GERSON attained eminence as a scholar and administrator at the University of Paris and strove for Church reform in the era of the Great Schism. His Latin writings on Church unity and the delimitation of papal powers exercised great influence at the Councils of Pisa and Constance. Even more versatile was the range of his sermons, many of them delivered in French; and now being carefully edited after centuries of neglect. He preached a gospel of love and repentance directed intimately to the Christian nurture of kings, popes, educators, peasants, youths, and children. The selections here drawn from his long but moving exposition on the events of Christ’s Passion are translated by Mr. Anthony A. Giarraputo from Ger.Adv.Car. 41-43, 71-76.
He goes to God, by a bitter death,
Jesus, seeing His mother sweet;
So ought we well, by penitence,
Of this sorrow have remembrance.
Surely this is thus: of your sorrow we ought always, truly, to have a good remembrance, O blessed Jesus, only true Savior of all the world. Well ought we to recall the hour when, after that which You have done for us, by one sole word of Your will and out of nothing, You desired to restore and make us over through great labor, through great suffering and through pain, and such pain as never in this world has been equalled: and all for us, O faithful people, for us, I say, miserable creatures and humble subjects; because nothing had availed Him. And He began from His childhood, in poverty, in suffering, in tears, in hunger and thirst, in cold and alien wanderings in Egypt, in vigils, in temptations, in the abuses of the wicked, in deadly persecutions; but on this day of His very dolorous Passion, day of wailing, of miseries and weeping, all the suffering was fulfilled and consummated because:
To God departs, to bitter death,
Jesus, seeing His mother sweet.
O sweet mother, I lift up now the eyes of my thought and look, now at the light of true faith and at the book of the Evangelists, now in the shadow of provable conjecture and pious contemplation, to see what was the departure of your blessed Son, Jesus, when He went to God, by a bitter death. And firstly, before the Holy Thursday, He departed from Bethany where He was staying at the home of Lazarus, and of Martha and Mary Magdalene, and of you also, and made His last journey to Jerusalem, journey to His dolorous death. Alas! Ah me! What was this departure? “Farewell, dear Son,” might you have said, O beautiful, sweet mother, “Farewell, my only joy, my only comfort, now I shall no longer see You here.” And speaking thus, or peradventure, without words, only with lamentations, with sighing, with sobbing, with languishing plaints, because pain hindered speech, you, beautiful, piteous mother (as I can piously imagine), 263 embraced your Son, the finest among all others, the sweet innocent Lamb, without gall and without bitterness, Who, even though God, blessed in eternity, went away to be killed; you embraced Him tenderly and your tearful face rested on His shoulders or on His chaste head. Then you found strength again, and took leave of God: “Dear Son, Farewell! Alas, my Son, but also my Father and my Lord and my glorious God, all things are in Your power; I implore You, I, your bereft mother, your little Handmaiden, whom You have so much deigned to love and honor, but only through Your grace, and with no merit of mine; I supplicate You, have pity on that mother and remain for this feast with us here in Bethany to escape the fury of the Jews who seek to deliver You unto death and have already stoned You at the Temple; You know it. I see the stones (Alas! What a terror!) which they held ready to throw at You, if Your divine power had not delivered You from them. In the same way, You may now escape. In any case, Lord, let not what I will, but what You will, be done; let all be done according to Your command and pleasure. Adieu! This is a departure too hard, a farewell too painful; and plainly, I could not leave You, but wherever You will go, will I go, and to all Your perils I will resign myself.”
O devout people, if there be here a compassionate heart, which ever knew what love is, especially the love of a mother for her son, let him think of this pain, when from Bethany to Jerusalem:
To God departs, to bitter death,
Jesus, seeing His mother sweet.
The High Priest then questioned Jesus concerning His disciples and His teaching. Jesus answered him: “I have spoken openly to all people; I have always preached in the synagogue and in the Temple where all come together and have said nothing in secret; what do you have to question me about? Question them who have heard those things which I have pronounced.” When He had said these things, an assistant of the priests gave Jesus a blow, saying: “Dost answer thus 264 the High Priest?” Jesus answered him: “If I have spoken wrongly, give testimony of the wrong; and if truly, wherefore dost thou strike me?”
And Annas sent Him, bound, to Caiphas, the High Priest. And Simon Peter was in the courtyard without, standing and warming himself. And again another maidservant saw him and said to those who were in the vicinity: “And this one was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Then those who were there approached and said to Peter: “Verily art thou one of them for thine accent doth betray thee.” And a second time, he denied upon oath: “I never knew this man.”
And after a little while, about the space of a half hour, said one of the servants of the High Priest, the cousin of him whose ear Peter had cut off: “Verily, this one was with Him, because he is from Galilee; and did I not see thee myself in the garden with Him?” Then he began to wax angry and curse and to swear, saying: “This man of whom thou speakest, I never knew.” And immediately, the cock crew. Then our Lord turned around and looked at Peter and Peter was reminded of the word of our Lord, which our Lord had spoken to him: “Even as the cock crows thrice, thou wilt deny me on this day.” And Peter went and wept bitterly.
Devout people, you have listened to the presentation of sweet Jesus to Annas, who is in the place of Caiphas; and those two held the office of High Priest, one after the other, for years and with revenues, against the ordinance of the Law. Yet Annas is here called the High Priest; from such Priests, such a judgment! You heard, on the other hand, the reasonable answer of sweet Jesus, how He had spoken publicly and held Himself so firm concerning His good and truthful preaching, that He called even His accusers and adversaries as witnesses. True it is that He had preached and explained privately several parables of His disciples, but these were thoroughly in keeping with His public teachings and to the end that everything might be afterwards made public and preached. By that, we are taught to reject all the teaching which is not presented in public, especially touching religion.
But it seems to me that at that time there held sway at the court of the High Priests, Flattery, false and feigned, which served only but 265 to gratify the greatest, be it wrong, be it contrary, be it for good or for evil. I see it in this varlet here, who comes forward and strikes Jesus. Alas! What an insolence for such a fellow, I say, to strike sweet Jesus on the cheek, saying: “How now! Dost answer thus the High Priest?” At that time, devout people, Flattery persecuted shamefully the person of Him Who is Truth itself and since then, has not ceased, in many places, from doing likewise to those who wish to maintain the truth, especially before lords and courtiers, and often, before the bourgeois.
What ought the Lord and the Creator of all the world to do here? Ought He to suffer such an insult without being avenged or appeased? Should not the earth open up, and should not fire fall from the heavens to destroy this iniquitous varlet? Or, it may seem to some that our Lord ought here to practice His teaching and confirm it by fact; that is to say, that He ought to turn the other cheek to receive another blow. Jesus held to the middle path; He deigned, by a sweet and kindly response, to demonstrate to this varlet his guilt, not by using force, but rather by exercising clemency. He used wisdom also, in so far as He had given an understanding of His counsel and His teaching, now set forth. He did not expect that were one to turn his cheek as a Christian, he should literally offer the other, also. This would often be from a kind of pride or feigned patience. But He meant that we should be readily willing to suffer again, as much or more, if the case required it. It seems that sweet Jesus acted thus, because He afterward yielded up to this sinner, not only one cheek, but His whole body unto death. It is often expedient and necessary to reprove and correct evil-doers, as much for their own salvation as for the public weal.
Take note here, O impatient heart, heart gross and sated, which canst not nor dost desire to suffer one hard word without becoming angry and making thy countenance like to that of a madman. Thou dost curse, swear, deny, threaten, or strike; thou dost break or cast aside that which thou holdest or that which thou dost encounter, and thou still blamest God, saying that thou hast not deserved it; and dost not wait until He may avenge thee as thy judge, but rather dost thou constitute thyself judge and party of thine own cause. Angrily thou thinkest of vengeance, either by insults or by outrageous deeds, and repentest thyself, at the same time, of that which thou didst not say 266 or do; or glorifiest thyself, in thy vengeance, as in a goodly vassalage. And thou seest here the King of Kings, the most innocent of all, Who took such an insult, indeed, and from such a man, in such a place, so publicly, on His glorious face on which the angels desire to look, and which thou lovest so devotedly and hast chastely kissed so many times, O Mother and Virgin, honorable and precious.
Notwithstanding, he is content to give proof of His sayings and to prove false this insulting action by His decorous manner. However, nothing was gained by this mild and reasonable answer which our Lord had given as well to Annas as to his servant, to induce Annas not to send Him, bound, to Caiphas, as if already worthy of death.
To God departs, by bitter death,
Jesus here, without His mother sweet;
Ought we well, through penitence,
Of this sorrow have remembrance.
For, if the manner of sending Him was severe enough and shameful enough the first time, still more severe was it this second time. And I could say how, but I hear Saint Peter who denies God two more times, and worse the second than the first time; and worse the third than the second, because a sin which is not amended straightway leads to another. Pardon me, I implore You, Lord, God Almighty, all wise and all just, pardon me if my foolish and weak frailty and stupid ignorance dare to ask how and why Your just Providence suffered that Your apostle, Saint Peter, whom You have since loved and honored so much in this world, and still honor each and every day and eternally in glory, and who since died for You, how, I say, can Your wise Providence suffer that he should deny You in such a way, so unjustly and so shamefully, forfeiting Your love by casting himself out of Your company in favor of the company of the enemy, and by receiving damnation, according to justice? “I repent me, Lord” is not reason enough for You to speak by Yourself, with no intercession, to such a one, a nothing, as I am. It is enough and ought to be enough for me that through the Holy Doctors, inspired and instructed by You, and by the Holy Scripture, I should know somewhat the causes of this sufferance, which are three besides those I have touched upon previously. Never would You suffer evil to come were it not for another good to replace it.267
One reason was to give us an example and hope of obtaining pardon if we wish to plea and repent, however much we have done wrong before the Divine Majesty. Therefore, whosoever hears and considers how Saint Peter plainly and often denies Jesus Christ, ought not at all to stop here: let him see, besides, the manner of his correction and repentance. The cock crows, Jesus looks at Peter, Peter goes out and weeps bitterly, and throws himself, according to the Doctors, into a ditch or a cave which is called gallicantus, cock’s crow, because after this, he does not dare to compare himself with the other disciples in your presence, beautiful, very sweet Mistress, until the resurrection.
For our instruction, I say that the cock crows for us each time that a good lesson or admonition is given us, but the crowing does not suffice at all if the look of Jesus is not there. This look is His holy and virtuous inspiration in the heart of the sinner, which opens it and disposes it to grieve, to plead, and to repent. Even the corporeal look of Jesus Christ from without would not suffice, if God were not to work upon it from within. This was evident in the case of Judas, whom Jesus not only looked upon, but kissed, and nothing came of it. The true penitent, after this look withdraws himself from every evil occasion for sinning, a thing which those do not do who cling always to their false merchandising, or usuries, or forbidden company.
And since the sin is great and bitter, one ought to weep bitterly, according to the example of Saint Peer who, the whole time of his life afterwards, wept when cocks crew; and if thou canst not weep with eyes of flesh, weep at least within thy heart, reproaching thyself that thou canst not weep with eternal eyes.
Of the other two causes, one concerned the humility of Saint Peter himself: God is accustomed to base the edifice of virtue on profound humility, such a marvelous virtue is humility. In order to establish it better, God allows virtue to falter for a time. Take notice of that woman who had not desired two such sons as Saint John and Saint James . . . and within a year, she had two others. The second cause was to humble Saint Peter before his subjects in order that he might be more inclined to pardon in the spirit of mildness. He who judges, himself never having faltered, is easily too severe in punishing others. “Never,” says he, “would I have done thus; never did 268 I commit such and such a misdeed, so ugly and so horrible.” And the wicked prideful ones do not see that often they do worse, if but in such a foolish and presumptuous self-esteem, as if by their own virtues and no special grace of God, they had escaped any since whatsoever. Such would reserve to themselves the mercy of God, even as they keep it from others. Not that justice and correction must not be carried out, but it is always necessary that compassion be present, according to the example of the piteous mother or of the merciful physician who beat the children and bind those who are sick or out of their senses; and these suffer their injuries and beatings, for the time, not on account of wrath, but compassion.
Take a lesson from this as to how a great public sinner, in the past, was able to be a preacher of truth and good (Christian) life. But this had to come afterwards and with penitence, bitter and public; otherwise it could not have been possible. You see this in Saint Peter who sinned before, and afterwards preached and governed the Church; but this also was after penitence.
And if this be so, O Saint Peter, glorious Pastor of Holy church and Gatekeeper of Heaven, if, in fact, this be so, yea verily, in order to have compassion on your little children and subjects, God has suffered that you should feel in yourself what our human frailty is, inclined to all evils and sins. We supplicate you and pray urgently, by that mercy which God showed to you when He deigned to look upon and convert you, that you may please to obtain from Him such a sweet and virtuous look on all of us here; so that with the sound of preaching you, by your intercession, should cause the gaze of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to soften, and turn aside, and convert our hard hearts, our forgetful hearts, to Him and to contrition and repentance, bitter, sufficient, and complete.
And You, sweet Jesus, true Savior of all the world, look upon Your little serfs and subjects, whatever their age and sex may be; look at them now with that look with which You looked on Saint Peter, and let it be that always they may have, through penitence, their sins in remembrance.