In his book Orthodoxy (1908), G.K. Chesterton explains the difference between the poet and the rationalist: ‘The poet only seeks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.’

There are ways to approach the Passion of Christ, and ways not to. The mysteries we approach in Holy Week are intense and profound, and if we don’t have the right guides for the journey, we’ll easily get lost. Like Virgil guiding Dante through the depths of hell, we need the right voices speaking to us, helping us, disposing us to receive the mystery properly.

The saints are a great set of guides because they know how to approach Christ: Personally. If we treat Christ like an object to be dissected, analysed, and understood through rational analysis alone, our heads will split with the effort. Like the poets, however, the saints sought to glimpse heaven, not fit it inside of their heads. They sought to hear heaven speak, not exhaust themselves in speech.

To read the saints is to see a number of themes emerge that can help us find our feet in the presence of such an immense mystery.

The mystery of salvation

St John Paul the Great, in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, spoke about the meaning of Good Friday with these words:

This is the definitive meaning of Good Friday: Man, you who judge God, who order Him to justify Himself before your tribunal, think about yourself, if you are not responsible for the death of this condemned man, if the judgment of God is not actually a judgment upon yourself. Consider if this judgments and its result – the Cross and then the Resurrection – are not your only way to salvation.’

St Bernard of Clairvaux, speaking to Christ, also said:

Your Passion is the ultimate refuge, a remedy that is unique . . . Unless your blood cries out on my behalf, I am not saved.’

Strangely, to contemplate Christ’s Passion is to contemplate the mystery of human sin and the mystery of salvation at the same time. Not only are we presented with the abject horror of crucifixion, and the revelation of human cruelty, we are also presented with the notion that by undergoing this, God was making a new path for us, forging a new humanity.

Why the Passion was even necessary is a question that saints and theologians have wrestled with for a long time. In one sense, with St Thomas Aquinas, we can suggest this: It wasn’t necessary. At least, it wasn’t necessary in the strict sense of it being the only option available. God, being infinitely resourceful, could have found another way to save us.

In fact, in his hymn, Adore te devote, Aquinas says:

. . . clean me, the unclean, with Your Blood, one drop of which can heal the entire world of all its sins.’

All it would have taken, Aquinas is suggesting, is one drop of Christ’s blood to cleanse the world of sin, such is the infinite worth of that single drop.

The Passion was clearly about more than simply forgiveness in the sense of someone letting go of a harboured anger, or a grudge (and the Passion certainly wasn’t about appeasing an angry God). It was about, in St Paul’s language, ‘new creation’ (2 Cor. 5:16). It was about Christ defeating the powers of darkness that held humanity in thrall:

so he got rid of the Sovereignties and the Powers, and paraded them in public, behind him in his triumphal procession’ (Col. 2:15).

It was about making possible a new humanity, no longer bound by the powers of sin and death.

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‘The Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio (1602)

The mystery of divine love

Why the extent of Christ’s sufferings, then? Crucifixion was, famously, one of the most horrifying deaths contrived in the mind of humanity. Why did Christ endure it? The answer given to us is mysterious: God wanted to demonstrate how much he loved us.

St Clare of Assisi asks us to ‘ponder his unspeakable love which caused him to suffer on the wood of the cross and to endure the most shameful kind of death.’

St Catherine of Siena, in one of her dialogues, imagines Jesus almost drunk with love:

And drunk as he was with love, he made a bath for you of his blood when this Lamb’s body was broke open and bled from every part … He was sold to ransom you with his blood. By choosing death for himself he gave you life.’

This wasn’t the suffering of a reluctant God, forced to clean up the mess humanity had made. It was the suffering of a loving God, a God who was desperate to reveal his love for his creation.

St Ambrose said:

He alone will redeem man, showing love greater even than that of brothers . . . But why will this man be the only redeemer? Because no one can equal him in the love he showed in laying down his life for his own poor servants.’

In some strange way, the Passion wasn’t simply motivated by love, but it accomplished what it did because of the love with which it was done. By atoning for sin, Jesus was not simply moved by love, but it was the love itself which atoned.

Aquinas again:

Christ, however, by suffering out of love and out of obedience, offered to God something greater by far than the satisfaction called for by all the sins of mankind . . . In the first place, there was the greatness of the love which moved him to suffer’ (Contra. Gen. IV. 55).

In one sense this shouldn’t surprise us: St Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, drives home the fundamental importance of love – without it, even martyrdom is worthless (13:3). Through this passage, St Thérèse of Lisieux came to the profound realisation that her vocation, before anything else, was love. This was always the vocation of humanity because we were created to be images of the God of love. In the wake of sin, and the chaos it wrought, Christ perfectly fulfilled the human vocation to love, and the Passion, mysteriously, shows us ‘how perfect his love was’ (John 13:1).

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‘Christ carrying the cross’ by either Titian or Giorgione (1505)

Letting ourselves be affected

St John Henry Newman, in a sermon on the crucifixion of Christ, said, ‘True love both feels right, and acts right.’

His point was that religion without feeling is ‘imperfect religion’, much like love without feeling is imperfect love. It’s not enough to simply understand something intellectually, or even to obey the commands of Christ; we must also be moved by Christ. We must let our hearts be pierced by him. This is one of the most important parts of Holy Week.

The best way to understand the Passion – insofar as we can – and also be affected by it, is by dwelling on it, Newman said.

The saints and mystics of the Church speak about the great importance of meditating on Christ’s Passion. St Teresa of Avila experienced a profound turning point in her life because of this. Even though she was already a nun, for a period of twenty years she believed she led a superficial and wayward life in the convent, more concerned with frivolous things than with Christ.

One of her habits of prayer, however, was to bring to mind an image of Christ, and one of her favourites was an image of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ’s distress was such that he sweat blood. It was during these contemplative moments that she was graced with some mystical experiences. In her Autobiography, she says:

I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God, of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that He was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in Him.’

St Frances de Sales also puts this to us as one of the most important methods of prayer:

I especially counsel you to practice mental prayer, the prayer of the heart, and particularly that which centres on the life and passion of Our Lord. By often turning your eyes on him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with him.’

There are so many questions we could ask about the nature of Christ’s Passion, about what it did and why (or whether) it was necessary. The witness of the saints is that the best way to approach these questions is through prayer. Prayer is the door through which we enter any and all mysteries, but especially the mystery that dwells at the heart of faith itself: the Paschal Mystery. Prayer is the only way we’ll glimpse this mystery, like the saints and the poets before us.