.
Thursday – Pray Psalm 51. This is the Bible’s most famous prayer of contrition, or repentance. This week we are focusing on the compassion of God poured out in the crucified Christ. Bring to Christ those areas of your life where you need his forgiveness and healing. Entrust the darker sides of your life to him with confidence and hope. Ask Christ for the grace you need to live your Christian life more authentically. You may wish to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation during these weeks of retreat.
Friday – Read Colossians 3: 12-15. This verse reminds us that we are “God chosen ones, holy and beloved.” As such, we are called to “clothe ourselves with compassion.” As we have focused on the compassion of God this week, ask Christ to illumine the ways in which he wishes to pour out his compassion on others through you. Is there someone in your life who needs to experience God’s compassion through you? The more we accept and become vessels of God’s compassion the more fully we are able to experience the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts (verse 15).