Passion Sunday

Christ of Saint John of the Cross (

The liturgical use of Scripture is by juxtaposition, i.e., an Old Testament text will be placed beside—juxtaposed to—one from the New Testament, the former being recognized as a prophecy pointing to Jesus. Today, for instance, a beautiful passage from Jeremiah, about God’s putting a new law within us, writing it on our hearts,[1] is a promise that finds its fulfilment in the closing section of the Gospel, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all men to myself.”[2] The connection between the two is not immediately apparent, but a moment’s reflection can uncover a link. They have an element in common, viz., the motive, the driving force that directs us towards Christ crucified; for that motive is none other than the new, inner law described by Jeremiah and which we recognize as being the Holy Spirit himself.

Both the Old and the New Testaments witness to this fact. First, we read in the prophecy of Ezekiel: “[The Lord God says,] I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and to be careful to observe my ordinances.”[3] And then Jesus, as I say, fulfils this prophecy by bestowing the Holy Spirit on every baptized person: “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth. . . . you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”[4] Saint Paul confirms what Jesus said: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?”[5] Thus, it is the Holy Spirit who inspires the actions of the faithful from within, just as he did with Jesus who, Saint Luke tells us, was guided by the Spirit: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. . . . And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.”[6] In his account, Saint Mark uses a stronger word: Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness.[7] And thus we recognize that it is that same Holy Spirit that drives us irresistibly towards Jesus lifted up. In other words, we are governed from within by the new law of grace.

We are today, it must be admitted, often oblivious of this indwelling of the Spirit. Nevertheless, when you think about it, something of that sort really does exist, even in the natural order, i.e., apart from the workings of grace. For there is a transcendent reality and, as human beings endowed with a soul, we may well expect to have experienced this spiritual realm. And, in fact, everyone does so in the area of morality, for a discernment of what is good as opposed to what is evil is not determined by mere physical fact; the moral order takes us outside the material world. Revelation itself affirms this observation, for Scripture portrays man as being in contact with good—and evil—spirits. I’m thinking of what Jesus said about guardian angels: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.”[8] But there is also the phenomenon of demonic possession, as in Matthew 8: “That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the [evil] spirits with a word.[9] And so we find across the New Testament an expansion of the prophecy of Jeremiah with which we began today’s Mass: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” Combining these statements, we may assert that the new law is essentially the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, not dominating but in a conversation that leads us to higher levels of virtue—the angelic—and turning us away from the allurements of vice—the demonic.

This understanding of the human condition, what I may call an anthropology, was characteristic of the earliest period of Christianity. A vivid instance of this approach to the Christian life is found in a book that was much resorted to by the early Church: The Shepherd of Hermas, dating from around A.D. 150.[10] An odd book in many ways, it portrays an old woman who grows younger at each appearance, an angel who acts as a shepherd (whence the title), a series of grafts onto a giant willow tree, a tower rising out of the water, a mountain range with each peak different from the others. But its significance for us this afternoon is its view of the human condition, what I call its anthropology, and specifically, its “two-spirit anthropology” by which he describes our intercourse with things of the spirit.

There are two angels with [every] man—one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity. . . The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When, therefore, he ascends into your heart, immediately he talks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and of every righteous deed and glorious virtue. . . . But the angel of iniquity is wrathful, and bitter, and foolish. When anger comes upon you, or harshness, know that he is in you; . . . be a man or woman ever so bad, yet, if the works of the angel of righteousness ascend into his heart, he must do something good.[11]

Remarkably, we can describe Jesus himself in terms of this two-spirit anthropology. His perfection, i.e., his complete conformity to his Father’s will, means that he was in interior conversation with only the Holy Spirit; Satan had no foothold in him: “Begone, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord God and him only shall you serve.’” The Shepherd of Hermas expresses it in this way: “God made the Holy Spirit to dwell in flesh [of his Son], which was nobly subject to that Spirit, walking religiously and chastely, in no respect defiling the Spirit.”[12]

Well, we have received at baptism this very Spirit. But The Shepherd adds to this fact a solemn warning: the quiet promptings of the Spirit are easily silenced: “The delicate spirit is unaccustomed to dwell with an evil spirit or with hardness, will depart and seek gentleness and quietness.”[13] Lent is, or should be a time, to quiet the distracting noises that dominate us each day—those of the internet and other technological perversities—in order to respond to that delicate spirit. For only in the silence of prayerful thought can the quiet promptings of the Spirit be heard and acted upon. The result will be a positive response to the invitation of Jesus, who would draw all people to himself.

[1] Jer 31.33.

[2] Jn 12.32.

[3] Ez 36.27.

[4] Jn 14.16-17.

[5] 1 Cor 6.19.

[6] Lk 4.

[7] Mk 1.12.

[8] Matt 18.10.

[9] Matt 8.16.

[10] Its authority was such that an early copy of the Bible

, the Codex Sinaiticus, contain it as part of the NT.

[11] The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate VI, chapter 2.

[12] Ibid., Similitude V, 6.

[13] Ibid., Mandate V, chapter 2.