For Western Christians around the world, this is Passion Week. (Eastern Christians celebrate next week.) Believers commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Passover meal, his crucifixion, death and resurrection. In Spain, there are elaborate and nightlong processions of masked penitents heaving gigantic statues depicting the suffering of Jesus and Mary. When I was living in Italy, I once had a friend visiting me who, after a day of sightseeing in Rome, said quite candidly, “I’m tired of every time I go into a church, I have to look at statue of a man being tortured and nailed to a cross.”
What might we understand from this disturbing image that seems to simultaneously fascinate and repel? First of all, it’s important to see the complete picture of the Passion. The story does not end with the crucifixion, but actually starts there. The Passion is only complete with the resurrection, but we tend to ignore this essential part of the story, preferring to dwell on the murderous nature of Jesus’ death. Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this just what the media does? Burying the good news until it’s impossible to see?
The Passion is the story of a failed King who succeeds in overcoming death. Let’s face it, by any standard Jesus’ adult life was a complete failure. He hung out with the sick and poor, the lower classes, prostitutes, rival Samaritans, and tax collectors (to name just a few). He said he was a King, but no one understood what he meant. Everyone imagined him seizing power and overthrowing the Romans, smashing the foreign soldiers and taking control of the government.
Nobody understood him at all, even those who loved him. In the end, Jesus was abandoned by his followers. What could be more of a failure than to be betrayed, denied, bloodied and nailed to a cross to hang and die? Only the women and one male disciple dared to stand below the cross and watch him die. Everyone else ran for their lives.
At dawn after the Sabbath, the women went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body. But the heavy grave stone was rolled aside and the tomb was empty. Two angels suddenly appeared and the women were terrified. “Why look among the dead for someone who is living?” the angels asked. “He is not here. He is risen.”
The women ran back to tell the men who were in hiding, wondering: What will we do now? The Romans have taken our King and crucified him. The women relate what they have seen to the frightened men, but they think that the women are talking sheer and utter nonsense. Peter alone runs off to the tomb. Amazed, he looks down into the empty grave and sees only Jesus’ linen cloths, nothing else. (Luke 24: 1-12)
The Passion is a story full of all kinds of human emotion – pain, sorrow, fear, doubt, longing, terror, amazement, love. Jesus’ life and death reflects each of ours – lives of brokenness and redemption. The Passion story is about one human being who rises above all heartbreak. The woman who dares to see the emptiness of the life she is living, hear the angels’ voices, and speak what she knows to be true. The man who runs to the empty grave, peers into death, and is amazed to discover a path that can lead to wondrous change.
Let me try to tell this story in another way…
Today I was grocery shopping, trying to beat the Easter rush. The huge market chain was packed with over-sized trolleys propelled by a meandering river of humanity. Babies were crying, old people puttering, and mothers frantically maneuvering. All of us moved in an empty vortex of disconnected consumerism. I was inching my way passed cucumbers from Spain wrapped in plastic and boxes of Belgium chocolate when suddenly George appeared, standing before me. George (8), who I haven’t seen since the Christmas play, looked up at me with his doe eyes and asked in faltering German how I was. Having arrived six months ago with his family as refugees from Syria, George only speaks Arabic and briefly attended the Sunday school where I help out.
He was so happy to find me! And I was equally touched that he remembered me. Even remembered my name. I bent down to kiss him, and then offered my hand to his father whom I had never met. He was looking lost and a bit shaken by the crowd in the store, the overwhelming choice on the shelves.
I found the moment extremely moving. Father and son’s vulnerability and George’s tender strength, seeking me out, calling my name, and our joyful human connection in such a chaotic place. To think of how far they both had come, what they had escaped, and the new life they must now make. How much, it seemed, depends on George…
This one moment felt like a tiny, encapsulated Passion story, yet at the same time, bigger than life itself. The family’s ultimate failure, loss of their homeland in the Middle East and attempt to rebuild their lives in Germany. One small boy’s eager hello to a stranger in a foreign tongue on a distant land. My own momentary feelings, as if to say, “I see you, George. You matter. Your soul is valuable on this Earth.”
So you see? The Passion story is everywhere, in all our lives, everyday. We are all failed Kings and Queens, abandoned in some way, betrayed, nailed to a cross. It’s about looking and recognizing that our failure is what makes us human, and knowing that our failure is only a beginning. In the end, what makes us Kings and Queens is understanding that our strength and higher qualities are perfected though all our life failings, and that it is only through our human frailty and vulnerability that we can come closer to ourselves, each other, God and ultimately Joy.