Life contains a series of liminal points, thresholds we cross that can never be uncrossed, actions taken that can never be untaken, transformative occurrences that change everything for all time. The inevitability of the cross increased in certainty from the moment Jesus was arrested in the Garden — everything in the ensuing hours swept Jesus forward to his destruction. I believe this was what Jesus engineered, yet I cannot help but wonder what these hours must have been like — intellectually, emotionally, mentally, viscerally, and spiritually? Often, I KNOW what I should do, and I have a deep conviction of the moral rightness and need to act, and my conviction is grounded in both personal and shared values — but this doesn’t make it any easier. For my 50th birthday, I jumped from an airplane (for the first and probably only time in my life — it resulted in a broken leg…), a lifelong dream come true. I wanted to experience the jump more than almost anything I can think of. The first 98% of the experience was everything I hoped it would be. Yet, I remember the moment poised on the lip of the doorway briefly thinking, “Am I nuts?” It didn’t stop me from jumping, but I would be a liar to say it wasn’t there. Once out the door and aloft sans plane, all doubt immediately fled — there was absolutely nothing I could do but enjoy the ride (come what may — stupid landing…). It is blatantly apparent that you cannot “unjump” once you’ve jumped. A peace and acceptance comes quickly once the decision is beyond your control.
Was this how Jesus felt once his fate was beyond his control and in the hands of those seeking to silence and destroy him? Was there a point when all the ambivalence coalesced into a calm acceptance? John would have us believe that the divine nature totally eclipsed the human; that Jesus moved through his execution with a superior, objective calm that is absent from the synoptics. In non-Johannine sources, Jesus begs God to remove the burden (begrudgingly allowing God’s will be done), Jesus lashes out a bit in anger and contempt with Herod and Pilate, and Jesus is in absolute anguish on the cross, feeling abandoned by God both personally/physically and spiritually/emotionally. My impression is a progression from righteous confidence tinged with fear and a desire not to have to go through with it to a feeling of isolation, indignity and alienation — having to take the entire weight of the world on his shoulders with no one to share the responsibility. For Jesus to feel that God was no longer with him must have been the greatest sense of desolation and loneliness a person can ever know. And to varying degrees, we all feel that we have been there at one time or another.
I am not a big fan of the film The Passion of the Christ. The violence in that film was almost pornographic and grossly inaccurate from historical, biblical, and biological bases. The horror of this event is not in the fundamental inhumanity and cruelty, but in the abuses of power and the misunderstandings of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice. It is a metaparable of what human beings do when faced with the holy and divine. What God creates, humans destroy. What God values, humans debase. What God intends, humans undermine and subvert. Jesus was an insult and threat to every value of this world. The facades of earthly power, control, authority, prestige and popularity crumbled in Jesus’ presence as the witness of the Christ cast its light on the corruption and darkness of worldly aspirations. In a classic confrontation of the will of God versus the will of Man (and I do mean “Man” in this case, based on biblical and extra-canonical sources — though I am not sure the outcome would be any different were I referring to the will of Woman…), the men thought that all that was needed was to break, and soil, and injure, and mock, and spit, and deride. Big men acting like little boys, picking up whatever weapons were at hand to prove how tough and strong they were. Bullies, idiots, hate-mongers, immature/insecure/ignorant frauds who only know one thing: destroy whatever you dislike or disagree with.
I do not believe Jesus had any illusion of changing minds, winning arguments, defending his case, or receiving reprieve or acquittal. Jesus knew he was doomed from the moment his disciples fled, leaving him with to the custody of military goons. The way forward was preordained: speaking truth to corrupt and misguided power offered only one outcome — death. And, while I think Jesus believed he would return from the grave, I do not align with John’s concept that he knew it. Knowing would greatly diminish the power and impact of what Jesus did, in my opinion. Returning to my personal experience, I believed that my parachute would open when I jumped from the airplane, but I didn’t know it would until it did (Schrödinger’s parachute???). Probability increased my certainty, but there was always the possibility of failure on the part of the equipment. Jesus lived in a certainty, but I believe it was grounded in faith and trust, not in omniscience. The witness Jesus gave to his followers throughout time is to risk everything, even life itself, by trusting God. True, none of us are Jesus (alone and individually, though together by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we ARE the body of Christ…) but in his humanity he showed us what we can do if we will only believe and live fully from our faith.
Pain serves two contradictory, yet complementary purposes: it yields stunning clarity while it fogs and distorts. In the midst of mind-numbing agony, people experience transcendent moments of lucidity and insight. The gospel writers provide evidence of both. As Jesus is wrestling with the very human, “why is this happening to me/when will this end/what have I done to deserve this/why have I been forsaken and abandoned,” he also offers forgiveness, grace, absolution, and release. The sublime sentence, “It is finished!” speaks to so many levels: the foundation has been laid, the die has been cast, everything that can be done has been done, it is beyond my control, I can now let go, I can now rest, I have finished this part of the race, I have been faithful.
What makes this day so meaningful for me is that Jesus chose it for himself. There are a hundred and one things Jesus could have done to avoid this day, this end on a cross. There were places he could have steered clear of, people he could have ignored, points he could have left unmade, challenges he could have suppressed. He could have instructed his followers differently. He could have addressed the crowds another way. He could have engaged opponents differently. He could have adopted an obeisant manner to those in authority and been more deferential to the Roman and Jewish elite. It was within Jesus power to “remove the cup” from his own hand, but he chose not to. He chose the pain. He chose the horror. He chose the humiliation. He chose the rejection. He made these choices to change the entire course of history, to transform the world. Even were Jesus NOT the true Son of God, even if there were no resurrection event, the model and witness of this wise teacher would be incredible. If he knew how it would turn out, it is still remarkable. But if he were truly human and if he were trusting in the path and promise as a man of faith, trusting that God would provide, what a miraculous and unimaginable story this becomes.
This is the faith, the trust, the power that our world so desperately needs today. We do not merely need the Easter power for resurrection and new life; we need the conviction that without selfless and total sacrifice, nothing truly miraculous can follow. We need to understand that unless we move from our comfort zones to do what is necessary, good and right, we will continue to struggle. We need to understand that unless we give all for something larger than our own limited and self-centered agendas, we cannot hope to emerge from the tombs we lock ourselves in. Jesus knew what was likely to happen to him, and he followed through anyway. It reminds us that if there is anything good and Good Friday, it is the witness of a good man, who lived and good life, who faced a horrible end in a noble and good way. More tomorrow.