Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Lent and Easter

Why did Jesus die such a cruel death?

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The release last week of yet another film about the Passion of Jesus raises once again a question which troubles many people. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed in great distress: “Father, if this cup cannot pass me by without my drinking it, your will be done”. This has been interpreted by many to mean that God sent his Son with the specific purpose of suffering the most cruel death to make satisfaction for our sins. Such an understanding of the passion of our Lord presents a frightening portrait of a most unloving God. Is that really what it was all about – God demanding vengeance for our sins through the suffering and death of his Son?

To appreciate the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus, his passion must never be seen in isolation from his life. The death of Jesus happened to him as a consequence of all that he had said and done, of all that he had stood for in his life and ministry. It should be seen as the culminating point of his life, the total offering of himself in love, which was to smash the barriers of sin and death in his glorious resurrection.

The words and deeds of Jesus brought him into direct conflict with the official leaders of Judaism. Here was someone setting himself up above the authority of Moses, claiming to forgive sin, telling people to address God as ‘Abba’ (‘daddy’), promising them salvation, and criticising the religious authorities. These claims were too much for the officials of Judaism: “This is why the Jews sought all the more to kill him because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father”. It was because of this latter claim that they accused Jesus of blasphemy.

During his public life Jesus must have reckoned with the possibility of death. The destiny of previous prophets was surely an indication of the way his own life was likely to be determined. The fate of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod must have made him aware of what lay in store for him. In addition many of the charges against him such as the casting out of demons with the help of Beelzebub, being a false prophet, deliberately breaking the Sabbath, and that he blasphemed were punishable by stoning or by death. Jesus would have been fully aware that the opposition to him and his mission was growing ever more threatening.

Despite all the indications of danger, Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem for the Passover. The city would be crowded for the Feast, and the crowds had a right to hear the Good News of the God’s kingdom of love. After all it was for this that he had been sent into the world and he would remain loyal to his Father’s will at whatever cost to himself. He would not fail the people for the sake of his own safety. So to Jerusalem he came, and immediately caused a stir – by the mode of his entering the city to the acclamation of the crowds, and then by the way he drove out the money changers and stall holders from the Temple. It was this incident that brought the opposition to a head: “and the chief priests and scribes sought a way to destroy him” for not only did they oppose his teaching, but they feared that he would cause a riot in Jerusalem.

Jesus had to face the prospect of death arising from the mounting opposition. What was he to do? To back-track as though his message had been false, to compromise in order to pacify his opponents, to refuse the demands of the truth and love he had been sent to reveal??? Or to stay loyal to his Father’s love, trusting that such loyalty even to death would be the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world. As he faced this dilemma in the closing stages of his life, Jesus would have come to see his own death as the means of realising God’s purpose. His own reflection on the songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah would have helped him to see that the death of a just man could lead to a positive outcome: “If he offers his life in atonement … he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done … by his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself.”

Love put Jesus at risk and cost him his life. During the Last Supper, now fully aware that his death was imminent, Jesus spoke of giving up his body, and of shedding his blood for the forgiveness of sins. The Passover Meal was preceded by the sacrifice of the paschal lamb and during that meal Jesus associated himself with that sacrifice. Through the signs of bread broken and given, and of wine poured out and shared, he expressed his offering of himself in love to his Father and in love for the whole world and for the realisation of the kingdom of love.

The next day that love shone out from the cross, a love of passion for us all. Yes, indeed, he suffered. Truly he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the opening line of psalm 22, a psalm which goes on to pray: “O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! … dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him”. With such trust in his Father’s love Jesus “said in a loud voice: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, and, as a summing up of his entire life and mission: “It is accomplished”.

Throughout his life and throughout his passion and death Jesus had remained faithful to his Father’s will, responding utterly to the demands of love. The loving Father is also faithful to his Son. He would not allow the violence of this world to have the last word over him, nor the power of death to hold on to him. The Reign of God’s love is stronger than death, it overturns the powers of evil. The Father’s faithful love for Jesus robbed death of its apparent victory. As Peter proclaimed: “You put him to death on a cross, God has raised him to life” and “You can be certain that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ”