By Debie Thomas
My essay this week focuses on the Passion Sunday readings. If you’d like to read essays based on the Palm Sunday texts, here are two from our archives:
The Clown King (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150323JJ.shtml)
Sorrow & Love (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20100322JJ.shtml)
Some years ago, when my daughter was in middle school, she became anorexic. During the worst of her illness, she had to be hospitalized for both her physical and mental health. On the morning of her admission, after the doctors explained that I would not be able to see my depressed, malnourished child for several days, I walked out of the hospital, got into my car, and started driving without aim or purpose.
I ended up in the parking lot of a Catholic gift shop I’d never seen before. Shaking, I walked in and wandered the aisles until a woman with a kind face approached me. “Can I help you find anything?” she asked. I burst into tears and said nothing. She gave me a hug and said, “Wait here.” After disappearing for a minute, she returned with a small, velvet box. Inside it was a tiny silver crucifix on a chain. Pressing the necklace into my hands, she said, “Hold this. Keep it with you. Only a suffering God can help.”
I’ve never forgotten the line (which I later learned was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s), and I’ve been thinking about it pretty much nonstop since the coronavirus pandemic began. Only a suffering God can help.
If these were “ordinary” times, we’d be preparing to spend many hours together in our respective churches over the next few days. Today, we’d wave palm branches, shout “Hosanna,” and read in unison the story of Jesus’s death and burial. On Maundy Thursday, we’d share a Passover meal, wash each other’s feet, and strip our altars bare. On Good Friday, we’d keep vigil in our pews, walk the Stations of the Cross, and listen to homilies on the Last Seven Words of Christ. On Holy Saturday, we’d wait, drained and tired, perhaps, but full of anticipation for Easter and its many joys.
But these aren’t ordinary times. Most of us are confined to our homes, and our church families are not gathering in person. Some of us have lost our jobs, our paychecks, our savings, our futures. Some of us are numb and disassociated, unable to process the scope of what’s happening around the world. Some of us are depressed. Anxious. Lonely. Terrified. Some of us are sick. Some of us are grieving our dead. Some of us — before this pandemic is over — will die.
What is there to say in perilous times like these? What does our faith offer us? On this Passion Sunday, I think it offers us a core truth, a healing truth, a paradoxical and shocking truth: only a suffering God can help. And a suffering God — a crucified, broken, desolate God — is what we have.
I know that there’s so much to be asked, said, pondered, and debated about the theological meanings of the cross. What precisely happened when Jesus died? What did his crucifixion accomplish? What can we know for sure about sin, sacrifice, death, atonement, and eternity in light of Christ’s death?
These are all essential questions, and wise, probing minds have considered them for centuries. But right now, what strikes me most is not the theology. What strikes me is the story itself, bare and unadorned. The story of betrayal, denial, and abandonment. The story of cruel, unjust trials, false accusations, and Jesus’s mysterious silence. The story of floggings. The story of thorns. The story of bloody wounds and oxygen-deprived lungs. The story of what happens when the God we want and think we know doesn’t show up, and another God — a less efficient, less aggressive, far less muscular God — shows up instead. So often, I think I know exactly what kind of savior I need. The savior of the swift repair, the majestic intervention, the tangible presence, the butter soft landing. But here’s the thing: that savior is not Jesus.
For those of us who’ve grown up in the church, it might very well be the case that the actual horror of Jesus’s death has faded into over-familiarity. We’re used to worshipping in front of ornate, flower-strewn crosses. We’ve seen so many icons of Christ Crucified that we barely notice them. But what would happen if we could shake ourselves out of this familiarity for a few minutes, and see the story with fresh eyes? What if we could look at the cross and see what Jesus’s first followers saw? Scandal? Humiliation? Godlessness? Shame? The cross as electric chair. The cross as lethal injection. The cross as lynching tree.
The Jesus we find in Matthew’s Gospel is not a Jesus who presides victoriously over his own final chapter. He is a man who suffers in utter vulnerability, nakedness, and isolation. When he prays in Gethsemane, he “throws himself on the ground,” and pleads for his life. His flogging at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers weakens him so much that he can’t bear the weight of his own cross; Simon the Cyrene carries it for him. His last word before dying is hardly a “word” at all; it’s a howl. A wrenching cry of defeat and abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Embracing this shamed and suffering God — much less following him — is not easy. On the cross, Jesus bears the violence, the contempt, the pain, and the humiliation of the entire world and absorbs it into his own body. He declares solidarity for all time with those who are abandoned, colonized, oppressed, accused, imprisoned, beaten, mocked, and murdered. He bursts open like a seed so that new life can grow and replenish the earth. He takes an instrument of torture and turns it into a bizarre vehicle of hospitality and communion for all people, everywhere.
Jesus was and is many things: teacher, healer, companion, and Lord, and it is essential that we experience him in all of these ways. But the center, the heart of who he is, is revealed at the cross. Only a suffering God can help. Only a suffering God can help us bear our own burdens. Only a suffering God can show us the Way and lead us home. Only a suffering God can teach us how to love.
As Christians, we love because the cross draws us towards love — its power is as compelling as it is mysterious. The cross pulls us towards God and towards each other, a vast and complicated gathering place. Whether or not we want to see Jesus shamed and wounded, here he is, drawing us closer and closer to the darkness where light dwells. This is the solid ground we stand on. Stark, holy, brutal, and beautiful.
To take up a cross as Jesus does is to stand, always, in the hot white center of the world’s pain. Not just to glance in the general direction of suffering and then sidle away, but to dwell there. To identity ourselves wholly with those who are aching, weeping, screaming, and dying. Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul and body that surrounds us, and pouring our energies and our lives into alleviating that pain — no matter what it costs.
In the context of our current pandemic, it means trusting that God is in the very midst of the loss and terror, mourning with and for us. It means accepting that we will die — if not now then later — and trusting that we, like Jesus, will also rise again. It means speaking back to our own trembling hearts, which so often prioritize self-protection over everything else that matters in this life. It means stepping away from the vicious cycles of denial and fear that seek to cheat death, but in fact rob us of the abundant life Jesus died to give us.
I’ll be honest: like many of you, I come to this Holy Week tired, uncertain, and afraid. Who knows how many deaths lie waiting around the corner? How many sorrows, disappointments, farewells, and jagged endings we will face before resurrection comes home to stay? I can’t imagine most of it, and sometimes I can’t bear any of it. But Jesus can. If anything in the Christian story is true, then this must be true as well: our suffering God will not leave us alone. There is no death we will die, small or big, literal or figurative, that Jesus will not hold in his crucified arms.
So. Welcome to Holy Week. Here we are, and here is our suffering, sorrowing, saving God. Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry. Here is the cross upon which we stand. Blessed is the One who comes to die so that we will live.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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