The life of Jesus went as swift and straight as a thunderbolt. It was above all things dramatic; it did above all things consist in doing something that had to be done. … The primary thing that he was going to do was to die. He was going to do other things equally definite and objective; we might almost say equally external and material. But from first to last the most definite fact is that he is going to die. …
We are meant to feel that his life was in that sense a sort of love affair with death, a romance of the pursuit of the ultimate sacrifice. From the moment when the star goes up like a birthday rocket, to the moment when the sun is extinguished like a funeral torch, the whole story moves on wings with the speed and direction of a drama, ending in an act beyond words. Therefore the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march; certainly in the manner of the quest of a hero moving to his achievement or his doom. It is a story that begins in the paradise of Galilee, a pastoral and peaceful land having really some hint of Eden, and gradually climbs the rising country into the mountains that are nearer to the storm-clouds and the stars, as to a Mountain of Purgatory. He may be met as if straying in strange places, or stopped on the way for discussion or dispute; but his face is set towards the mountain city. That is the meaning of that great culmination when he crested the ridge and stood at the turning of the road and suddenly cried aloud, lamenting over Jerusalem. … That is the meaning of the stirring and startling incident at the gates of the Temple, when the tables were hurled like lumber down the steps, and the rich merchants driven forth with bodily blows… The point here, however, is that all these incidents have in them a character of mounting crisis. In other words, these incidents are not incidental. … When Jesus was brought before the judgment-seat of Pontius Pilate… It was the crisis and the goal; it was the hour and the power of darkness. …
Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world; since the rumor that God had left his heavens to set it right.
(From G K Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Part II ch.2)
If you have never read the story of Jesus’s death before (the so-called “Passion” of Jesus Christ), you really should. Whether you call yourself a Christian, or are firmly anti-Christian, or somewhere in the middle, you ought to read this story for yourself. If nothing else, the Passion is simply a gripping and singular story. But it is also a story too important to be ignored.
If we want to have any accurate conception of who Jesus was, and not be misled by shallow popular thinking, we have to understand the Passion. If we want to understand the life’s mission of the actual Yeshua of Nazareth who lived and died in first-century Palestine, we have to understand his Passion, which he saw as the necessary culmination of that mission (a fact which Jesus regularly and ominously mentioned to his disciples).
Everybody knows that there was a guy named Jesus who preached about mercy and forgiveness and love and also a bunch of strange stuff. And everybody knows that he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, handed over by Jewish religious authorities to the Roman civil authorities to be tortured and executed by crucifixion, when he was only 33 years old. Yet many people might not see any connection between these two facts. And understandably so. The cross might appear to be nothing more than an unfortunate, ignominious, and somewhat irrelevant ending to the life of Yeshua of Nazareth. Christianity, on the other hand, has always understood the necessity of the cross to be integrated into all of Jesus’s moral and spiritual teaching. It would be entirely accurate to say that Jesus chose the cross.
It is fitting that the church also chose the cross as their primary symbol of Jesus Christ, rather than the fish, the dove, the lamb, the Chi-Rho, the athlete’s victory palm, the manger, the carpenter’s bench, or the empty tomb. It is fitting, because the cross was central to Jesus’s own self-understanding. The cross lay at the back of Jesus’s mind, behind everything he said and taught and did.
Perhaps this observation will shed light on another mysterious piece of Christian-ese. Most people have probably heard some phrase like “Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins”. The mention of “forgiveness of sins” is already enough to turn most people away (but stay tuned for my forthcoming piece, “’Sin’ is Good for You”). Yet here’s the strange thing. Not only was the cross lurking behind everything all of Jesus’s teaching about forgiveness; but, conversely, we find that forgiveness has been a part of the story of the cross since the very beginning. Jesus saw his death as an act of forgiveness – the sacrificial act which alone could give substance to all his teaching.
There are four Passion narratives in the Bible, one in each of the four gospels. I’d start with Luke’s re-telling of the story (Lk 19:28-23:56). In the previous several chapters, Jesus has been making a long journey towards Jerusalem. It is his final journey. Where the story picks up in Luke 19:28, it is the beginning of the final week of Jesus’s life.
This week is Holy Week. This week, the church remembers the final week of Jesus’s life. It begins with Palm Sunday, commemorating the so-called “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. The Last Supper is commemorated on Maundy Thursday, and the crucifixion on Good Friday. Then on Easter Sunday some other stuff happened. But that’s another story.
Take the opportunity this week to read the story for yourself. I am immensely curious to know what you will think of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you came away more puzzled than anything else. I wonder whether you will think Good Friday deserves to be called “good”. That’s a subtle question, and I don’t know how I’d answer it.