Today, the second day of the Triduum, Christians all over the world are remembering and ritually observing the event of Jesus’ passion.
It’s “passion” in the sense of suffering, unto death, related to the Greek notion of pathos, rather than “passion” in the more contemporary sense of strong emotion or enthusiasm, as in “shopping is my passion.”
Last night, at the ecumenical Maundy Thursday service in our little southern Indiana town, we read Mark 13:35-36,
… he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
“For you all things are possible.” An excruciating reminder, that we humans can be in places where the chasm between the experience we want to be having and the one we are having is deep and wide, and where the only hope would be God, and God is not saying “yes.” That Jesus has been there. That God knows how that feels. And that the difference between wanting to experience something, and being willing to, matters.
According to Karl Barth, Jesus is God’s “yes” to humanity. On Good Friday, though, that “yes” is hard to hear through the noise of the suffering and death.
This year, Good Friday and the first day of Passover coincide. (As they do in the gospel of John, by the way; see John 13:1, 18:28, 18:39, 19:31, 19:42). Passover celebrates God’s action of liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt – making “Egypt” forever afterwards a symbol for a place of refuge that turns into a place of suffering you can’t escape. In that story, God says “yes,” too, loudly, in a big, dramatic way.
But suffering and death is involved there, too. Setting aside the suffering associated with centuries of slavery for a moment, there is the suffering of the plagues and the “death of the firstborn,” the death of the oppressors’ own beloved sons, the death that makes them realize they can’t win this power play, so they need to let go. “For you all things are possible.” The Passover liturgy incorporates a recognition of the suffering occasioned by the 10 plagues, and more and more these days a struggle against complacency in freedom won at the price of others’ suffering. (See, for instance, Rabbi Jill Jacobs on “The Ten Plagues”)
The early Christians’ seem to have understood Good Friday and “the atonement” and the meaning of Christ’s passion largely through the lens of the Passover story – “Christ is our Passover” (as in 1 Corinthians 5:7) – if they did understand it, any better than we do. I don’t understand it very well, as I realize every year about this time.
I think I understand this much: that wanting to experience something differs from being willing to experience it, and that I owe all my hope and joy to that difference.
Image: a detail of Entombment by Ford Madox Brown