Today we begin our Holy Week journey with Jesus, following the Way of the Cross. It’s a week when people like me, who are a clear ‘T’ or Thinking type personality, have to let our intellectualising take second place to our emotions. We need to feel first, and then strive for some modest measure of understanding afterwards.
Once again I’m indebted to that great saint, Francis of Assisi, for showing the way. For beyond the sentimental image of Francis preaching to the birds and befriending the animals is the reality of a man who took the Way of the Cross into the heart of his life. When Francis prayed that he might feel in his own body as much as he could humanly bear of what Jesus felt on the cross, he did so not out of perverted masochism, nor even like those contemporary flagellants who sought to punish their bodies as an expiation of sin. Francis embraced suffering because he knew that this was the only way in which he would be able to feel in his own body as much as he could humanly bear of the love that held Jesus to the cross, and held him there with a force no nails could equal. What Francis had found was that the cross is not some intellectual solution to the questions of Judgement and Salvation, instead it is the place where divine love shows itself in its fullness, and so doing conquers all.
If two individuals as different as St Paul and St John can be united in placing love at the apex of their theology, then we need to accept Francis not as just some medieval mystic, but as one of our prime theologians. But it’s a theology that forms and grows in the heart long before it finds a lodging place in the mind. And so my focus this Holy Week, and one I commend to you, is to so enter into the Passion of Christ that we enter also into the heart of his love, into that more contemporary understanding of the very word ‘passion’. Yet, as one whose faith ever seeks understanding, I want to take with me on this week’s journey a particular question, the question of why there must be suffering at all.
For I think I’ve received a glimpse that such answer as there may be lies in that preeminence of love. Can it be that the world is as it is, with all the pain, evil and corruption that afflicts it, because in no other world could love be freely given and freely received? Can it be that the true question is not that of how a God of love can allow bad things to happen, but of how great must be the love that can know, feel and embrace all that suffering, and taking it, transform it into more love?
David Walker is Bishop of Dudley in the diocese of Worcester