As Lent nears its end and we anticipate the Lord’s Passion and the glory of Easter, our focus is, above all, on Christ, the Lord, whose death on the cross brought salvation to mankind and whose resurrection brought hope to all. As we hear the gospels, we tend to see ourselves as outsiders to the story or as those culpable for Christ’s suffering due to our sinfulness.
However, this is the time to relate to Christ. In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of the Easter story, we need to fully appreciate Jesus as fully human, as one of us, as well as the human dimension of his suffering. Only then can we grasp God’s love as manifest in his son and in the final glory of His incarnation as a gift of grace to us, his children.
The gospels of Holy Week present Christ as experiencing a wide range of human emotion as he reacts to the challenges before him. After more than three years of Christ’s preaching and healing, nothing had fundamentally changed. The earlier crowds of enthusiastic followers had come and gone and only a small core group of followers remained. In the gospels leading up to Easter we recognize in Jesus’ actions and emotions a humanity we share and a path we may follow.
The gospels of Holy Week allow us to appreciate Christ’s human nature and ponder our own more deeply. Contemplating his diverse emotions, ranging from fear and anxiety, hope, sadness and disappointment to a sense of loneliness and abandonment makes us conscious of a special fellowship with Christ. Jesus is forced to move around in Galilee to avoid stoning and arrest due to growing hostility. Furthermore, he is tested when an adulterous woman is brought before him. As he enters Jerusalem in triumph, the enthusiasm with which he is greeted by the crowds gives reason for hope and optimism that his ministry might continue. However, the enthusiasm wavers quickly and tensions rise and loyalty diminishes even among his closest followers. In the temple, Jesus is gripped by anger and drives out money lenders and traders. Yet during the following days, deep sadness due to imminent betrayal fills his heart. Jesus’ disappointment and a sense of loneliness in the garden of Gethsemane become apparent as he finds his disciples asleep instead of keeping watch. He anticipates Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. As he prays on the Mount of Olives, his anguish overwhelms him and he is tortured by doubt and fear. His cry of abandonment on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – is real to us, because it echoes human despair in its darkest moments. These are truly human emotions, responding to human weakness and vice, suffering ahead, and a darkness that can engulf us all. Christ’s challenges are also our challenges.
According to Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth, it is during his final night of anguish, on the Mount of Olives, that Christ “prays as ‘body,’ that is to say, all of our struggles, our anguish, and our hope are present in his praying.” In Gethsemane, Jesus “experienced that final loneliness, the whole anguish of the human condition.” It is “through his cries, his tears, and his prayers” that Jesus “holds up to God the anguish of human existence. He brings man before God.”
Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives epitomizes more than any other event his dual nature of man and God, giving deep insights into the inner mystery of Jesus. It is during these hours of anguish and fear that the will of the man surrenders to the will of the Father and, according to Pope Benedict XVI, “makes it his own.” Initially, his “natural will” resists the challenge of suffering, yet his “filial will” abandons itself totally to the Father’s will. Only through this real and concrete surrender, does the cross show God’s power of self-giving love. Yet, simultaneously, according to Pope Leo the Great, “Jesus’ humanity is neither absorbed nor reduced by his divinity.” Instead, the human will experiences fulfillment. And it is this intense and very human moment in Christ’s life, which is replicated over and over again in the life of each Christian.
It is by imitating Christ’s acceptance of the Father’s will that our own human struggle may be resolved and oriented towards final Resurrection. If our hope for peace is genuine, we are called to surrender to the crosses, big and small, that life brings. Only as we trust in God and adopt the spirit of his children, will we have the strength and courage to meet our own personal challenges, which life presents to us.
The glory of Christ’s suffering can be sought not only in the fact of his assuming our sins and dying for our redemption. Through Christ’s authentically human suffering, culminating on the cross, God makes His empathy and His love known to us. Through the cross, God, through Christ, adopts our suffering and lets us know that we are not alone. As we pray before a crucifix, we are never more moved than when we ourselves are enduring pain or hardship. In the image of Christ on the cross, we recognize in his pain our own and, consequently, a God who feels with us and hears our pleas. Through the crucifixion, God tells us “I am with you.” It is when we contemplate Christ’s suffering of real human pain on the cross that we feel closest to Him. Contemplating the crucifixion, we know that God hears our cries, because He knows our pain.
Similarly, we are moved by Christ’s tenderness towards sinners, because his words touch upon something in our core that is authentically human, yet longs for God’s compassion and love. Through Christ’s humanity we feel close to and learn to love God. Not only do His words to us move us to the core, showing ultimate understanding of our humanity, our weaknesses, aspirations, and our longing to be loved and understood. Through Christ’s words and actions, He shows himself in full communion with humanity, as fully empathetic to us, sharing our fears, anxieties, disappointments, and pain.
Our God is not a distant God. Through his son, he is truly here with us at every step of the way; he is the constant “I AM” in our lives. Even if our sins and hardness of heart led to Christ’s cross, we are forgiven by his and our Father, a loving God, as we turn to him with humble longing. It is His love, manifest in His incarnation and culminating in the Resurrection, which is more powerful than evil and gives us hope and joy as we endure the challenges and hardship of this world. Christ’s Resurrection is also our resurrection, because of the humanity we share. In the meantime, during our earthly journey, let us heed his counsel and remain in his word and be his true disciples, for, as he says “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8: 31-42)