Friday, March 22, 2013

Love Surpassing the Power of Human Telling

Second Station of the Cross, Jerusalem.
          Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
          Thy too rigid sinews bend;
          For awhile the ancient rigor
          That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
          And the King of heavenly beauty
          On thy bosom gently tend!
-4th Verse of Lustris sex qui jam peractis,
Passiontide Hymn of Lauds

The Christian life is very much about bending our stiffened boughs and letting humility restore suppleness to the sinews of our inner being and opening us to Love.

As we go through Passiontide and into Holy Week, the antiphons, chapters, and versicles of the Divine Office continue to work away at our callousness. For Terce on Palm Sunday, we hear this little chapter, which stays with us in an abbreviated form through Wednesday of Holy Week:

My brothers, have among yourselves the same mind as Christ Jesus: though by nature He was God, He did not consider His equality with God a condition to be clung to, but emptied Himself by taking the nature of a slave, fashioned in the likeness of men, and recognized by outward appearance as man.

The little chapter for the second nocturn of Vigils for Monday through Wednesday will pick up the same theme:

    Christ humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross.

Hymns and chapters disappear for the office of the Triduum, but this piece stays with us, growing over each of the three days.

On Thursday at the end of Lauds we sing, “Christ, for our sake, became obedient unto death.” On Friday, we add, “Even the death of the cross.” Saturday concludes with, “Wherefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.”

Repetition and addition wear away at complacency. The texts of Passiontide do their work, recounting the Savior’s sufferings as he speaks to us in the versicles recounting his days as the Man of Sorrows. After his abandonment and suffering have sunk in, the office of the Triddum gives us this one thought for three days: Christ, who was God, humbled and emptied himself and accepted a common criminal’s death in agony and shame for our sake in perfect selflessness and love.

What more could soften our hearts and rebuke our pride? What have we accomplished or done that could ever match this? What hurt or slight is so severe that we can turn our eyes away from the Savior’s example of love perfected in humility and humility perfected by love?

For awhile the ancient rigor
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend!

For these days, we tend that broken body and are filled again with love for Love incarnate. In the annual retelling of the Romance of the Passion, we relive the doubt, separation, horror, and loss and, when our hearts have been broken so that there is once again room for Him to enter, we receive our heart’s desire anew at the empty tomb.

Easter and Pentecost will call us beyond this intimacy to practice our new-found love with those less lovely, just as they must do with us. Next year we will need this week again and again the texts will do their work to remake our hearts if we let them. Frederick Littledale’s translation of Bianco da Siena’s hymn to the Holy Spirit captures both the ardor and the need, which we can almost lose in the beauty of the Vaughn Williams tune:

    Come down, O love divine,
    seek thou this soul of mine,
    and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
    O Comforter, draw near,
    within my heart appear,
    and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

    O let it freely burn,
    till earthly passions turn
    to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
    and let thy glorious light
    shine ever on my sight,
    and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

    Let holy charity
    mine outward vesture be,
    and lowliness become mine inner clothing;
    true lowliness of heart,
    which takes the humbler part,
    and o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

    And so the yearning strong,
    with which the soul will long,
    shall far outpass the power of human telling;
    for none can guess its grace,
    till Love create a place
    wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.