There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him: despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not (Is. 53:2-3).
The poor Christ, hidden and unknown, shorn of all status, though He was in the form of God (Phil. 2:6), has placed himself at the service of all and will not suffer death until his quest is accomplished. His honor and glory is obtained through a victory of the divine order and of a magnitude that human minds cannot fathom. The knighthood of Christ has since been realized in precious few, only in those who are able to resolve the dignity of fatherhood, kingship and justice with suffering, revilement and honorable death. The quest of a knight of Christ ends in victory or defeat at the Place of the Skull.
The code of chivalry was more or less imposed by the Church on military men, who at one moment conformed out of necessity and then in the next brought all the excess of their passionate natures to bear on the ideal. Thus they transformed the code of fair play and honor into an art of sophisticated manners, the posturing of social status and a mockery of respect for women. St. Francis saw through the romanticism and rejected status and chose to be the knight errant of penance and peace. Few were those, who, like St. Louis, King of France, wielded the sword and put it exclusively to the service of righteousness and the protection of the weak.
Historical knighthood was largely a secular affair, even though the meaning of secular has a much different meaning relative to the Middle Ages. Christendom was Christ-centered, but the nobility were, more often than not, engaged in their own pursuits on the pretext of the divine right. In reality, the divine right of kings, insofar as it is realized in the King of Kings is solemnized in the Easter Triduum, where the Master becomes the Servant. Peter protested that he would have none of it. Our Blessed Lord replied that then Peter could have none of Him. The ideal of religious chivalry, or more specifically, Marian Chivalry, finds its realization, not in the acquisition of status or a nobility of recognition, but in honorable deeds done without seeking the honor of men. The Arma Christi, that is, the Arms of Christ, are both His armorial bearings, by right His as King and Conqueror of the universe, and his weapons by which He is victorious. The Cross is a sword, and a sword is a cross. Honorable deeds are fixed to the Cross.
The Sacred Triduum has begun with the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, commemorating the institution of the Sacraments of Holy Orders and the Eucharist. It is also within this most solemn celebration at the beginning of the Holiest three days of the year that we remember in a particular way the charity of Christ and the mandate He gave to us to love one another. Priestly sacrifice; Eucharistic self-emptying; Kingship in service: the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the great and universal cosmic Knight resolves all of history, the conflict and drama of human generations, in an act of obedience that he institutionalizes and sacramentalizes for all time. All of life is a perpetual war and Our Lord Jesus Christ brings about the victory in a way that no one anticipated–save His Mother–namely, by suffering death at the hands of His enemies. Our Lord gets down on His hands and knees before His disciples and teaches them how to lead the way to life.
I am reading Barbara Frale’s book on the Templars, and while her book is much more sedate than the title would suggest, she does grant that the Templars may very well have had a Holy Thursday ritual in which they commemorated the Last Supper and received communion only under the species of wine. It is not clear whether this was the Mass of the Lord’s Supper or something else. I presume it was a liturgical abuse. In the West, such the custom of communicating only under the species of wine never existed, except in the case of communion of the sick. In the East where children received communion at younger ages, even as infants who were suckling, Holy Communion was sometimes administered under the species of wine alone. Frale says that the ritual was “unique to the Templars” and that they probably borrowed it from “certain ancient popular religious traditions practiced in the city of Jerusalem, perhaps as far back as the early Christian era” (199). In any case, Frale also grants that contemporaries of the Templars regarded them as custodians of relics of Our Lord’s passion, and when the legend of the Holy Grail was given a rewriting by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the earlier part of the 13th century, it was told that Our Blessed Lord’s Chalice was in the care of the Knights of the Temple (200).
Whatever is the historical significance of Grail legends or of the Grail’s association with the Templars, in the end the ideal which the Grail represents is far more important than the relic itself. And by that I mean that if we had the ideal we would know how to properly venerate the relic.
I am reminded of St. Louis, who had such devotion to the passion of Our Lord, that when he obtained the gift of the Crown of Thorns from the Emperor of Constantinople, he walked barefoot out of Paris with a large honor guard to meet the retinue accompanying the relic and then carried the Crown of thorns back to the city, where eventually he had the magnificent Sainte Chapelle built to house the Crown and other relics of the Passion he had obtained. He considered his own kingly crown and the power it represented as insignificant to that of the Man of Sorrows.
Fascination with the Grail is connected to the Precious Blood of Christ which He shed for love of us and gathered in His Cup, not only to sustain us but to inebriate us with divine grace and union. According to the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, the legend of the Holy Grail was linked to Cistercian spirituality in which the Cup represents grace, divine love poured out and given, and which calls for a like response of love: agape seeking eros without counting the cost. Interestingly, in the late middle ages there was a theological argument as to whether the Precious Blood of Christ was an essential part of the Sacred Humanity of Christ, in which case, even when it was shed on the Cross, it remained united to the Word and therefore was not only a relic worthy of veneration, but the Godhead worthy of adoration.
The ideal of the Grail, then, is the presence of God calling us to union. Only the pure may obtain the Grail: not Lancelot, but only Galahad. Agape and Eros are resolved perfectly in a creature only once, in the True Grail Virgin, the Blessed Mother. Whatever the Templars were up to, or however much the legends of the Grail were tainted by something other than the Christian tradition, true chivalry is the service of the Virgin who carries the Wounded One whose open heart slakes the thirst of the world. True service of the Grail leads us not to a secret ritual, but to the living of the mystery. On Holy Thursday we follow the Lord from the sanctuary to the altar of repose, from the Cenacle of the Last Supper to the Garden of His Agony. Somehow we need to make this more than a ritual. We need to live the Mass.
Our Captain is Christ and we gather under His banner. Only he can save us from ourselves.
Adam had been entrusted with the Garden of Paradise, the Kingdom of God on earth and he failed to guard it. There was war in paradise and Adam was cast out, a fugitive, lost to his patrimony, a wanderer and a poor man in the desert. It is said that Golgotha was the burial place of Adam. Thus, we have the tradition of places the skull and crossbones at the base of the crucifix. The symbol of Adam is death. His wife’s name, Eve, means Mother of All the Living, but as Blessed Guerric of Igny says, our first mother ought to be called Mother of All the Dying, because the only fruit of her childbearing is death. She took the poison apple killed her husband with it. Adam should have never let the serpent get anywhere near her. Instead, he hearkened to the voice of his wife (Gen. 3:17), when as both Master and Servant, he should have commanded and protected her.
On the other hand, Christ, our Captain, the New Adam, goes before us and leads the attack upon the strong hold of our enemy. His bride, the Church, in the person of Our Lady, the New Eve, is at His side in solidarity, but is safely guarded by Him from harm. Christ lays down his life for His Bride and presents to Himself and Spouse, holy and immaculate (cf. Eph. 5). The Virgin is steadfast as the Strong Woman (cf. Prov. 31:10), who stands, not swoons, at the foot of the Cross (cf. John 19).
Hail Victress, standing fast,
The banner is lifted.
Unfurl the sign of salvation,
And storm with Thy Lord
the lair of the Dragon.
Holy Lily of our knighthood,
Draw us to Thy side
To die with Thee,
con-crucified in Him.
Live the Mass, men. Learn its lessons. Holy Thursday preceded Good Friday by God’s design. The ritual comes before the historical act. The ritual is our way back, our way up the mount where Christ harrows hell and releases its captives. This is the truth, and it will set you free.
Meditate on this reflection of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The poet bases himself on a French mystic, but its still worth the consideration:
‘In corpore et anima’–On the pregnant principle expressed in the Mysteries and in this very one we cannot doubt at the Last Supper Christ invisibly but sacramentally communicated the Blessed Mother (as many ecstatics and others have been communicated) by the hands of angels or otherwise. After this she would have fasted till the Resurrection and the Sacred Host have lain in her breast unconsumed. In her then as well as on the cross Christ died and was at once buried, her body his temple becoming his sepulchre. At his rising the soul entered the body in her as in the sepulchre and, issuing from her breast, the two presences passed into one. And at the same time the windingsheet left empty fell in upon itself in the sepulchre and the empty accidents were consumed in the Blessed Virgin.
Whether one wishes to give such private revelation and theological speculation the time of day or not, the consideration illustrates something true and profound: The Virgin is the great sign. Jesus escapes from Her womb without breaking the seal, as a sign of His divine power. In another miracle, equally unprecedented and stupendous, He escapes from the tomb without breaking the seal. Would it not fitting that tabernacle of Christmas should also be the tabernacle of repose during the Sacred Triduum, the true Grail where we always find our King and Savior.
The Immaculate Grail of the Infant, of the Precious Blood and of Victim for our sins, waits on Holy Saturday for the Resurrection. Her union with Christ is not the least interrupted by His apparent defeat, because it is in no sense a defeat and She knew it. Liturgically, Saturday belongs to the Blessed Virgin, in part, because of Her Holy Saturday Virgil, a vigil of faith, of fidelity and of hope.
The end of the quest is at hand. Who of us will finish it under the banner of our King and Queen? And in like manner? Seek not your own glory or the honor of men, but seek rather to empty yourself and take the form of the Servant, who emptied Himself in the womb of the Virgin (cf. Phil. 2). Serve the Grail in humility and with great desire and you shall see the quest to the end honorably and victoriously.