This Holy Week blog is written with reference to the accounts of Jesus’ passion, especially as told in the Gospels of Luke and John, rather than relating to one specific lectionary passage. The illustration above, taken at the Roman Catholic Church of St Jeanne d’Arc in Nice, shows the Lenten ‘hungercloth’ entitled ‘The Tree of Life’ commissioned by Misereor in Germany, and created by the Haitian artist Jacques-Richard Chery. It suggests how the Cross of Christ is both the Tree of Life and creates a bridge between earth and heaven. For more on the hungercloth see https://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2108&action=show&lang=en
Why was Jesus crucified, and what did it mean, then and now? This question has two distinct ‘layers’ which between them relate to the (literally!) crucial core of our Christian faith. I have become increasingly convinced that we need to listen to both of these layers and allow them to interrogate each other. What do I mean by this?
Well at one level I can answer the question ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ by talking about the immediate historical and political context in which the event took place. Palestine in the time of Jesus was part of the Roman Empire, with parts of it (Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria) ruled directly by Roman prefects or procurators, and other areas (e.g. Galilee) ruled by behalf of the Romans by Jewish client kings such as Herod Antipas. A primary concern of the Romans was to ensure the Pax Romana throughout the Empire and they were very nervous indeed about potential political agitators who might upset this ‘peace’. The Jewish religious leadership, closely associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, straddled an uneasy fence between keeping the Roman authorities happy and ensuring the continuance of Jewish religious privileges, including the well-being of the Temple, and the right of Jews not to participate in the Roman cult of emperor worship. They did not want their apple-cart upset! The Gospel of Luke, in particular, tells us quite a lot about this political background, and explores key elements of the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion and death in its light.
In this context I would answer the question ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ by suggesting something upon the following lines: Jesus was crucified because he was seen by both the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious leadership as a potential threat to the status quo and to their respective interests, political or religious. The excitement of his ministry in Galilee had travelled before him. As he approached Jerusalem, the way he was greeted by the crowds as a potential ‘king’, a ‘son of David’, when he descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city made both groups very nervous. This was considerably exacerbated by Jesus’ actions on entering the Temple – that so-called ‘cleansing’ (but which actually probably meant quite a lot more). Was this intended as the opening sally in an insurrection? We are given quite a strong impression that from this moment the Jewish religious leadership wanted rid of him, and that they had Roman support in doing so. In the final analysis Jesus was crucified, which was a Roman punishment carried out under the auspices of the Roman authorities, largely inflicted upon the despised classes of Roman society and upon those who were considered guilty of rebellion, actual or potential. The question of the precise sharing out of the responsibility for Jesus’ execution between the Roman political authorities and Jewish religious leadership has long been debated. I suspect that both groups played a part.
And that crucifixion of Jesus should have been the end of the story. Only it wasn’t. If it had been the end of the story I would not be writing this reflection today, and we would not be about to enter the ‘Triduum’, the holiest three days of the Christian year, culminating in Easter Sunday.
That it was not the end of the story was due to the experience of some Jesus’ friends a few days later. They believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. That changed everything.
The great Bishop John V Taylor put it like this: ‘Where did Christian theology come from? Why wasn’t [Jesus’s] death the end of the story and the fall of the curtain on the whole movement? The only answer I believe is the resurrection… reflection on the death of a martyr may lead to a conviction that resurrection is promised to him at the end of time… but the claim that the eschatological resurrection had in one man’s case taken place within the ongoing course of history was unprecedented… something else must have given rise to that unparalleled belief… He appeared. He was seen. That was the tradition handed down. There is a happened-ness in Easter which turned utter darkness into a blaze of light… it is the fact of his resurrection that makes the fact of his death universally significant and redemptive.’
More briefly Anglican priest and theologian Alan Jones comments, ‘At first [in the church’s life] the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus was the cardinal teaching of Christianity. Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape from the fact that historically Christianity was founded upon the belief in the resurrection’.
Now we can argue over what precise form the resurrection of Jesus took – and for myself, I want to hold on to that sense of mystery that is engendered in those Gospel accounts in which the resurrected Jesus can meet with his friends on a road to Emmaus, in a garden, or while having breakfast on the beach, without them realising immediately who was with them. But that Christian faith was founded upon a belief in the resurrection of Jesus is apparent from even a cursory reading of Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts.
A contemporary Anglican theologian (who prefers to be anonymous) echoes this from their own experience. ‘For me the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a matter of faith rather than fact. However it is also for me a matter of fact rather than faith that the life, growth, development and witness of the early church depended upon the community’s belief that Jesus Christ had been raised by God from the dead – in whatever precise form his resurrection was understood to have taken place.’
And it was this belief in the resurrection on the part of the early Christians that in turn ‘forced’ the asking of the second ‘layer’ of the question, ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ So the question now became: Why did God allow Jesus to die, and in particular to die in this horrible and degrading way? What was (and is) its meaning and purpose? And over the past two millennia a variety of answers have been given to this question. They have included: Jesus’ dying enabled the definitive victory of God over the forces of evil. Jesus’ dying enabled a reconciliation between God’s thirst and demand for justice, and God’s infinite compassion*. Jesus’ dying offers an example for human beings that helps in itself to transform us.
I cherish the fact that in historic Christian theology, and certainly in the Anglican tradition, no one single answer to this second layer question has ever been considered normative to the exclusion of the others. However most people tend to ‘opt’ for one way of answering the question, and tend somehow to incorporate aspects of the other answers in to it. For me, ‘reconciliation’ has increasingly become my own lodestar and dominant motif in reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus. But though my starting point for reflecting on ‘reconciliation’ is that great New Testament affirmation ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself… and has given us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5.18), the theme of ‘reconciliation’ speaks to me of a deep and often necessarily painful holding together of polarities and tensions in a way that can offer new life, across the whole gamut of human – and divine – experience.
These are some of the ways in which reconciliation speaks to me in relation to the death of Christ:
- To return to my first ‘layer’ question ‘Why did Jesus die?’ – I believe that his death happened because he held together in his own person the different possible ways of reacting to the Roman rule of his day: those polarities of challenging it (like the Zealots), colluding with it (like the religious authorities), or seeking to run away from it (e.g. to join the monastic community by the Dead Sea). He refused to be ‘captured’ by any one response, but to hold them together in himself was (literally) excruciating.
- Jesus’ death somehow ‘reconciles’ the tension between universality and particularity which runs throughout Scripture, in both the Old Testament and the New.
- Jesus’ death holds together both the spiritual and the material realms.
- Jesus’ own death in some way reconciles life and death.
- Jesus’ death holds together power and powerlessness, and suggests that the latter can become a source of the former.
- Jesus’ death reconciles a vision of God as infinitely holy, distant, and unknowable, and God as completely present and accessible
- Jesus in his death becomes ‘the great bridge-builder’ (CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). He reconciles earth and heaven. Especially in the Gospel of John his ‘lifting up’ on the cross becomes the bridge that creates a link between the two.
- Jesus’ death actually ‘reconciles’ the two ‘layers’ of that question with which I began ‘Why did Jesus die?’ It holds together the reality that the death occurred for concrete historical reasons linked to the political realities of the 1st century AD, and yet also has a role in the eternal economy of God.
- Jesus’ death therefore has wisdom both for the political realities and challenges of our own time, but is not ‘exhausted’ by these.
- Understanding Jesus’ death as reconciliation requires us to take seriously the demands of justice, not least because in human terms it was a flagrant example of injustice, but also requires us to remember that justice needs to meet with and ‘kiss’, steadfast love, faithfulness and peace (Psalm 85.10)
- Understanding Jesus’ death in terms of reconciliation does not exclude those other ‘threads’ of response to it to which I referred above, but interrogates them. For example when we speak of Jesus’ death as offering a victory over the forces of evil, reconciliation requires us to seek a victory which redeems rather than destroys.
As I was writing this I found myself reflecting on the way that the Lord’s Prayer, so central to the practice of our faith, itself seeks to ‘reconcile’ many of these polarities. Hence the title for this week: ‘On earth as it is in heaven’.
So to the final question we are obliged to ask: ‘What does it mean to understand Jesus’ death as reconciliation in our world of today?’:
- The world in which the place of human beings within the fabric of creation is now being discussed increasingly seriously?
- In which the continuing COVID crisis and its consequences has highlighted deep injustices?
- In which, for us in Europe, the wicked war in Ukraine has now called into question so many assumptions about our continent and our vision of peace?
These inescapable questions set for us the agenda of ‘doing theology’ in Holy Week and Easter at our present time.
*The Book of Common Prayer language of ‘satisfaction’ is an expression of this view, but it is not the only possible expression.