Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and at Mass we heard the long gospel reading about suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.
The place of crucifixion was next to a road leading in to the city of Jerusalem. Visitors would know that crime was taken seriously and punished. (In some middle eastern cities today, public executions in the town’s square serves much the same way – as a very strong warning.) The humiliation of being on public display provided even more insult to injury.
A very short couple of lines in the Gospel of Matthew which we heard references the travelers on that road who saw Jesus and how they responded:
Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying,
“You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross!” (Mt. 27:39)
These people were not close followers of Jesus. The men closest to Jesus all ran off in fear and were primarily in hiding. The women closest to Jesus watched from a distance, according to Matthew (in John’s Gospel, ch 19:25 it is said that they were standing by the cross). These individuals simply knew of Jesus and happened to be going past.
Jesus, his profound teaching and many miracles were well known in the region. The expectation was that he was powerful and in control – in fact, so much so that he had raised people from the dead, both friends and strangers. How, then, could he end up on the cross? This sight of Jesus, this new reality, seemed to undo whatever faith they may have had growing in him.
How would you and I react, had we been in this scene?
One of the ways St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits) encourages people to pray is to meditate on the readings and to try to see yourself in them. Using religious imagination in prayer can be wonderful and it can be humbling, especially in a scene like this one with the pedestrians responding in shock at Jesus’ apparent predicament of being the miracle worker who seemed to need a miracle himself.
As I listened to the readings on Sunday, I zeroed in on the reaction of others to the arrest, torture and killing of Jesus. Where would I have been? Would I have been a follower in hiding? I don’t kid myself to think I’d have been with the holy woman who watched from near or far. Perhaps I’d have been on the road like these people who were passing by. If so, how would I have responded at the sight of Jesus in such a seemingly unlikely situation?
I have the uncomfortable feeling that if I had been in that scene, I would have been heartsick and perplexed. I would have wondered, not as mockery, but sincerely wondered why Jesus wouldn’t save himself and “come down from the cross“. Clearly he didn’t deserve this pain and death. Why would he submit to it since he was so powerful? Perhaps at that sight, in my confusion, I’d have lost all faith. Certainly it would have been rocked. I probably would have felt devastated. Maybe betrayed – this wasn’t how I would have thought it was supposed to turn out.
What about you? Where would you be? How would you react?
Sometimes things don’t turn out like we expect. Things aren’t right or fair. Bad things sometimes do happen to good people. We usually refer to this as the problem of evil. Many books have been written on the problem of evil. Jesus lived it himself, experiencing terrible malfeasance.
As Christians, we know that while Jesus did suffer and die, that wasn’t the end of the story. During those horrible hours, it must have felt that way as the passers by walked past the cross. It was an important chapter but later they would learn it was not the final word.
We know that just as Jesus was not exempt from suffering, nor are we. For us to expect differently is a mistake. Being a Christian, being a Catholic does not mean that you will not have difficulties, challenges, burdens, or worse, great injustices in life, even if you are heroic (maybe especially if you are heroic). It does mean that there’s more to it than first meets the eye. It does mean that you are not alone, even when it feels that way.
The suffering, humiliation, and death of Jesus are all very real. So too is pain and injustice in our world now. How do we respond to it? Do we become disgusted, disheartened, or distant? Do we hide from it? Do we demand, mockingly, that God change it, to “make it fair”? Do we believe that pain has the last word?
The holy women stood by, watching and no doubt praying. It must have pained them tremendously both to see him suffer and to know that his death was imminent. They could not help him, they could only be present. But Jesus would have seen them and known that they were there.
Sometimes we have evil foisted upon us, and sometimes we see it happen to others. We may not understand how God will somehow pull us or those we love through it. It can be difficult to hold strong when everything we expect is turned upside down. In the face of pain and loss, it is hard to see that some sort of Easter is around the corner. We don’t have to know the rest of the story, though. God doesn’t expect us to know the future. But if we can keep the vigil, stand close, and trust – even in the face of profound loss – despite all reasons to the contrary, we will be on the right path. One day at a time.
For more reading:
St. Ignatius and the prayer of imagination
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by rabbi Harold S. Kushner