The Suffering and Death of Jesus. 04/14/17 Good Friday, YR A Ed Lawry
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
Of course the topic for a Good Friday sermon must be the suffering and death of Jesus. But for me the topic is a difficult one to fathom. Perhaps for you as well. Partly this is because of my cultural history.
As a child in the United States not born into serious poverty, I was always thrilled by the celebration of Christmas—all the decorations, the presents, the special music. The whole world seemed to be in on this celebration. In contrast, for Easter there were no special decorations, no special music and only one present, though that was a particularly delicious one for a child—the Easter Basket. By the time I was in the early grades of Catholic school, I understood a seemingly immense difference between the weeks leading up to Christmas and the weeks leading up to Easter. Though both feasts were preceded by liturgically “purple periods” (times of restraint and solemnity), the attitude of the wider culture had reinforced the excitement of the anticipation of Christmas even within the Church. Though the wider culture took little notice of the run up to Easter (with the one day exception of Mardi Gras) the Catholic School I attended certainly made much of it. There were lots of discussions of what we were “giving up” for Lent and various prayers and devotions that singled out this period of time. For Christian children, advent and Christmas is wonderful, Easter is a drag, not so much because of the Resurrection but because of the suffering and death that gives rise to the long weeks of Lent and the relatively little excitement in the general culture.
At the same time, the Church always has insisted, that Easter is its primary feast. Why? Because this is the celebration of the forgiveness of sins, the ultimate reason that the Son of God came into the world. Though a great deal of Christian theology made sense to me even as a child, the notion of why Jesus’ suffering and death was the only way that our sins would be forgiven always baffled me. Because the image of the family so frequently clarifies theological matters couldn’t I apply it here? If my child (like Adam and Eve) does something terribly disobedient to me as a parent, how should this “sin” be forgiven? Certainly if the child comes with deep regret and asks for forgiveness, as a loving parent, I would joyfully grant it (like the father in the Prodigal Son parable.) But what if the child never comes to be sorry and asks forgiveness, which seems more common among humans? Well, I guess a parent could do one of three things: 1) the parent could just disinherit the child, and not have anything to do with the child again—a sort of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sensibility 2) the parent could try to alert the child that he/she does have something to be sorry for by showing how much hurt or damage the betrayal has caused, or 3) just finally forgive the child anyway out of love and generosity even if the child never really understands that forgiveness or believes it unnecessary. It would seem the most reasonable thing to do would be to go and try to talk it out with my child. More to the point, if I am a parent and I just take it upon myself to simply suffer, this would not be understood as expiation for my child’s disobedience.
But if Christ’s suffering and death is not to be understood as atonement for our sins, how else might we understand this final episode of Christ’s life that fascinated the chroniclers of his life and has absorbed so much attention of the Christian world since? My lifelong socialization into the two biggest Christian feasts and my theological puzzlement about the necessity of Christ’s suffering and death as “making up for” human sin has inclined me more and more to think of Christmas and Easter not as two distinct events in salvation history, but as features of one single event “the life of Christ.”
What is the “life of Christ?”—our Faith tells us that it is a revelation of who God is and a model for how humans can participate in Divinity. Following the Gospel stories, we are fond of highlighting Jesus’ miracles as evidence of his Divinity. But what Jesus taught was a WAY. The Old Testament God did lots of miracles and so by emphasizing miracles the Evangelists helped us to see Jesus as identified with Divinity. But he was something new. He was the way, the truth and the life. And the way he taught was not the performance of miracles since as human beings we were not going to learn that. What he taught us was how to be the best human beings we can be and that means insofar as we are able, we can share in the life of God, which may well be the greatest miracle of all. He taught us that the best human beings we can be are ones directed first and foremost by forgiveness, sacrifice and love of one another, for it turns out that these are essential features of God, not just nice modulations of God’s power and majesty. And these are principles that to some degree we can actually follow in our lives.
But it is inadequate to think of Christ’s teaching as offering “principles” that guide life. The principles inform a life which is richer than mere guides. If Christ forgave, he did it because he was “moved” by the hapless condition of sinners. If Christ sacrificed it was not out of calculation about what would provide the most good out of some situation, but because he genuinely desired the good of the other beyond his own comfort. If Christ loved others it was not a way of fulfilling an obligation, but a delight in their being who and what they are. In short, what Christ taught was to be a “Mensch:” to feel deeply with and for the human beings with whom he was associated, and by imagination all of us. He was, as the scripture tells us, a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” But he was also a man of many other happier emotions—the sort who delighted in children, who loved Lazarus and Martha and Mary, who was attentive to what others said to him and what they meant by it (“I have no husband” said the woman at the well), who was sensitive to other’s hardship, (as in the case of feeding the multitudes who came to hear him preach), who had confidence in others and encouraged them (as when he appointed Peter as the “rock” of his Church). The God who has come to be with us as celebrated by the Christmas feast is the human who like us, feels our fears, pains, sufferings. But as fully human, Christ must also feel our joys, our appreciation of beauty and our delights in love and friendship, even if God’s humanity may be more obvious in his sufferings—his pain and his death. The small number of stories we have in the Gospels have been selected for dramatic clarity, yet we have only a small number from among the possibilities. Not only are there all those missing years between the Presentation in the Temple and what we call Christ’s “public life,” but surely there must be interesting things to know about the words and behavior of Jesus with his mates as they made camp in their travels, or over breakfast on cool mornings. One wonders if there was a bit of kidding among the disciples highlighting their peculiar personalities. It would be strange if a pack of guys who hung out together a lot didn’t have some “inside jokes.” Indeed, I wonder if the story about Peter walking on the water and then sinking didn’t start out as a kind of SNL comedy sketch?
Christ’s way is bigger than “principles” that ought to guide our lives. At the end of his marvelous book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton reflects on the way of Christianity by remarking: “Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city….Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.” In short, he was a man, and nothing human was alien to him.
It seems we are not satisfied that God, with a warm loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, stopped by the house to share a meal with us; the human race needed some dramatic event to cap off the visit. And indeed, the passion and death of Good Friday is, and should be, a powerful reminder to us of how viscerally human Christ was. He accepted his physical pain and his spiritual suffering; for that is also something we humans must endure, no matter how much our modern technology wishes to abolish pain and suffering. He didn’t will it, like a playwright- God who wants to make a dramatic climax to the story, but accepted it, as a plain man who was authentic, not acting out a part.
He was with us to the end. And we are invited to be with him to the end as well. This means not just acting properly toward our fellow human beings, but having our hearts enter into the heart of Christ. Of course our lives are naturally seen as a journey, but it is not the point to get to the end of life, but rather to be Christlike all along the way. Perhaps it is easiest to loosen the control we have over our emotions in the confrontation with the physical pain and suffering of Christ. And maybe that is why the Church requires so much of our attention upon it. But our sympathy, even our empathy, still withholds something. If we see a man by the side of the road who has perhaps been set upon by robbers, maybe having lain there for a day, bloody, unable to get up, perhaps who has urinated and defecated in place because unable to move very much. We must not only decide to take him to the place where he can receive care, but perhaps first, give him a hug. Today is a good day to imagine giving the scourged and sweating body of Christ a hug.