Monday, March 19, 2007

Arma Christi

Christ was born to die.

From the very first moment we are schooled in the Catholic religion, we have always been taught that Jesus, the Son of God, was destined to die. We are bombarded with the many verses from the Old Testament, which pre-figure His miraculous birth; His rejection by His own people; His agony and suffering; His being despised, mocked, beaten and ridiculed by the bloodthirsty crowd. His was a story marked by the greatest of sorrows. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, Jesus was not the divine warrior-Messiah, born of kings and ruler of the powers of the world that the Jewish populace expected Him to be. Rather, He was the complete opposite: a commoner, having been born in a filthy manger with beasts for companions. His birth was not met with jubilation; we know for a fact that He was the main reason why Herod ordered the slaughter of the Israeli firstborn. Our Lord was born in a time of tribulation and distress, baptized by fire and adversity, no glorious warlord but a peasant carpenter.

When the Child grew up, He took his place among the men of His society. Like any Jew, He would have been circumcised; He would have visited the Temple as well, and that He did, even wandering away from His earthly, foster parents. Much of what we know about Him during these days is shrouded in secrecy; but we do know from Scripture that He grew up in wisdom and grace, and was found favorable to the LORD. When He had finally reached manhood, the Boy took up His father Joseph's trade. He must have been quite an excellent carpenter; one would expect nothing less from the Son of God Himself. Like us, He too cried, felt sorrow, fell ill and got impatient; but unlike us, the Boy never sinned.

He was probably very close to His Mother, as well. She it was who nursed Him, fed Him, clothed Him and served Him with her whole being. She loved Him as well, and He loved her. His father, too, would have been proud. He was a noble man, whose justice, purity, patience and humility knew no equal. Sadly, he never got to see Jesus grow into maturity. Somewhere in those hidden years, Joseph died. And perhaps he it was who held the singular greatest comfort a man can have, for he died in the loving arms of God Himself, and with him grieved the Virgin Mary, whose tears were a more soothing balm than anything we mortals can produce.

As the Boy grew older, His life began to take its first steps in the redemption of the human race. From the moment He came to the river Jordan to be baptized by His cousin John, when the Spirit of God descended upon Him, He knew there was to be no turning back. For the next three years of His life, He practiced His public ministry, ministering to the apathetic, the zealous, the sinner, the saint, the wounded, the healed, the virtuous and the vicious. All of them came to Him. They listened to His words, and marveled at His wisdom.

The Pharisees eventually came to hear of this 'wonder worker'. These men, a 'brood of vipers' and a pack of 'whitewashed sepulchres' as He called them, were filled with envy and rage at His growing popularity. They resented how the crowds came to believe that He was the long-awaited Messias, and how they held Him in greater esteem than themselves. Their blood boiled at the thought of Him who dared to minister to Samaritans, their people's sworn enemy, and they vented their collective rage at this 'charlatan' who dared to call Himself God, Who had the gall to upbraid them of their errors, and who sacrilegiously vowed to destroy the Temple-- and rebuild it in three days' time.

They soon heard the news that He was coming to Jerusalem. And came the fateful day did. When He entered the Holy City, He was greeted with almost universal acclaim by its people. They beheld Him, a figure in white, Who rode a donkey as a sign of His humility. The prophecies of old were suddenly being fulfilled. Here is come the Saviour-- the Messias-- Who would deliver Jerusalem from her enemies, and Who would reign in glory as its rightful king and lord.

One of the first things He did upon entering the City was to cleanse the Temple of the myriad plagues that threatened it. Like a prophet of old, He seized arms and began to beat the merchants and simoniacs who dared to profane the House of God with their gluttonous trade. 'It is written, My house shall be called a house pf prayer!' And with that, the wicked men flew away from Him, melting like wax in the presence of the ardent fire that was now before them.

Eventually, the Pharisees caught up with Him. In a mock trial in a mock court, in the middle of the night where hidden things came to vivid life, they accused Him of blasphemy, sorcery, sacrilege and a myriad other accusations. The same people who had greeted Him five days earlier, who laid palm branches and shouted 'Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!' and who rightfully claimed Him as their king, now came up to Him with the most venomous of calumnies. They accused Him of sedition, of being a puppet and slave of the Babylonian Beast (Rome), and of being a liar. The same people who had welcomed Him with loving arms now sought to wrap those same arms around His neck.

The furor eventually came to the attention of the Roman authorities. In one of the greatest tragedies in human history, Pilate, who knew that Jesus had done no wrong, gave in to the bloodlust of the crowd. And the Pharisees incited the crowd to have Him crucified. 'Crucify Him!', they said. In the face of all these, after having endured a monstrous flogging which ripped flesh from His bones and left Him a mass of scarred, bloodied and broken pulp, He maintained an almost uncanny silence. See how He forgives--and loves us-- even to the point of death!

They load the Cross on His bruised and broken shoulders. It is heavy and big, even for a healthy and strong man. But He still carries it with love and devotion. Although He has practically been reduced into literally a bundle of sinew and bleeding orifices, and even though the weight of sin was crushing Him into oblivion, He knows that it is His duty to fulfill it. He knows there can be no escape now. And He knows that He cannot back down now.

Golgotha. The place of skulls. It is a cruel site, a barren and desolate patch of land atop a ragged hill. Here is the site of His death. He arrives soon enough, and the sight of that dry patch of land was almost a relief to Him. The Roman soldiers, exceedingly cruel even in their own day, strip Him of His garments. The crown of thorns they had forced onto His head cause blood to pour down His face. His body is half-alive and half-dead, but more dead than alive. They push Him onto the cross, and they nail His hands and feet. The nails they use are no mere ordinary nails-- on the contrary, they are more akin to spikes. The cruel iron nails dug onto His flesh and pierced His bones. He is now a wailing piece of meat, yet even in this condition, He ha the gall to forgive them. 'Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.'

His mother arrives soon, and she is devastated at the sight of her son. She beheld Him now, literally a bloody, gore-dripping mass of broken and beaten flesh, cruelly nailed to an even crueler cross; condemned like a common criminal, yet debased and humiliated lower than dung itself. Her tears stream down her face, and it is as if a sword had pierced her own heart.

Then, after more than three hours hanging in that awful beam, He expires. He surrenders His soul to God, His Father. 'Tetelestai-- It is accomplished!' He pauses one more time. And with a heavy heart, He says 'Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit'. And with these words, He breathes His last. The sky darkens. The earth trembles. The world is plunged in darkness.

Yet, in that dead hour, He has achieved His greatest victory. By His death, He has forever won for us the price of eternal life; we who have crucified, mocked, flogged and humiliated Him-- we who lacked the courage to speak out against the terrible injustice being levied against this Man-- have been bought with the blood of God Himself. We have been ransomed from the pain of everlasting fire.

The nails, the wood of the cross, the flagella, the crown of thorns, the ladder, the sponge, the spear. All these call to mind the darkest hour of the human race. But in that blackest of hours, the light of Christ shone forth, forever dispelling the darkness. By His death, we are free. He has laid waste to the strongholds of the Enemy and He has put the Wicked One's works to destruction. He has plundered the armouries of darkness and has broken the iron bars of its gates. By His death, He has conquered Death itself. And by rising from destruction, He has given us new life.

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