During Holy Week, it isn’t uncommon for Christians to take time in reading, meditation, prayer, or dialogue to reflect on the themes of the coming Easter celebration. For most Christians, Easter is a time to celebrate the physical resurrection of Jesus as proof of God’s love for humanity. We often speak of everything that led up to it — all the betrayal, physical suffering, and emotional anguish suffered by Jesus — as if those things are just necessary plot elements in an elaborate melodrama written by God. It’s as if they merely point to that one moment when the laws of nature seem to be overruled so that Jesus can rise from the dead, all with the single purpose of bolstering our hope that we don’t have to fear death.
Excuse me, please, but I find this perspective on Holy Week to be a little vain. To me, it is heavily interwoven with our desires to hold onto our own self-concepts, to avoid the reality that all things must pass, and thus try to maintain the many illusions that we create for own comfort. In other words, we can too easily focus on the Resurrection because what we really want from God is a promise of a glorious immortality. We hope to be delivered into some idealized state of perfection in which we will never have to experience radical change again, and then we can spend all eternity feeling completely satisfied with ourselves.
So, let’s consider an alternative to this way of thinking about the Passion of Jesus. Let’s deeply consider two moments that many of us find powerfully compelling and hard to reconcile with the notion that the Passion is merely prelude to the Resurrection. The first is the time Jesus spent in Gethsemane, so desperately fearful about what was ahead of him that Luke says an angel came to give him courage! Even after the angel appeared, Jesus was still so distraught that he was sweating blood as he prayed. Does this sound like the behavior of someone who knew it was all going to conclude in a glorious supernatural event?! Even the miracle of an angelic appearance didn’t snap Jesus out of his horrible dread. The second moment of this nature is when he was crying out on the cross, feeling abandoned by God. Once again, we should stop to seriously and prayerfully reflect upon whether or not this is something that would be said by a human being so thoroughly united with God that he knew all things. No, Jesus obviously doesn’t have complete confidence that he will be resurrected to a life after death the way it is later portrayed by some of the gospel writers. These moments show us that Jesus was far more like us than many of us want to believe. He was a human being confronting the facts of his suffering and death, and he was miserable and afraid because of it.
Of what benefit is this view of the Passion? The short answer is that the story of Jesus is thus an even more meaningful example to us of acceptance, faith, and love. It wasn’t foreknowledge of his resurrection that carried Jesus through his ordeal, but rather it was his commitment to what he felt in his heart was worthy of sacrificing everything, including his own existence. What was it that was so worthy of such sacrifice (literally meaning “to make sacred”)? This is a question we will revisit.
It may well be that the author of the earliest gospel, Mark, recognized that this story of willing self-sacrifice was not only an important part of the story, but that it was the most important. After all, the original version of Mark ends with 16:1-8, and thus all we have is an empty tomb, a young man only claiming that Jesus will appear again, and the three women running away in fear. We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, and Mark therefore evokes both our instinctive fear of the unknown as well as our equally deep-rooted hope. How fitting this is! And it is especially fitting for those of us who, like the three women, don’t have the benefit of actually seeing Jesus risen in the flesh.
This is where we can return to that question about self-sacrifice. For you, what is worth the sacrifice of everything, even your own life, with no promise at all that there would be anything but oblivion afterward? Surely there are many answers people might offer, but consider for a moment the possibility that they all come down to love in some form — love of family, of friends, of country, of humanity, of freedom, of truth, or, perhaps ultimately, of love itself.
Let’s follow that question with these: How am I willing and unwilling to make such sacrifices? How am I avoiding or entering into the darkest unknowns love points toward? More specifically, how am I letting go of my treasured notions about myself in order to be more completely and wholly devoted to love? How am I putting a narrow love of self above a more expansive and inclusive love?
If you’re like me, you encounter lots of different “voices” in yourself when you turn within to meditate and pray with such questions. One voice is critical, judgmental, and unforgiving. Another voice is accepting, comforting, and encouraging. Another is defensive, fragile, and desperate. Still another is disinterested, apathetic, and indifferent. Yet another is tempting, seductive, and self-indulgent. And there may be others. From what I can tell, this is all very ordinarily human, and we are all challenged to deal with a complex reality of mixed and muddied attitudes, motives, and intentions. Penetrating just a little behind these veils reveals that we are mysteries to ourselves, and thus brings into question our pretense of certainty and deep conviction about many things, not the least being our religious beliefs. Just this little bit of honest self-awareness can be terribly uncomfortable, at least at first, and so it can be seen as a significant step in taking up the cross of Jesus and beginning the work of sacrificing our illusions.
Embracing the mysteries of life, both those within and without, leads back to the very questions that have driven many of us into religion, even if we weren’t fully aware of them. This can be frightening because it forces us into some degree of confrontation with the truth that we don’t really know everything that we want to know, or even think we should know. It forces us to, in some way, admit that we have uncertainties and doubts about many things that we would rather be able to take for granted. In fact, many of us have been raised with religious admonitions that such uncertainties and doubts are unacceptable, even evil. But Jesus himself experienced them! Unless we are willing to say part of Jesus was unacceptable and evil, then we have to rethink the notion that uncertainties and doubts have no place in our faith.
Logically, faith cannot exist without uncertainty and doubt. Where there is complete and undeniable certainty, there is no room left for faith. Faith is therefore not the opposite of doubt, not the cessation of uncertainty, but rather it is an ongoing response to doubt and uncertainty. Yet faith isn’t merely the choice of one possible answer among many, but is instead a deep conviction about and commitment to something that we feel in our hearts is worthy of our devotion even in the face of the most threatening uncertainties, like those suffered by Jesus, and worse. The aim of penetrating into our doubts and uncertainties is therefore not to abandon faith, but to refine it, making it increasingly focused upon the one thing that is most worthy of devotion.
Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings and of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal. Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all. Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face to face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely, just as God knows me completely. The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love. 1 Corinthians 13:12-13
Despite what many preachers would have us believe, we don’t need to be obsessed with the promise of resurrection in order to live our faith well. In actuality, if our faith is like that of Jesus, we love more freely simply because how we express love right here and right now is what matters most to us. This isn’t a path of works alone, doing good things because that’s what is expected of us. It is a path in which unconditional love increasingly becomes the driving force of our lives, shaping our faith, hopes, and our works in its own way.
O Mysterious One we know as Love Itself, help us in every moment to willingly give all for love, to make every moment sacred with love, to greet our doubts and uncertainties with faith in love, to seek the changes love begets as the continual rebirth we most desire. Amen.