November 19, 2016
“Save yourself.” (Lk 23:37; 39)
Most of us wouldn’t need anyone to shout at us three times to save ourselves from immediate danger or imminent death. We would do it immediately, if we could, as an unthinking reflex. Jesus resists the temptation to perform a last-minute wonder and knock his critics dead (figuratively speaking). He prefers to die, weak, defeated and shamed. There is shame in the conviction, shame in the rough treatment, shame in the nakedness and shame in the ironic title under which he hangs.
The gospel gives one message about Christ the King – he is one crucified and mocked by earthly powers. My heart gives another – it is the “feet…like burnished bronze” (Rv 1:15) which draw me. “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I hold the keys of Death and of Hades.” (Rv 1:17-18)
Why am I more drawn, at this moment, to Christ risen and victorious than to the Crucified? Maybe it’s that I’m not in the mood for dying. It never stops being a scandal that God should die so shamefully. And the worst part is the unstated question: and you?
Hearing the passion narrative outside of Holy Week is somewhat of an embarrassment. At that time there is a communally sanctioned appropriateness to looking into that place of darkness, pain and shame. We do it together, with strength in numbers. Even in my solitary meditations, I am part of the praying Church, which screws its courage to the sticking place and looks. At other times, like The Exaltation of the Cross, and like today, it may catch us unawares and we are shocked to find ourselves confronted by the cross:
“Had you forgotten that you are the disciple of a crucified Lord? King of the universe, yes, but reigning from a tree.”
The cross only makes sense when I am carrying it. If I have set it aside to have a picnic by the side of the road to Jerusalem, then it becomes an inconvenient reminder of what awaits me. It accuses me of being too comfortable and settled. “Haven’t I been working hard enough?” I plead. “Surely now it is time to linger in the garden?”
“Yes, but which garden? There are three. You are thinking of the garden of resurrection, where one hopes to meet the Gardener, his head wet with dew, and hear one’s own name spoken by his lips. But you have not yet paid enough in tears to enter there. Perhaps you are really lingering in the garden of temptation unresisted. You can expect to be cast out into the cold, fingers and lips still dripping with the remains of fruit. Your place is in yet another garden – a place of anguish and humiliation where temptation becomes a locus of encounter. Here you will meet the King, dripping not with myrrh, but with water and blood.”
Jean Vanier somewhere describes his experience of meeting Jesus in situations of terrible degradation, where people are suffering neglect and abuse. He finds himself paradoxically attracted to such situations and people, because of Christ.
Meeting Jesus in this garden is not a matter of warm feelings of intimacy. The point of meeting is anxiety and abandonment. But at some point comes the realization, “I am walking with Jesus Christ.” And this changes everything – or perhaps nothing, except the inner disposition, which is all that matters. At some obscure point inside, joy is born. A strange joy, this, which coexists with suffering. But the suffering does not have to be heroic, and I do not have to be an innocent victim. We are all innocent in the sense that none of us deserves the suffering that life brings. But, on the other hand, who among us is innocent? Who is there who has never sinned by seeking comfort at the expense of another’s pain? Who has not tried to save oneself from suffering by passing it on to someone else, or (even under one’s breath) cursing the day of one’s birth?
Thankfully, Jesus never stops making it clear that he came to save sinners, not the righteous. And his compassion goes beyond the point where most of us would like to stop, into the darkness.