We’ve passed the half way mark now on our journey through Lent, the season when we enter into Jesus’s wilderness experience . Jesus withdrew from everything he enjoyed – the company of his friends, the opportunity to share his thoughts with his followers, the food and drink which he relished, worship in the synagogue or temple.. We try to discipline ourselves by taking on something extra – last year it was the challenges; this year it’s been the daily bible reading. These activities don’t begin to compare with Jesus’s desert fast, but they do help us to identify with his struggle with his inner demons, his battle to overcome the influences and temptations that distracted him from God.
Now we’ve arrived at Passion Sunday, the beginning of the last stage of Jesus’s life.
Passion is one of those words that changes its meaning according to context. It’s like sanction, which can mean permission to do something or a penalty for having done it. Among its meanings, passion can be the word for barely controllable emotion or intense desire or, true to its Latin roots, agonising suffering and death. This is the meaning that has become specific to the arrest and execution of Jesus. Because of its Latin origin – the Latin word also gave us ‘passive’ – we’ve come to look on the events of Passion-tide as the time when things happened to Jesus. This is a misconception. Our creeds would have us proclaim that the whole of Jesus’s life was a series of things that happened to him. He was conceived, he was born, he was crucified, he suffered death, he was buried. Would the Jesus movement have had a remote chance of surviving, growing, continuing to influence and inspire its followers if its leader had been a kind of puppet who sleep-walked his way around Palestine and then disappeared?
The passion story is very like the nativity story in that it’s a conflation of different strands from the four gospels. No single gospel contains all the elements of the story. As a continuous narrative it begins on Palm Sunday with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus then spends time in Jerusalem while the Jewish hierarchy refines its plan to arrest him, a plan that involves the recruitmen of Judas Iscariot. On Thursday, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem as he had planned and predicts that one of his friends will betray him. He uses the facilities laid on there to wash the disciples’ feet. During this episode he predicts that Peter will deny that he ever knew Jesus. Knowing that his capture is imminent, Jesus takes some of his friends with him into the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays fervently to be spared his fate. He surrenders himself to the will of God.
All through this series of events, Jesus is clearly in control and has directed their course . It couldn’t have been by chance that Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the same time as the Roman governor was riding into the city in imperial state. Jesus must have arranged for the hiring of a donkey, so that the scripture prophecy could be fulfilled: the Messiah would enter the capital in a parody of the show of power that the Romans were displaying. He knew that Judas was part of the plot against him. He knew that he was handing his enemies ammunition when he denounced the money changers in the Temple. When he sat down to eat the Passover meal, he said: How I have longed to eat this meal with you before my death. Never again shall I eat it until it finds its fulfilment in the kingdom of God.
Jesus knew that he was going to be executed. He knew many of the details of the process of his arrest and trial. The first charge against Jesus that really worried Pilate was that he had started causing unrest in Galilee and now it was spreading all over Judea with his claim that he was the son of God.. So Jesus made the conscious decision to absorb the inevitable violence into himself. Caiaphas, the pragmatist, had advised the Jewish hierarchy that in the political climate of the time it would be in their interest that one man should die for the people. Jesus offered himself as the sacrifical lamb.
He could have run away. Remember when he read from the prophecy of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and interpreted the passage with reference to himself. The congregation picked up stones and began to throw them at him. Jesus took flight and someone must have hidden him until the trouble died down. But by the time Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, the divisions were too great and the atmosphere was too charged. Jesus gave himself up, ordering his disciples not to meet violence with violence. This is the cup the father has given me. Shall I not drink it?
This is not to say that he gave up the intellectual argument. He left his captors in no doubt that their evidence was spurious and their power merely temporal. He argued with Pilate and Pilate, losing the argument, wound it up by asking Jesus: what is truth? And in the words of one of Francis Bacon’s most famous essays; he would not stay for an answer.
Jesus was full of passion, a passion for justice, a passion that his commandment should be obeyed and that his followers should love one another. He had a passion for life, lived in all its fullness.
As we move through passiontide and reach Good Friday, we have to recognise the nobility, the heroism of his premature death.
Jesus underwent the whole emotional gamut of a person facing death. Another one of Francis Bacon’s essays begins: Menn fear death as children fear to go in the dark. Jesus didn’t want his death to happen – he prayed that he might be spared the agonising process of death. He raged against the unfairness of his trial. He felt the treachery of the friends who had abandoned him and he was anxious about those who would be bereft. He lost his dignity but he never lost his self-esteem. Finally he had a sense of completeness as he consciously handed his earthly being back to God.
It’s against that background that we’re able to rejoice at the resurrection. There’s a resurrection drawing by Michelangelo of a naked man in the prime of life leaping out of a sarcophagus with all his muscles tense with the effort. One hand is pointing to the sky. In Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of Jesus at the creation of the world, he’s horizontal, with an almost palpable burst of energy connecting him to God the father. In the artist’s resurrection drawing the figure is like a bolt of lightning travelling vertically from earth to heaven. If it were possible to superimpose one work of art upon the other, the figures would form a cross. The cross stands for energy, for dynamism, for the triumph of the divine spirit as it became flesh in Jesus.