Vigils Reading – St Thomas Aquinas
A Reading on the Passion of Christ7
from St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica
The plan of God for man’s redemption is most wondrous in every respect. Yet God could have willed to redeem mankind in some other way than by the Passion of Christ. Still, there was surely no way more suitable for man’s redeeming than the way of Incarnation and Passion. For here man sees how much God loves him; man has perfect and most noble example of all the virtues; man has grace made available through Christ’s merits; man beholds the evil conqueror of his race subdued and vanquished by One who is truly man.
For many nobly symbolic reasons it was suitable that our Lord, dying for us by his own will, should have chosen the death of the cross. This mode of death was the most feared, and was considered the most degrading. To show that the upright man need fear no mode of death; to indicate that no mode of death can sully the innocent; to give full and final evidence of his love for mankind and his hatred for sin, our Lord chose the death of the cross. And since he died for all, he chose to die in the open, on an eminence, with arms outstretched to all mankind.
Christ did not endure all forms of human suffering. He was not, as we have seen, subject to internal ailments, to sickness or disease. His bodily suffering was externally caused. And by dying on the cross, he excluded other modes of fatal suffering, such as burning or drowning. Yet, in one sense, our Lord did endure all human suffering: all types of human beings had part in afflicting him…
Christ’s suffering was the greatest of all suffering, the keenest pain. The prophet Jeremias foretold this fact in the cry: “O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” The external pains of the scourging, the crowning with thorns, and the crucifixion, were manifestly extreme.
And the sadness of his perfect soul over the sins of men was the greatest distress ever humanly experienced. Our Lord’s body was most perfect, and therefore most acutely sensitive to pain. And he did not permit study or consideration on the part of reason to allay the bodily pangs in any manner. For our Lord suffered voluntarily to win for man the greatest benefits; he measured his sufferings to accord with their fruits. Thus our Lord’s pain in his Passion was the very greatest, the most intense, of pains. Yet, despite the fact that our Lord truly suffered in his whole soul, that soul had, throughout the Passion, the uninterrupted enjoyment of the beatific vision. There is no conflict here…
Our Lord who willed to be “reputed with the wicked” was crucified between two thieves. It belonged to the perfection of his suffering, which was the greatest, that he should bear the insult…of being publicly executed with an ordinary group of criminals as though he were one of them. The cross of Christ, with an unrepentant sinner on one side, and a converted sinner on the other, shows the divinely innocent judge of mankind on the judgment seat between “those on the right, and those on the left,” the saved and the rejectors of salvation, as the case will be on the last day.
The Passion of Christ was the suffering and death of our Lord as man. We cannot say that the Godhead suffered and died. It is perfectly true that he who died is God. But he is also man, in the unity of the divine Person of the Son.
7 Ed. Paul J. Glenn. A Tour of the Summa. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1960. 351-353.