In the early Church there were people called ‘Gnostics’ who were eager to dilute the humanity of Jesus. For them it was far too vulgar a notion that the Son of God might actually have died on a cross. Some even claimed that angels did a last-minute switch so that it was really Simon of Cyrene who hung on the tree, presumably with a chorus of angelic sniggering. This is immoral nonsense.
The truth is that neither cutting Jesus down to size as a human being nor ‘pushing him upstairs’ as a glorified angel is any answer to the suffering of the world and our need of redemption. What eternal difference at all can the exemplary life of one pious Jew make to people being bombed and terrorized in Afghanistan, Syria, the Congo or South Sudan? Answer: precisely none. Jesus was made higher than any angel to be our flesh and blood Saviour. He came not primarily to show us how to lead moral lives. It is true that he did this; but much more important, he showed us once and for all how to die that we might live in eternity.
For Jesus, his entry into Jerusalem was not a triumph like that staged for a Roman emperor. It was the vindication of the truth of who he was. The scene is set for the drama of our salvation to be played out in the city where the holy name of God dwelt. Already the forces gathered against Jesus even as he is fêted by a crowd. Plenty of those who shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ later shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Some just came to stand and stare, wanting to be entertained. But Jesus had not come for his moment of fame. The only way to understand and follow him is through the Cross. The Christ who gives meaning to our world today is the crucified Son of God who shares the humanity of every starving baby in South Sudan. We have hope not just of eternal life later, but hope in the struggles and challenges of today because we have no burden that he does not bear alongside us through his sacrifice. All the crucifying choices we may have to make as human beings are caught up in Jesus’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Nonetheless, the question persists and propels us into the mystery of suffering and apparent meaninglessness. Some Christians play a kind of roulette wheel of prayer whereby if you are really, really a Christian, you will be healed or set free. Of course it is God’s will to heal us; but sometimes that is the healing of a good death and, sometimes, mysteriously, the answer is ‘no’. I have no easy answer to the mystery of suffering; but I know that God has not abandoned us. All that we see in Christ broken and crucified reveals the love and the majesty of the Blessed Trinity who reaches out to each one of us.
The God worth believing in is the God whose Son enters Jerusalem knowing that he is going to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world. This is the God whose glory is so great that it is not diminished by being laid aside for our salvation. This is the God who is more loving than love, so that everything is poured out for the world with nothing ever held back. This is the Spirit who is closer than close, who faithfully remains with us even when sin brings darkness and freedom is abused by pride. This is the God who is greater than great, more loving than love, and closer than close. And if we are to be followers of Jesus and not just bystanders looking for cheap thrills and easy answers, a renewed commitment is invited from each of us this Holy Week to be martyrs.
The saints of Iona belonged to a tradition that looked for martyrdom even if not in the finality of death. They invented an extra kind of martyrdom: they left their homes and crossed the seas to carry the Gospel to unknown lands. They called this a ‘white’ as opposed to a ‘red’ martyrdom. We are invited to be white martyrs this Holy Week.
It is this little martyrdom, this pilgrim journey to the Cross with Jesus this week that will open us to the delight of forgiveness which carries Hosannas from our lips to our hearts. This little death will reveal life to us, even if we are suffering ourselves. These steps to Golgotha will enlarge our sympathies and open our eyes to see Jesus more clearly; not only in this holy sacrifice but also in the faces of the people we do not like or do not care to know. Only at the foot of the Cross will we find out who we truly are and what we most wonderfully might become. There we shall be taught again that every suffering can be redeemed even when it is not taken away.
Stephen Conway is the Bishop of Ely