In honor of Holy Saturday, I thought I would post here a response to a question I was posed last week. Some churches recite the Apostles’ Creed with the line “He descended into hell,” but other churches recite the line as “He descended to the dead.” What’s going on here? I also had to do a bit of checking first, and the answer turned out not to be what I suspected! (more…)
A well-known African American spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” By a series of questions focusing on aspects of the crucifixion, it highlights the horrible suffering that Christ endured, for those who witnessed it and for those who reflect on it even long after the fact.
Of course, the straightforward answer to the question is “no.” This is not mere flippancy; I don’t know that I would have been there, had I been living in Jerusalem at the time, though the disciples ought to have been there. If I had been there, it wouldn’t have been as John or Mary; there were others there, too, who expressed their mockery and scorn for Jesus. On the other hand, I’m always a little uneasy around crowds, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been there.
Around Good Friday, I have sometimes sought to imagine what the experiences of Holy Week would have felt like for those involved. This year, I thought to wonder where I, or rather my counterpart in that society, might have been. And in that vein I offer a fictional historical autobiography:
[NB: the anti-semitic attitudes expressed in the following work of fiction accurately represent the hateful views of the Roman oppressors of the Jews; they are in no way my own!]
For a Jew, the guy called Jesus has achieved a certain degree of fame, and some people, when they hear that I lived in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, will ask me what really happened then. It was a bad affair, really, as Pilate found out to his dismay, and I did not wish to get too involved. I was a newly purchased steward in the household of a centurion, so I was well placed to observe, however. I remember that it was a busy week.
The thing about Jerusalem, before the pacification by Emperor Titus, was that its population would balloon out shortly before any festival, and this was one such time. I have no use for such rabble, but Jewish peasants would come from all around Judaea, and some from further afield, even from Rome itself, for their arbitrary festivals. Every errand took longer, since the streets were clogged with the Jews from all over, and some items could no longer be obtained from the market, I suppose because the visitors had consumed them all. Festival times were always a test of one’s patience.
They were also a time of high alert for the army, as so many Jews in one place could pose a security risk for the state. So my lord had more to do, which made him less pleasant to be around.
I had heard of this man named Jesus before the events leading to his death. He had been to Jerusalem a number of times, and made something of a sensation among the Jews, and even some of us who should have taken no interest in their superstitions were intrigued by the man. I had seen him from afar, though never heard him, and he seemed a docile enough workman. I did not expect much trouble from him.
So I was surprised when, while the Jews were converging upon Jerusalem for their festival, this Jesus did a fool stunt and had himself acclaimed king. I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, as I have never made a study of their Hebrew dialect, but the palm branches and riding over garments in the street were clear enough. I avoided the commotion, of course, since I am not moved by the force of the mindless crowds, but I heard of it from the other slaves. This Jesus was playing with fire; perhaps the poor rustic did not know how such a move would appear to our enlightened Emperor, were he to hear of it. Even so, the whole excitement seemed to fizzle out; Jesus came in, spent some time in their temple (for the Jews had only a single temple, before it was necessary to destroy it), and left the city. Over the next few days, I am told, he entered and exited the city repeatedly, but he was just debating with the Jewish leaders, which is of no interest, because no threat, to Roman sovereignty.
The next I heard of this Jewish pseudo-king was his trial. Evidently he had been arrested overnight, and the Jewish authorities were asking for his death. I was with my lord the centurion at the trial, as it turned out, when Pilate was arguing with the Jewish priests. He was accused of all kinds of strange things, but they were no concern of anyone other than those Jews. Curiously, he refused to defend himself, but perhaps he didn’t understand what was being said. Pilate tried to reach an agreement with the Jewish leaders, to secure the peace, and thus offered torture or scourging rather than an execution. I said to myself, “the poor blighter,” affecting the imperial accent as well as I could. But when the crowd started demanding his crucifixion, and the Jewish priests threatened to report to the Emperor that this Jesus claimed to be a king, Pilate found himself in a corner. Some have called Pilate an incompetent coward, and I am under no compulsion to defend him, but even apart from his incompetence I saw then that this was a bad business from first to last.
Crucifixion is an ugly way to die, and I had no desire to see another. I am a cultured man, not one of these common barbarians who enjoy mocking the unfortunate. So from the trial I made my way back to my master’s house and returned to the frustrating work of trying to secure the supplies that were necessary to run the household. Fortunately the feared revolt did not, then, materialize, and it was not for another generation before it became necessary to enforce the pax romana more completely upon the fractious province of Judaea.
May the Lord have mercy on all of us who, in our busyness, our elitism, and our cowardice, have looked upon the Lord of life with contempt.
At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!” The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.
This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes. The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly. The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced. People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain. It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it. Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for. No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.
And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey. And in that sense, he chose his own death. Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not. (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.) He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.
Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life. As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Why does this matter? Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?
I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart. She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number. We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday. I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years. I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it. I don’t know what she had been going through.
Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death. In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord. We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters. After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times. I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.
In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways. I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share? What if I had been a more consistent pen pal? Could I have done anything? Might it have mattered? And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.
But I have no use for wishful thinking. Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture. He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence. We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary. The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts. These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.
So let us not fool around with trivialities. Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”
Things start sometime, if they start at all. Tuesday of Holy Week is not generally considered the best time to start anything. The events of the Passion have already begun, and the joy of Easter is not yet here. And yet, this is where we always first find ourselves with God: things have started without us, and we have not yet reached the fullest joy. So this blog starts at the wrong time, on the wrong foot, just like everything in our lives.
Tuesday of Holy Week is also not the best time for a road trip. Holy Week “ought to be” a time of preparation for the severity of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. It is a time of reflection, of spiritual discipline, and of worship. But real life has its requirements, and I drove ten hours today. This is also how most of us worship God. A few people have the privilege of withdrawing from the world to devote their lives to worship alone. Most of us have to work in order to eat. We worship God in the moments around other activities, and we try to learn how to worship God in all the movements of our lives. It is not easy, and it does not come naturally. But Christ did not come to call the perfect, the devout, and the righteous; he came to call the sick and the sinners, like us. And he did not take us out of the world, but left us in the world to be his servants here. So real life happens, and we seek to worship Christ within real life.