Christians throughout the world want to get involved in the story of Christ’s Passion. We’ve all heard about the famous Passion Play performed in Oberammergau in Bavaria every ten years. In the Philippines zealous individuals attract media attention every year by having themselves nailed to a cross. Closer to home, throughout the United Kingdom almost two dozen passion plays were scheduled for this year. And throughout history artists have depicted Our Lord’s Passion in so many different ways.
The passion narrative has a deep human fascination; we sympathise with the Victim; we recoil at the cruelty which human beings can inflict on one another. But for us Christians, the story tells so much more. It tells the story of human redemption and salvation. It depicts in graphic form the inner meaning of our sacramental rebirth and our Eucharistic celebration. It shows the Way of the Cross each of us is called to walk on our way to salvation.
Jesus is the humble and obedient Suffering Servant who has endured hardship and encountered resistance from his own people. After much abuse and suffering there is no beauty to be found in him. The suffering and bloodied Christ embodies the whole mystery of human suffering. In him we can see the suffering people of the world even today: the victims of war, the victims of disease, the victims of violence, the victims of abuse and neglect. We see our own sorrows in the Man of Sorrows.
Saint Matthew highlights all the elements of Our Lord’s suffering. He undergoes severe mental anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. He endures the defection of his disciples, the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, the taunts of the crowd, and the rejection of his own people. He has to bear the physical and psychological torments of being beaten and scourged, of having a crown of thorns thrust onto his head, and of being an innocent victim brutally nailed to the Cross. Jesus is innocent of any wrong, he doesn’t deserve this suffering. But he accepts it freely. He could have avoided it, but he didn’t. And our first reaction is to ask ‘why’? The answer to this question doesn’t come from logic, but from faith.
Saint Paul teaches the theology of this suffering in his Letter to the Philippians. Jesus Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave. He became obedient even unto death on a Cross. This emptying was total. Jesus took upon himself all the trials of our human condition. Though he was innocent and utterly sinless, he bore the terrible weight of our sins. When his emptying became total, exaltation happened. He rose from the dead and received the name above all other names.
The Resurrection bursts into Saint Matthew’s Gospel even before Easter morning. When Jesus dies on the Cross, a theophany occurs. God reveals to the world that this death is unlike any other. There is an earthquake. The dead rise from their graves. The Roman soldiers supervising Our Lord’s Crucifixion, seeing this divine intervention, proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God.
One way we share in the passion and death of Our Lord is the fact that it was our sins that caused Jesus to die. How dreadful is the congregation’s part of the reading of the Passion, that chilling cry: “Crucify him! Crucify him! His blood be on us and on our children!” Part of the Holy Week journey is a journey through our own conscience; past the many sins we have contributed to the terrible burden Our Lord had to bear for us. The Church asks us to fast on Good Friday as a sign of our repentance.
But there is another role we play in the Holy Week story. We can also read Our Lord’s parts in the Gospel. As he dies and is buried, so we have died and been buried with him in Baptism. As he is exalted as the risen Lord, we have been raised to new life in his grace. Our life as Christians is daily dying to sin and living for God, and our physical death will be the gateway to eternal exaltation. Through the forty days of Lent we have been trying to intensify our awareness of this life and our faithfulness to its demands.
As we participate in the ceremonies of this Holy Week, may we experience anew our share in Christ’s dying and rising; and may we renew the process and the commitment of our Baptism.