Today begins the most solemn of weeks in the church year: Holy Week. We stand at the eve of commemorating the most painful and the most redeeming event in human history: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Every year the strange combination of readings leaves me uncomfortable. We begin by recalling Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Just like the crowds did along the ancient streets, we sing and wave palms. And then, moments later, we hear Mark’s account of Jesus’ passion and death. One moment the crowd cheers him on: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” The next moment the same crowd jeers at him, “Crucify him! Crucify him.” Two contradictory responses, speaking volumes about us human beings and about Jesus.
I hope I’m not the only one who is unsettled by these contradictions. But why this discomfort? It’s because we certainly don’t want to face evil the way Jesus did, and yet we wish to follow Jesus. We’ll fight evil and injustice, all right, but offering mercy is never our preferred course of action.
Whenever something bad happens to us, whether through violence or disputes, illness or disaster, the first thing we do is blame someone or something. A crisis, a disaster, a huge argument, and we hunt for something or someone to blame, attack or even destroy. What we crave, above all, is control over our lives. Ironically, blaming something, sacrificing somebody, gives us an eerie sense of control, as in “good riddance.” We may feel we’ve dealt with the culprit, but we haven’t resorted to mercy.
We hurt one another often to get even, without really knowing what we are doing, thus engaging in forms of “ignorant killing” of many kinds, and not just in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. “Ignorant killing” is alive and well among us to varying degrees. Think of Aboriginal murdered and missing women, think of the elderly who die forgotten by loved ones, think of those in jails wrongfully convicted.
Taken another step further, when our hearts harden and we stubbornly cling to inaccurate judgments on all sides of a controversy, our capacity for community-building is at risk. Putting our own right before others can kill our capacity to work for the common good. Our blind and unabated consuming and polluting is killing creation, crippling our ability to be good stewards of God’s work of art. Our deep-seated fear of those who are different kills our zeal to work for justice and to be one another’s keeper.
So when one comes among us who forgives instead of seeking revenge, which crowd are we with: the one who cheers for him, or the one who jeers at him?
Community, stewardship, caring and respect, co-operation and compassion, justice and love are the very things that build a better world. Resentment, closed hearts, disdain for others and refusals to forgive still “crucify” these very things that can transform us. We know how to hate for Jesus. But often we don’t know how to love and forgive for Jesus.
In the person of Jesus, for the very first time in human history, someone dared to refuse to pass on the violence and pain inflicted upon him. For the first time, someone — none other than God’s own Son — said: the buck stops here. No return punch. No more tit for tat, no more sacrifice, no more scape-goating. “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice,” says God in Jesus. Far from rolling over and playing dead, Jesus’ self-sacrifice extends far beyond fight or flight. In the utterly non-violent, no-return-punch walk to his own death, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ.
It takes great power to freely say with your life, “I will carry your pain and insults.” To say this not by words but actions. To say this from an inner place of strength and goodness, not from a place of victimization and failure. Carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat! Bearing such pain with integrity and strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose we are: God’s beloved son and daughter, in whom God is well pleased.
M. Scott Peck, well-known psychiatrist and author, wrote a book on evil entitled People of the Lie. Drawing on his vast experience of working with people whose problems were way beyond “normal,” he writes the following about the healing of evil: The healing of evil . . . can be accomplished only by the love of individuals. A willing sacrifice is required. The individual healer must allow his or her own soul to become the battleground. He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil. . . . Good people can deliberately allow themselves to be pierced by the evil of others — to be broken thereby yet somehow not broken- to even be killed in some sense and yet still survive and not succumb. Whenever this happens there is a shift in the balance of power in the world (Peck, 1983, p. 269).
In Jesus, God effectively neutralized the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” This is a brand-new answer, much like defusing a bomb. Now the answer does not contribute to the problem anymore. In the cross, God says: “I take upon myself the sin of the world. There is nothing that I cannot transform. Try me.”
And suddenly the universe is a safe place. No matter what happens, God can use it and transform it, as long as we have the courage to absorb the pain without retaliating, as Jesus did. That is the painful challenge before us as we are about to join Jesus in this holiest of weeks. Given the track record of most of us, given our preference for throwing our pain back at “the enemy” — whatever or whomever that is — that track record ought to make us all uncomfortable to make this week’s journey with Jesus.
Yet, this journey is our only hope. God is self-sacrificing love. God is self-giving, suffering love. All that we suffer, God has suffered first. Every time we are the victim of another’s attempt at “ignorant killing” — figuratively or literally — remember that God has participated in it first. Every bit of our suffering, as individuals and as a community, is God’s suffering. That is what Jesus reveals on the cross.
The foolishness of God is indeed wiser than human wisdom. And the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. In this truth lies our salvation. And so, this week let us walk with the One who triumphed, not in earthly glory, but on the cross, with the One who trampled down death by death, and let us overcome our discomfort. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca and her blog at https://graceatsixty.wordpress.com