Is it just me, or has this Holy Week felt especially long? Maybe it’s how badly we need good news, maybe it’s the monotony of pandemic life, maybe it’s the bizarre way so many of us seem to be experiencing time right now; but the gap between Maundy Thursday and Easter Vigil has felt like many more than 48 hours. I described it to a friend as a marathon. Or maybe it is just me. Winter has been an especially dry season for me, so a week of services rich with meaning and emotion—like LaSalle’s Good Friday service, which I streamed with my COVID isolation pod—is a lot to take in.
This week I have found myself asking a lot of the kinds of playful, speculative questions I thought I left in college. Things like: If Jesus “descended into hell” after his death, why does he tell the man crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise?” Why does Jesus, whom I think of as a pacifist, tell the disciples at the Last Supper, “The one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one?” Yesterday I got caught up wondering about just what exactly happened to Jesus in between death and resurrection. My imagination was running wild, like Gandalf-fighting-the-Balrog kind of stuff. Christian tradition is conflicted but typically portrays Jesus on a heroic raid, rescuing or delivering good news to those held captive to death. But what if Holy Saturday held some kind of supernatural, cosmic, spooky work for Jesus? What if that’s what Jesus was really dreading in the garden—what if the betrayals and physical pain of crucifixion were just a warm-up to the real, higher-than-our-understanding, excruciating metaphysical task Jesus had to perform?
I think part of the work of faith in adulthood is identifying what the death and resurrection of Jesus means for each of us. I don’t really mean theologically. Many Christians grow up with certain understandings of atonement, and many of us wrestle with and reject certain theories we inherited. I think for most of us in the pews, the mechanics of how exactly the death of Jesus changed the cosmic protocol eventually settles into the category of comfortable mystery, that is, faith questions we haven’t answered but that don’t keep us up at night. I mean we have to figure out where the story gives deeper meaning to our own experience, our own longings and wounds and hopes. I don’t even think this has to be conscious work we articulate—I think it often happens gradually and unconsciously, and I think our relationship to the mystery changes over time as we change. But in order to keep showing up to Easter services year after year, we have to find meaning in the story.
From Jack Hitt on This American Life:
Well, it all began at Christmas two years ago when my daughter was four-years-old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about what did this holiday mean. And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she want to know more about that, and we went out and bought a kid’s Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them– wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.
And then one day we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, who is that? And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of, yeah, well, that’s Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.
It was about a month later after that Christmas. We’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. It was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools, so Martin Luther King Day was off. So I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play, and I take her out to lunch. And we were sitting in there and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper.
And there, big his life, was a huge drawing by like a 10-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King. And she said, who’s that? And I said, well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King, and he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? I said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at me and goes, for Jesus? And I said yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.
And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message. She said, what was his message? And I said, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like. She thought about that for a minute, and she said, well, that’s what Jesus said.
And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at me and said, did they kill him, too?
At 32, here’s the best way I can articulate what the crucifixion means to me: When someone or something is wholly themselves, wholly at ease, it tends to irritate a lot of our own uneasiness and anxieties and make us feel insecure. At best it makes us curious and self-reflective about our anxieties and insecurities. At worst we project our anxieties onto the other person, as if they’re the source of them, and we do whatever we can to eliminate the discomfort and maintain our current way of being, whether through avoiding or ignoring them, or through more violent means. So when you take the fullness of God—that is, the fullness of goodness, of love, of the slow and gentle currents of the universe that lead toward healing and rest and life—and distill it into one human life, that one human life is going to irritate a lot of people’s uneasiness and anxieties. Contact with such profound love and wholeness makes us feel insecure and threatens our current way of being. And so we turn to violent means to eliminate the discomfort. The problem this time was that we tried to do it to Jesus—Jesus, who had placed himself entirely at our mercy, even though he was God, all that goodness and love and life—and our violence failed. It failed so badly that somehow the entire mechanics of the universe changed. Now there is a fundamental Before and After in time-space history. We are still working out all the ramifications, but one thing we have learned is that our most violent tendencies, which lead to death, are less real and permanent than the goodness and love of God, which leads to life.