Good Friday and the Passion of the Christ
Good Friday, 2004
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
It’s hard, this year, to go into this day without thinking about the movie The Passion of the Christ. So let’s go ahead and take note for a moment. The movie has much to condemn it, but it does do us one service. It illustrates the danger of Good Friday – the danger that we become so fixated on the crucifixion of Jesus that we neglect to notice his life, and so miss the point -- and not just the point of his life, but even the point of his death.
The movie’s unrelenting emphasis on this last day, in addition to grossly misrepresenting the Gospel accounts and the historical evidence and indulging an unhealthy and unholy obsession with violence, this focus on only the last day means focussing entirely on Jesus as object of other people’s deplorable actions and pays no attention to Jesus as subject of his own life and story – making choices that led him to this moment.
The only theory that even begins to make sense of such an approach is the old (and not very edifying) Theory of the Atonement. By that theory the sins of humanity carry a price and that price must be paid. There’s no forgiveness here. God’s love for us, God’s unwillingness to lose us to the eternal damnation that is, supposedly, the inevitable price for our sins, results not in God forgiving us but instead in God transferring the debt – to Jesus. In this version of the story Jesus comes not to show us a better way to live, not to woo us to God, not to invite and entice us to the feast, but simply as a pawn to pay our bill with his blood.
And we, watching his agony and death, are given a stern, “see what you’ve done” and sent away, presumably to feel ashamed of ourselves and therefore clean up our acts so this doesn’t happen again.
Ahhh, but there’s the rub. By this theory the debt is paid, once for all, and covers all sins past and yet to come – of our ancestors and our offspring and ourselves. Which pretty nicely lets us off the hook. Unfortunate as the whole episode may have been and as bad as we may feel about it, it is, nonetheless, done. Nothing we do or fail to do now can undo it – either by causing it not to have happened or by negating its effect. So, why exactly is it that we need to behave better now? In what way do our actions matter?
But – if instead of focussing on the Crucifixion as some cosmic and eternal check-mate, pre-planned, pre-ordained, we focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, we see that we are invited to live a life like his… not because if we don’t he’s gonna get it, but because that’s the way we get to be like him – complete, joyful, authentic, fully and only who we were created to be, whole. That’s how we get to experience the glorious banquet that was prepared for us from the dawn of creation and that waits for us even now.
And the real importance of the Crucifixion is also brought home to us. We live in, we are a part of, a world where those with power and privilege will do anything to keep it and even those without much of either toady to those who do have them in the hope of a few scraps – or at least of avoiding a kick.
It is not true that the Crucifixion was the most horrible thing anyone has ever suffered. Oh yes, it was horrible, but humans have a talent for inflicting suffering. We do it daily – just open a newspaper to see a fraction of the evidence. Daily, people die slow and horrible deaths because we live in a world that fails to follow the example of our Lord and Savior, a world full of folks, like us, who refuse to give away all that we have – power, privilege, possessions – and take up our own crosses and follow. A world that sanctions killing others and taking all that they have rather than letting ourselves do without or be put at risk.
And we can’t get off the hook by saying Jesus died for us and so we’re in the clear.
On Good Friday we are called to remember and repent – not just of the sins that sent Jesus to the cross 2000 years ago, but of the sins that kill and maim and break the heart of God’s people, God’s own self, today. And for our part in creating and sustaining a world where such sin thrives.
God knows how hopeless and helpless we feel in the face of this pervasive sin. God understands the enormity of it and our own oh –so-human limitations. And God does not condemn us to hell for our failure. On the contrary – God promises, implausibly, to redeem it. God continues to invite us to the feast.
But, before you go your way rejoicing in our salvation – and in our good fortune not to be among those in agony this day – let us take this day to pause and remember our culpability and pray for the strength and courage and wisdom, and grace, to become instruments of peace and salvation in the world.