This is a beautiful short reflection leading the reader from questions about why Jesus had to die to an understanding of his death as the final stage in how he lived his life and the power of plumbing the depths of desolation with a loving trust becomes the glory of the Resurrection right now.
(Jan. 2007) 1494 WORDS
In my early teens I once asked myself: If, in Nazareth at the age of twelve, Jesus had been run over and killed by a passing chariot, would that have done?
A silly question? I was probing the impression I was being given that it was the fact that he died that mattered. But I worked out for myself that the salvation of the world could not be the result of an accident.
So the next question: If he freely gave himself (when he could not have done) why was it not equivalent to suicide? And I kept being told that it was out of love for the will of his father. He came to do his will.
The next question (with me all through theology studies and into priestly ministry) was: How did the God of compassion, whom Jesus preached, the intimate Abba-Father he knew, the God of healing and forgiveness he urged people to know, the God of Good News, how did such a God turn out at the end to be a God who willed the death of his own son?
The sacrifice of the cross easily took on elements of ritual sacrifice to justify us before a demanding God, but was not that the very God-of-Religion whom Jesus had been subverting? I heard phrases like: ‘He died for our sins’ or ‘to justify us with God’ in that sense, and certainly the idea of Jesus being in some way our substitute scapegoat is in many people and maybe lurks in all our psyches?
The first glimmer of some answer to how it could be the will of Abba-God that his son should die came when I realised how much, in the liturgy, we isolate the end story from what led to it. In the Creed we jump from ‘Born of Mary’ to ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate’ with nothing in between. In the Eucharistic prayers we call to mind, make anamnesis of, his death and resurrection with no contest. And in many other ways we give the impression that somehow Jesus’ final Passover had meaning in its own right rather than being the final self-gift of what he had lived for.
If it is true of anyone’s death, as their great moment of truth, that it draws it’s meaning from the life that leads to it, how much more in the case of Jesus.
To get a deeper understanding of this we need to sense in what way the incarnation of God’s intense holiness into human affairs created a crisis. It was not, as I read it, a crisis of morality in the normal sense, wheat from sinners, virtue from vice, wheat from chaff. It was rather a crisis which forced those who enjoy God’s blessings of wealth, of learning (especially religious learning), and of authority to face in their own selves what it meant, what it means, to be called by God in the exercise of these dangerous gifts.
This crisis built up during his ministry and came to a head during those last days in Jerusalem and the temple. He had come to know from experience how hard it was, for those whose egos had vested interests in wealth, learning or power, to be poor enough in spirit to recognise what God was, and is, bringing about in our world. And after his long journey from Galilee to the seat of power in Jerusalem the crisis came to its climax during those last days. (While he, in tears, could say ‘If they do not accept, all is lost’ the powers were saying ‘If this goes on, all is lost.’)
Unless we have some perception of the dynamic of all that I doubt we can really know the nature of his decision to go through to the final end. Nor in what way it was his Father’s will. It was not God’s will that he should die, but it was God’s will that he should see through to the end what he had lived for. Hence his unilateral non-violent disarming decision of the cross.
My generation grew up in a cross-centred faith. But then in the early sixties, (my years of theology studies, and the Second Vatican Council), we enjoyed the Western Church rediscovering the significance of Christ’s resurrection.
We all became Easter people, and we tended to think of the cross as Jesus’ self-gift at the hands of the powers and Easter as his triumph. That is the pattern of Peter’s early sermons after Pentecost. It found its way into some of our renewed liturgy: ‘In fulfilment of your will, he gave himself up to death, but by rising from the dead he destroyed death and restored life.”
It was an easy way to think. And it seemed to free Christian faith from a rather passive, even morbid, acceptance of suffering – opiate of the people and all that! But it was a sell-out to secular humanism with no place for redemptive suffering. Our true faith is the liberating triumph of the cross, which we know with the hindsight of Easter faith.
A little clue was given to me one day when someone pointed out that the real meaning of the word ‘suffering’ is not the way it is usually used – what happens to us – but rather what we do in the face of what happens to us. So we can say in a general way, that affliction is what happens to us, pain is how we experience affliction and suffering is how we bear or cope with pain.
When a person journeys through real desolation, (bereavement, depression, burnout or awareness of evil in our world) and eventually comes out into consolation, the victory (if we use that word), the true time of transcending liberation, is not in the consolation but was at the darkest time of desolation. When I find myself praying out of utter desolation it must be because there is more to me than is desolate. If there was not a true self, an ultimate ‘I’, a point where God’s Spirit colludes with my spirit, then I could not pray. It does not feel like that, of course, because it is the nature of desolation to claim the whole stage and have all the language. The ultimate ‘I’, the spirit, is voiceless.
In the garden, when Jesus prayed out of an appalling awareness of the powers of darkness, the fact that he can pray at all, ‘not my will but yours’ means that his inner will is already in communion with the Father. The real agony of his prayer is between his conscious desolation and his true self, where his Father and Spirit are at home, silent.
Likewise with his later prayer on the cross;
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He could only pray that out of a deep communion denied by everything in his crucified experience.
Perhaps these thoughts help us to appreciate why, in John’s gospel, Jesus says of his pending death ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified’ and why Paul can say ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’
Of all the heresies down through the ages the one, at present, I have most sympathy with is the patripassian heresy, the belief that out of Trinitarian intimacy and paternal empathy the Father suffered as the Son. Like all healthy heresies it was countering its opposite: the idea that at the end God was ‘out there’ willing his Son’s death.
If ‘suffering’ is understood as God’s Spirit enabling our spirit to journey through desolation to transcend self-pity and resentment in the darkest hour, then we come out into consolation as matured, redeemed people. We are not simply where we were before. And we carry the wounds into our new life.
The Risen Christ carries the wounds of the cross. And our communion with the Risen Christ is always with the Risen Victim. Easter faith in the body broken and given, the blood shed and given.
A final reflection: Christ was made sin by his total empathy with a sinful world, an empathy heightened, not diminished, by his own freedom from sin. But there was nothing to prevent his final self-gift being pure love and therefore nothing preventing his ultimate ‘I’ being the source of risen life for his conscious and mortal self.
We cannot know what his Resurrection involved any more that an embryo could know what birth involves. What we can know in our Easter faith, I think, is that it did not involve some special intervention of God, a sort of special miracle for his favourite. In a sense, having journeyed through the desolation in which the glory lay, he could not not have risen.
It is only because the rest of us (apart from Mary) put sin and alienation in the way that the same is not true of all of us. We have to wait awhile. But Christ is the first born of many.