A Special Feast Day – The Solemn Commemoration of the Passion
Today, the Friday before Ash Wednesday, the Passionist community celebrates a feast that is not on the Church’s universal calendar. While it is a feast day unique to the Passionists I invite you to celebrate it and share its history and spirit.
The readings for this Feast Day are the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant, (Isaias 53:1-12), ‘Who could tell what we have heard….By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself’. The second reading (Hebrews 2:9-18), tells us, ‘Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, Jesus too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could take away all the power of the devil, who had power over death…’. John’s gospel (19:17-30), the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary standing near him, and Jesus’ death.
The celebration of this feast right before the beginning of Lent should raise a question.
Why celebrate now what Lent will lead us to, the Triduum of our Lord’s death and resurrection? Besides Good Friday there is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross which is very similar? On a Friday before Lent, it may seem out of place to gather at table for a festive meal. Why celebrate this feast today? An answer I have heard put forth shows the spirit of their feast that may help us on our Lenten journey.
The early Passionists lived in Italy and ministered in an area called the Maremma. If you Google the Maremma you find no end of invitations to an area of Italy not so well known – many vineyards (of course), first class hotels and a beautiful geography. But after the fall of the Roman Empire this are became the wild west of Italy, the refuge of bandits, and because of it being largely a swamp, a breeding ground for mosquitos and Malaria. Malaria at that time was thought to come from the fetid air of the swamps. Among these swamps the poor eked out a living. This was the region where the family of Maria Goretti lived. In the 1930’s the swamps were drained and the area reformed. It was in the end of the 1700’s that the first Passionist missionaries worked in the Maremma, walking to the villages to give Lenten missions, preaching Christ Crucified and fulfilling our 4th vow, to promote devotion of the Passion of Christ. They invited these neglected people to know mystery of God’s love revealed in the Passion.
This work was difficult and frustrating for them. Things did not change among the poor. As the missionaries returned to places that became familiar, they didn’t have success stories. Some did not look forward to a demanding and unrewarding job. So, it was as a reminder and anticipation of the victory and hope of the Passion that the early Passionists would celebrate before setting out on their work. It was to encourage them.
For us…Lent is a treasure. Unfortunately, treasures are often guarded by dragons. We may not feel like such an adventure. A visit to the swamp? Not inviting either. But Ash Wednesday shows us the support of the community, all those with marks on their forehead. And routine, been there done that. The liturgy is our teacher, she goes in circles, deepening and surprising. We dance and dine. I’m sure the Maremma people danced – good Italians. We dine. May our festive dining linger into our fasting dining.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is a member of Immaculate Conception Community in Jamaica, New York.