Apr 12, 2014

Why did Jesus die?

The Word for Palm (Passion) Sunday: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/041314.cfm

Is 50: 4-7
Ph 2: 6-11
Mt 26: 14 – 27: 66

Why did Jesus die and who is responsible for his death? This question has been debated by historians and scripture scholars for centuries.  Why did Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet of compassion and mercy who did so much good for others in his preaching and healing and who insisted on non-violence, forgiveness, mercy and love for one’s enemies die such a tortuous death, that of a criminal? 

The fact that we believe Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of all humankind, is somewhat beside the point if you ask this above question on a purely historical level.  Our faith teaches the effects of his death and resurrection is central to our lives. As Christians we embrace the whole salvific event.  We have the hope of eternal life through a merciful God who paid the price for our sins. 

But, those of Jesus’ time, who lived and walked with him; who ate in his company and were impressed by his miracles and his faith and those, especially the rejected, the abject poor and hopeless, the sinners and persecuted, who saw in Jesus a great hope, were unaware of our present day theological explanations. To them, Jesus was certainly in the prophetic mold, he was a wonder-worker and a man of deep faith and compassion, particularly for those on the margins of society.  He was mysterious and at the same time connected with everyone on a deep human level. 

Before the experience of the risen Lord, Jesus appeared as only a man yet who had a very singular relationship with God so that he referred to God as his “Father.” Even his inner circle of confidants, the twelve chosen to share intimately in his ministry, was not in agreement. 

So his death was a shock and scandal; disillusionment and a confusing reality in a hopeful future. We can imagine the Apostles’ fear and “what now?” mood after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We can also wonder about what the masses of people who followed Jesus and hung on his every word and who saw in him their greatest hope for liberation, filled with further hatred for the Roman occupiers and the Jewish authorities who they knew were in league with the Romans. 

But, one thing we can say for certain is that the Jewish people as a whole cannot be blamed for the death of Jesus.  The Church has come a long way in its understanding and position and with the more enlightened inspiration of the Second Vatican Council, the official position of the Catholic Church is that the Jewish people are not responsible for the death of Jesus.

Then, who is? During this Lent I have been reading a recommended book on Jesus entitled: Jesus, An historical approximation by Jose A Pagola, a Spanish priest. Pagola presents a fascinating and inspiring picture of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is well researched and the footnotes are worth the read alone.  I have found it a great read and would recommend it. 

In his book Pagola writes on the conspiracy to kill Jesus:

“When Jesus speaks of an empire (the kingdom) even if he calls it God’s empire, the rulers have to be worried . . . his activity is dangerous.  Wherever he goes, he arouses the hope of the dispossessed with an unheard-of- passion: ‘Blessed are the poor, for the empire of God is yours’ . . . This man is telling everyone that God’s will goes against Caesar’s will. His message is clear to anyone who listens; the whole society must be made over on a different basis, restoring the true will of God . .  .The Roman authorities are also hearing about his healings, and his extraordinary power to liberate people from demonic powers . . .”

On a purely historical level this is what the author’s research implies. And we must understand that without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith.  As we prepare for next Sunday’s glorious feast I might suggest we try to get inside the historical events of this week.  What we read of in the Gospels, and what Pagola relates in his book, happened in real time and a real place; in a specific historical period and culture.  So, the words of Jesus about rising from the dead remained unclear to his own Apostles.  Until the empty tomb was discovered and Jesus appeared to them in his risen form, they remained in the dark.

If we step back for a moment and step inside the drama of this week: the glorious entry into Jerusalem (an especially disconcerting moment to the established authority of the Jews and the Roman occupiers), the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the profound example of Jesus’ washing the disciples feet, the institution of the Priesthood (“Do this in remembrance of Me”), the tragedy of the arrest and crucifixion of this prophet of God’s mercy, we might find our own faith awakened with the same excitement and awe that was evident among those who witnessed his risen presence.  It profoundly changed them and the direction of their lives and human history itself. 

As we enter this holiest of weeks, let’s keep each other in prayer.  No one of us walks this Christian journey alone.  When we find the cross a reality in our own lives the hope of resurrection is always on the horizon.  Although this week may seem more like a sunset – an entry into darkness – it’s only the faith of sunrise on Easter Sunday that gives hope and joy to our lives. 

More will come . . .
Almighty and ever-living God,
who as an example of humility for the human race to follow
caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross,
graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering
and so merit a share in his Resurrection.

(Collect for Palm Sunday)