Prelude to the Passion

It is only in these last days of Lent—before, that is, the high moments of Holy Week that will mark the earthly end of his life—that the public appearances of Jesus become especially fraught, ever more heightened and dramatic. And it is always a toss-up, given the essential inconstancy of the crowds confronting him (all that seething volatility pressing upon him), whether they shout Hosanna! or Crucify!

What is it about Christ’s coming among us, the sheer elasticity of the event, which enabled so many to pull at him, like taffy, in every which way? Certainly it is a testimony to his enduring genius that he manages, in equal measure, both to galvanize and antagonize the crowds that follow him from place to place. Provoking an equally emphatic reaction either way—from those determined to remain with him to the end, seizing upon every word he speaks, every look and gesture he reveals; to those driven almost mad by such rage and revulsion as to seek stones with which to kill him.

How does one square these two opposing camps? That here are men and women who, on one side, cannot be kept from him. They simply will not be deflected from their need to see and to hear, to reach out and touch him.  And to be touched by him. Because their hunger for heaven, for a life finally free of sin and death, is so huge and uncontained that it will not be assuaged by anything less. It is because they see in Christ the offer of a salvation they have long sought, a state of blessedness that they cannot themselves obtain. And because, in the last analysis, there is really nothing more important, more pressing, than to encounter this event; that because no other good finally matters, they look to Christ as surely as the plants and the flowers look to the sun. Unless our journey to an ultimate fulfillment carries us home to Christ, there is really no point in getting on the bus.

Meanwhile, on the other side, there are those who having already, as it were, figured him out, refuse to have anything more to do with him; they simply plug their ears to the message he brings, his words falling like stones into the ocean of their indifference. That even if there were any sort of way, truth, or life, which is highly unlikely in a world as messed up as ours is, it could never be this guy. Who, for all his pretensions to divinity, is really no better than anyone else. Worse, actually, since divinity is not something any of us identifies with, knowing only too well our place in the food chain.

And, of course, it will not take these disaffected ones too terribly long for everything to harden into hatred, metastasizing into a rejection of Christ so complete, so consuming as to leave them sputtering with fury and rage. There will be in the end a great many baying for his blood, their hostility reaching its climatic crescendo in the horror of crucifixion and death.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his deft dissection of what he calls “the obdurate heart,” has certainly got their number. “Being like stones,” he writes in his commentary on the gospel narrative, “they resort to stones.” Or, to give it an ironic spin, their obdurate refusal to listen, to find neither joy nor life in Jesus, their lust for his blood, will become a stone of unbelief so heavy that only the Risen Son will be able to lift it.

In truth, however, what more can Christ do for them? Is there anything left with which to soften their hearts? How much more do they expect from him? After all, he came into this world to perform the great and merciful work of his Father in heaven, so that the world might “know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10: 39).  Indeed, as Pope Francis announced in giving us the Year of Mercy, Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. What more does the world require than an outpouring of this mercy upon all who sin and suffer? Christ is the very form, no less, that divine love assumes when, in the encounter with human misery, it stoops to the level of our wretchedness and loss. If human sin could ever outstrip the mercy of God, leaving the Precincts of Eternal Love utterly confounded, then we will certainly need to re-think the reach of Christ’s redemption. Maybe it really isn’t equal to the scale of human sin. And yet, as Fr. Guy Mansini, O.S.B. reminds us, “Christ dies for all sins of all sinners, from the dawn of Eden to the twilight of Armageddon.”

In a profound reflection from his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Saint John Paul II tells us that here we find “the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.” So what is wrong with these people? Why do they persist in their obduracy?  Do they not want to be loved? Are they really not interested in salvation? Alas, for great numbers of people, as Hans Urs von Balthasar remarks in a stunning sermon on the subject of the Great Price paid by the Son of God to buy back our freedom, “it is simply up to them to reconcile themselves with God, and that many do not need such reconciliation at all….

They have no conception of the flames necessary to burn up all the refuse that is within man; they have no idea that these flames burn white hot in the Cross of Jesus. There is a cry that penetrates all the cool pharisaism of our alleged religiosity: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In the darkest night of the soul, while every fiber of his body is in pain, and he experiences extreme thirst for God, for lost love, he atones for our comfortable indifference.

It was because Christ resolved to pay the highest possible price for our salvation that he mounted the cross on Golgotha. “Not only has he canceled our huge debt,” says Balthasar, which is what the master in the New Testament parable did for his servant, “for it is not simply a matter of money that we cannot pay: he has borne our guilt or given himself for us as our ‘ransom.’ For the point is that we cannot free ourselves from our alienation from God.”

To look upon the crucified God as he hangs lifeless upon the cross is to begin to understand at least two things. One, that this is what it must really mean to be loved by God, who in the gift of the pierced and crucified Son goes to the very limit of all that we have lost, determined to show us how much we matter to God. And, two, that what so often passes for human love is nothing more than humbuggery, the merest veneer behind which there is only the egoism of the self-centered self. Where we say No to Jesus Christ, he says Yes. “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,” Saint Paul tells us, “was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 19-20).

It is too bad that those determined on his death should have stopped short in canvassing the possibilities before picking up the stones. Because the evidence of his life so plainly suggests that since Christ was neither a liar, nor a lunatic, the only alternative they are left with is simply to take him at his word, that he is exactly what he claims to be, namely, the Logos of God. And so, like those few who followed after him in love, they too may bend the knee before the Lord.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Ecce Homo,” was painted by Antonio Ciseri in 1871.

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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