In high school a religion teacher assigned us a book that described scourging, crowning with thorns, carrying a cross and crucifixion in minute detail. The idea was to help us realize what Jesus endured for people. Without a doubt, the pain Jesus endured in his execution was great.
I was much older when it dawned on me that millions of people endure as much and, in many cases, vastly more suffering than Jesus endured. Holy Week isn’t really about whips and thorns and nails. If Jesus had lived a life of faithfulness to us but died of old age surrounded by loved ones, the astounding reality of who he was and what his life meant would have been no less.
The heart of God’s act in becoming human was to demonstrate God’s union with us and God’s commitment to our future. That the Creator of the universe knows and is concerned with us is itself astounding. That, beyond knowing us, the Creator loves us without qualification and is absolutely committed to our future is beyond our ability to fathom. That the Creator chose to demonstrate that love by sharing our humanity and caring for us despite the painful rejection that such care would bring is life-changing for all who grasp it.
We must be cautious about focusing too exclusively on Jesus’ tragic death. It’s beyond imagining that our Creator would suffer death at our hands. Attempting to make sense of it has led many to explain Jesus’ execution as restitution God demanded from us for our failures. That distorts God’s relationship with us and turns the loving gift of creation into a dodgy business deal humanity could never afford.
Sacrifice is an act of uniting. Jesus’ entire life was a sacrifice because it revealed God’s union with human history and the human dream. Jesus’ suffering was absurdly tragic. All suffering is, especially that which we impose on one another. That God couldn’t join in our existence without being caught up in such pain shines a harsh light the distance we have to travel before we arrive at the future God offers.
Holy Week is about God’s faithfulness.