I went to see Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion this past week. I hoped it would get me in the proper spiritual frame of mind for today and all of Holy week. But the truth is I came away disappointed. I thought the movie was more violent then meaningful. It was too violent. And that is a funny statement coming from a guy who grew up watching movies like the Godfather, the Exorcist and Apocalypse Now. It was two hours of beating, torturing and killing Jesus.
I realize that thousands of people found the movie deeply meaningful and I wish I had too. But I thought it was a movie that was lacking a larger context. Gibson portrayed in authentic detail what happened to Jesus but you learned very little about who Jesus was, why they wanted to kill him and more importantly what God did with all that suffering. For me the events of Holy Week make very little sense if they are not tied into the larger context of God’s plan. What happened to our Lord was horrible but there is more to the story – it is what God does with that horror that matters.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a colt the crowds hailed him as a King. They lined the streets and waved palm branches as he passed by. In ancient Palestine palm branches were symbols of nationalistic zeal. The crowds waving palms for Jesus were like you and me standing on the side of the road waving those little American flags during the 4th of July parade. The people welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem thought they were welcoming a conquering king, a nationalist leader who had come to reclaim his rightful throne. After all, several hundred thousand pilgrims had descended on the city for the Passover, what better time to begin a revolution.
That is what happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem – but what matters is the larger context of how God transformed those events. The crowds wanted an earthly king, a national leader – God gave them the King of heaven and earth. The crowds wanted a messiah to defeat the Romans and bring back the kingdom of Israel. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to defeat sin and death and bring about the kingdom of God. The crowds wanted someone who was strong enough to fight their enemies. God gave them someone strong enough to love all enemies. The palm branches of Palm Sunday were transformed from symbols of nationalistic pride into symbols of self-sacrificing love.
The truth is much of Christianity makes little sense if it is removed from the larger context. I have a non-Christian friend who has always been appalled by Christianity’s fixation with the cross. One evening earlier this year we were standing around talking and he said to me that he couldn’t understand how we (Christians) could have a gallows as the central symbol of our faith. He told me he thought it was tragic that little children were brought up to venerate and admire the cross – a symbol of torture and death. He said, “It just seems so morbid having all those beautiful children wearing crosses, I don’t understand it.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I know what he means. From one point of view the cross is a morbid symbol of death. The cross was the most brutal means of state execution in the ancient world. It was the primary method the Roman Empire used to humiliate and kill its enemies. It is very morbid and dark that the Son of God was killed on the cross. But my friend is only getting part of the picture. We don’t hang crosses in our churches or around our necks because of what the Romans did to Jesus. We hang crosses because of what God did with Jesus – in spite of Roman cruelty. The cross is not a symbol of death but a symbol of life. It is the most profound symbol of divine love that conquers all suffering and all death.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I encourage you to go. Gibson does an amazing job depicting the evil cruelty of human beings. In 127 minutes the audience sees in vivid detail every whip and lash, every cut and bruise, every drop of blood Jesus shed – from the moment he was arrested until the moment his lifeless body was placed into the tomb. The movie helps us understand more completely the full reality of our Lord’s sufferings. But so what. By itself that suffering is only another heartbreaking story akin to all the other suffering humans have afflicted upon one another since the beginning of time. By itself the passion is nothing more than the story of the most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire of the ancient world against a solitary figure – the only perfect man who ever lived. What matters, what is central to our faith is how God turned the crucifixion upside down and made that human tragedy into a triumph of self-sacrificing love.
You see the most important thing about our gospel reading for today is not that Jesus suffered but that Jesus valued love more than power. He could have fulfilled the desires of the crowds on Palm Sunday. He could have rallied the people to fight, called down a legion of angels, freed the people of Israel from Roman occupation and been crowned the most glorious of earthly rulers. He had the power. But instead he willingly went to the cross because he knew that power, no matter how well intentioned, tends to cause suffering. While love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. And so, in a point of convergence on a hill called Golgotha, the Son of God gave up his life and renounced the one for the sake of the other. Amen.