John of Ford

Pen in hand, the monk John of Ford looked out on the rocky fields of his native Devonshire and pondered the words which Saint Paul in the New Testament attributed to the newly conceived Christ: “Said Christ as he came into the world, I come to do the will of him who sent me.” What could these words mean, he asked himself, except that the passion of Our Lord Jesus began not at Calvary but with his conception on Annunciation day?

For, remembered the monk, as Saint Jerome had written in a much earlier century, “The Son ofGod, for our salvation, became Son of Man. He waits nine months to be born. He endures discomforts. Bloodied he comes forth.” Yes, bloodied he comes forth, already having borne our sins, said the monk to himself.

The monk John lowered his pen and slowly wrote: “From the moment the Word was made flesh, the Lord Jesus carried his cross. From that moment he was truly a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We believe the evangelist signified this when he said that ‘the Word was made flesh.’ ”

As in a vision the pale-robed monk understood what had occurred at the moment of the conception of the Lord Jesus. At that moment on the day of the Annunciation the omniscient God joined a finite human body, soul, and will to one of his three eternal divine Persons. In that single Person, he immediately became capable of mental and spiritual human pain.

This was the pain which his eternal foresight now caused the loving Son of God because he had taken on a human nature. Because he had joined his all-seeing divinity to a fragile human nature, God in his person of the Son for the first time experienced pain from his eternal foreknowledge that he would be acquainted with grief and rejected by men.

Bending over his writing the monk John went on: “By ‘flesh,’” explained the monk, “the evangelist meant the capacity of the flesh to suffer and to suffer with. For what in all creation is more fragile than flesh, more delicate than flesh? Fragility, therefore, corresponds to passion, ‘suffering’; delicacy to com-passion, ‘suffering with.’ From these two, as from two planks, Christ’s cross is constructed.”

The monk paused and visualized the large cross in the great monastery church with its drooping, anguished figure of Christ. Then he continued his writing: “For to suffer and to suffer with, as St. Gregory says, is Christ’s true cross, namely affliction of body and compassion of mind, provided such a cross is borne for Christ and following Christ. Christ carried this kind of cross from the moment of his entry into his Mother’s womb. He endured the confines of the virginal womb.”

The sense of pain,” the monk continued writing, “could not be lacking in One who had come to experience pain from his very beginning and was as full of grace as he was full of knowledge and truth. And so there ‘he bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows.’” [Is 53:41]

Did not Saint Paul say that Christ “emptied himself” when he came into the world so that he might participate fully in the human condition? Of what did he empty himself if not the option of dwelling in eternal pain-free bliss?

The monk now wrote a little faster as he saw the sun was sinking lower in the sky: “In fact Christ bore these infirmities all the more truly because knowingly and willingly he did that which other infants go through in a kind of sleep of ignorance. There in the confines of the womb he sought and found the Adam he once had sought and not found when Adam hid himself in Paradise.”

“In the womb Christ pulled out with his own fingers the sting of sin that the serpent had thrust into the first man. Christ accomplished his work and, even at this time, ‘wrought salvation in the midst of the earth.’ [cf. Ps 73:121] He busily and briskly purged human conception from uncleanness. Yes, in his mother’s womb, the Lamb of God was already taking away the sins of the world, doing penance for our crimes, enduring the weariness of nine months and constantly interceding for us to the Father.”

John set down his pen and looked over the sentences he had written. He threw a little sand over the parchment to dry the ink. His feast day sermon was prepared. Again John visualized the large crucifix in the monastery church with its drooping, anguished figure of the Savior. Then in his mind’s eye he saw the life of the Savior stretching backward from adulthood through youth, through childhood, through infancy, through the nine months in the womb, to his very conception at the moment his Virgin Mother replied to the Angel.

Yes, brooded the monk as he rose from his stool, the life of Our Lord and Savior was a continuity and all of a piece. Christ truly carried his cross from the moment of his conception. He saved us from the very first moment of his human life. We cannot, we must not, isolate the last few hours of Christ’s life from his entire lifelong journey through what the great founder of our Cistercian order called “this vale of tears.” And each of our own lives, too, is all a whole, all of a piece from our conception to our last day. Not just our end but our whole earthly journey has great significance. We must each carry whatever cross comes to us, following the example of Our Lord and following him through life.

Satisfied at last with what he had written, the monk John picked up his manuscript and trudged slowly through the door into the ambulatory and towards the church. The craggy Devonshire hills in the late afternoon sun were casting long shadows across the valley beyond. The bells of the monastery church were calling the monks to evensong. With joy in his heart the monk John went to join them.