The Final Mystery | A Reflection on Holy Week
This has been the week that we are asked to listen, in the Gospel, to the entire account of the suffering and death of Jesus. It’s a much longer gospel passage than we find in Masses throughout the year, but it’s not just an attempt to show how important Holy Week is by having vast readings. We really have to hear it all, to remind ourselves of how utterly staggering this whole affair is. Despite the warning by Jesus that things would turn bad, it comes as a shock that the transformation should come so quickly. One moment, Jesus is being welcomed into Jerusalem – parents encourage their children to cheer for him – the next moment; he is on trial for his life. We have to remind ourselves of how good and evil seem to exist alongside one another in history. The combat between the two forces can be very intense. The sudden appearance of the arrest and trial gives the impression that darkness has managed to throw goodness to the ground, for the time being at least.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the affair is that Jesus doesn’t panic. We’re coming towards the time when, in his risen form, it will be clear that he is God. But in his suffering he is every inch the human being – except for the absence of panic. Fear certainly exists in his mind, as we see in the gospels, but it never manages to take over. In all the madness of his troubles, faith in his Father keeps him going.
‘My God, why have you forsaken me’
Sometimes, people look at the words ‘My God, why have you forsaken me – and assume that, yes, there was a point at which Jesus felt utter desolation: a time when, in other words, his faith gave out, suspended between heaven and earth, dying for us, re-forming the bond between us and the Father.
Scholars might say that this psalm certainly starts off with the awful pain of an innocent man in great danger, but ends with a song of praise for the God who saves. Jewish bystanders who heard the words ‘why have you forsaken me’ would know the whole psalm, and immediately understand what Jesus meant: that even in his agony, the power of God was close at hand and would soon work wonders.
In the crucifixion of Jesus we’re looking at a mystery. His faith was real, but so was his pain. He really was the Son of God, but he was also a human being. How do all these pieces come together? I suppose it depends on how you look at the whole situation.
In the Easter reading from the prophet Isaiah offers one angle. The horror of the crucifixion is real, and only the faith of this person called the ‘Suffering Servant’ keeps him strong. Listen again: ‘I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle. The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.’
From another point of view, however, in a reading from St. Paul’s letter, we find the thoughts of someone looking back on what happened, after the resurrection. The tone is much more reverent- the horror is gone. It has been replaced by worship. ‘But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus.’
Both these angles are true. But neither is complete on its own. If you concentrate only on the pain and suffering, then Jesus’s situation moves steadily towards the point where he really has been forsaken by God. But if you only think of the crucifixion in the light of the resurrection which came afterwards, then you risk forgetting that the human suffering of Jesus was quite real.
It simply isn’t possible to explain a mystery. All we are asked to do is to spend time with these ideas, going over them calmly and peacefully in our mind, until we come to understand something of how things were for Jesus – how, in fact things are for Jesus.
We believe that this same mystery, a coming together of the agony of crucifixion and the liberating joy of resurrection, continues to exist in the lives of people throughout the world. People in war zones, people sitting in their front rooms, people starving to death, people unjustly in prison -and all the other problems that visit humans. These are the people for whom Jesus died and rose again, ordinary people like us. People for whom the crucifixion continues to take place. People, like Jesus, straining forward to reach the new life that comes at the end of the struggle.
What happened to Jesus, bad and good, death and rising again, is what gives us hope. And that hope can’t be put into words – a mystery again – although it is quite, quite real. So this week is a time when we remember not only the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but also the continuing story of the human race.
Written in 1990 by Father Michael English (modernized by Andrew Beatty).
Image: Jim Caviezel plays Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ