Holy Week and the Great Story

Photo composite by Ellen Bollard, St. James Cathedral, Seattle; Holy Family, Seattle; Visitation, Tacoma Photo composite by Ellen Bollard, St. James Cathedral, Seattle; Holy Family, Seattle; Visitation, Tacoma

Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection are at the core of Christianity, and of the universe

I once heard a co-worker speculate in a daydreamy way (after the radio played Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”): “Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a story? What if God became a human being?” Apparently, she had never gotten the bulletin that her new story idea was the central religious narrative of all of Western history for 2,000 years.

To be sure, she’d heard of Jesus. Who hasn’t? And yet, somehow, she didn’t connect him with the concept of God among us in human flesh. In other words, she was an average Seattleite and, truth be told, an increasingly average American and Westerner. Make no mistake: She was as nice a lady as you could ask for, smart as the day is long, college-degreed, competent and decent. But somehow or other something cut her off from any knowledge of the heart and soul of Christianity.

In short, she had never heard the Great Story of Jesus.

We need to learn to tell this Great Story: the story of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ and his passion, death, resurrection and ascension. And Lent and Easter is the absolute best time of year to do that, because the Great Story is both told aloud and played out liturgically for us to see, hear, taste, feel and smell as we enter into it in the Triduum.

Some Catholics ask “Doesn’t the Mass tell the story for us?” Yes, if you know what’s going on in the Mass. But many don’t. And the proof is right before our eyes as the church hemorrhages six people for every convert. They leave because they have never grasped the connection of the Mass to the Great Story. More than that, there are millions, like my friend, who have never heard the Great Story or been to a Mass.

Jesus on the cross and taken down from itMurals at St. Andrew, Sumner, and St. Frances Cabrini, Lakewood. Photos: Janis Olson

What it’s all about

If you ask Americans today what Jesus did, an awful lot of them will say he was a great teacher who preached love and tolerance. This is true. But it’s like saying Einstein was a good worker at the patent office or that Shakespeare was a fine speller. True, but pretty inadequate. Others will say Jesus was a martyr who “died for what he believed.” Again, true, but not sufficient. Martin Luther King Jr. died for what he believed too, but nobody says of Dr. King what Dr. King himself said of Jesus: that he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

While the stories and teachings of Jesus, as well as his acts of love and his signs and wonders, are important, they are simply not what the Gospels are about. On the contrary, the best definition of a Gospel I have ever heard is this: A Gospel is a Passion narrative with a long introduction.

In other words, all four Gospels are books that spend fully one-quarter of their ink on a roughly 72-hour period in the life of Jesus: Holy Thursday evening to Easter (and a couple of Sundays after). If you want to know what Christianity is all about, look there in that final quarter of the Gospels. The passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ the Son of God are what it’s all about. Everything else in the Gospels is just prefatory remarks: illustrations of the divine identity of the God-man being crucified and raised from the dead, illustrations of the power that God-man’s death and resurrection will unleash, illustrations of his call to believe in him and the divine power of his death and resurrection, illustrations of the divine love that God-man is displaying in his death and resurrection, warnings of the consequences of ignoring or rejecting that God-man and his death and resurrection. The Gospels are like the spokes on a wheel, and the Passion narratives are the hub of the wheel. If we do not grasp that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are at the absolute core, not merely of Christianity, but of the whole universe, we simply do not understand the Great Story.

More than a story

Some imagine, for instance, that the Resurrection is a tale concocted by the disciples to cope with the death of Jesus and added to a collection of stories about their beloved dead rabbi later, perhaps by St. Paul. But the reality is that “Christ Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified and raised from the dead” was what the apostles had to say from the instant the church began. It’s not something Paul or anybody else added later. It’s the reason Paul was beating and jailing Christians before his conversion.

All the traditions about the sayings and doings of Jesus simply fall to pieces without that story of passion, death and resurrection. Nothing about Jesus makes sense apart from that galvanizing event, beginning with his death.

Why, after all, was he put to death? Not for preaching “love one another” or prescribing prayer, fasting and almsgiving, since such sayings and disciplines comported perfectly with Judaism, and Romans could not have cared less about them. No, Jesus was killed for saying things like “The Father and I are one,” for daring to forgive sins (something only God could do) and for answering “I am” (the name of God) when asked “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” by the highest court in Israel. (John 10:30; Mark 14:61-62) He was handed over to Pilate, not because he taught “love your enemies” or urged us to care for the poor, but because he was saying “that he is the Messiah, a king.” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 23:2)

And he was. That’s why he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, exactly the way the original son of King David, Solomon, did a thousand years before him. (1 Kings 1:33-44; John 12:12-19) When he was asked by the authorities to tell his disciples to pipe down with the whole “Hosanna to the Son of David” thing, his reply was, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:40) Yet his purpose was to create an insurrection not against Rome, but against sin, hell and death. How?

Paul sums up the mystery at the core of Jesus’ strange action in perhaps the strangest words of the whole New Testament: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) That is, in Jesus, God took upon himself our damaged human nature and thereby the sins of the whole world and, by this extraordinary means, took our sin down with him into the grave.

Jesus resurrectedMural at St. John Mary Vianney, Kirkland

Why the crucifixion?

Many people wonder why, of all the ways to die, Jesus had to die that death. But of course what we overlook in that whole tragedy is that this was our party. Why did Jesus have to die by crucifixion? Because we are a species which, given the choice of ways to respond to a God of perfect love, choose to beat the living daylights out of him, crown him with thorns and then nail his living body to a couple of beams of wood and watch him gasp out his last breath as we make fun of him. That’s who and what we are, what we do. And so in the very act of offering himself to us, Jesus allows us, of our own free will, to demonstrate the depth of our depravity and need for salvation. We are a species so fallen we do that to Perfect Love.

And Perfect Love receives all that from us and offers it with perfect obedience to his Father. In union with his divine nature, the humanity of the God-man does something no one has done since the primordial disaster at the dawn of the human race that we call “the fall.” He says “yes” to God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength every nanosecond of his life and carries it through to his last breath. He is “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)

Both the sufferer and the manner of his suffering are key here. Lots of people underwent the extreme torture of the cross. It was punishment reserved for the lowest scum. Spartacus and 6,000 slaves endured it and nobody saw anything noble about it. Nor did the crowd at Calvary see anything noble about Jesus’ death. Indeed, for the Jewish mind it was final proof that he was a charlatan who got what was coming to him, since crucifixion was proof that the victim was cursed by God. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

But the apostles came to a radically counterintuitive conclusion about the horrors they saw that day. Why?

The Great Story continues

Because, as they never tired of declaring, “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:4) This was not something they had anticipated in the slightest. As they themselves took pains to note, he had foretold his death and resurrection repeatedly, but they simply could not take it in. Apparently, they assumed he meant something “spiritual” or metaphorical. (He was, to be fair, given to oblique and elliptical speech.) And when the crisis of his passion and death was upon them, they were too shocked and frightened to think of much beyond saving their own skins.

But on the third day, first some women (whom nobody in their culture credited as witnesses) and then sundry other people began to report they had met him, raised from the dead. And then he appeared to the apostles themselves — and to 500 others, most of whom were still alive when the New Testament was being written. Not a disembodied spook, mind you, but Jesus himself in a warm, living, breathing body that could be touched and eat fish. It transformed them into men and women who would go to grisly deaths gladly announcing “He is risen!”

And the reason they gave for their courage and joy was that this glorified God-man not only overcame death, but now had an indestructible life he communicated to them in the words and sacraments he had left them. They (and we) could now be participants in the divine nature through him. (2 Peter 1:4) The Mass they celebrated was no mere ritual, but the way in which we could enter into that Great Story as a present reality every day till the end of time.

The Great Story continues today — and we are part of it.

Northwest Catholic - April 2017

Mark Shea

Mark Shea is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle. His website is www.mark-shea.com

Website: www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea