How are we to make sense of the idea that the Passion of Jesus purifies us, makes us better people? Some early Church Fathers had the idea that God had planned to wreak terrible punishment on humanity because of our collective failure to obey his orders, and that the only thing that persuaded him to relent was receiving the life of Jesus as a bloody sacrifice
. This seems nonsensical to me, but to its authors no doubt it meant something . And at least I think it licenses us to try our best to make the Passion meaningful for us in a way that really makes sense to us .
Over decades, I have taken part in a variety of liturgies, passion plays and musical works recounting and reflecting on the Passion story
. I have seen many pictorial representations of the various scenes in the drama: the courageous and peaceful challenge to the authorities; the initial welcome from the crowd that turns out to be fickle; bravado that turns out to be unsustainable; the traditional authorities’ outrage at disturbing new ideas and their frightened, vicious response; the use of the law to justify and implement a brutal and ultimately unsuccessful solution; ends justifying means; misunderstanding or venality leading to betrayal; despair over mistakes with dire consequences; the indifference to suffering of bureaucrats and soldiery; death faced and lived through to the end; personal devotion and grief . There is nothing unusual in any of this; it goes on all the time, in every society . It is the way life happens . If you can’t think of multiple modern examples of every one of these features of the Passion story, you haven’t been paying attention to the news; you may not have been paying attention to your own life .
To say there is nothing unusual in the Passion of Jesus is not to down-play its significance
. Quite the opposite: it is to say exactly why it is significant . Of course many other examples can be cited of stories both historical and mythical that similarly draw our attention to the enduring realities of human life and which encourage us to respond appropriately . If the Passion of Jesus is pre-eminent, it is not because it is unique; it is because it is universal, simultaneously distant and yet familiar to today’s societies; it is an integral and constitutive element in our tradition; and it is in essence historically true . If we really take this story to our hearts, it will change the way we think about and respond to a thousand similar situations as we encounter them in the news and in our lives . You can’t read about the fickle crowd and then ignore the tabloid press building up and then destroying public figures Jerusalem . You can’t hear the cry of ‘Barabbas’ and not notice tawdry celebrity being more highly regarded than solid contributions to society . You can’t watch Pilate wash his hands and then wash your own of your share of responsibility for the world’s ills . You can’t hear Peter’s cock crow without hearing your own . I don’t say that if you take the Passion seriously you will always find it possible to put everything right, let alone that there are always ways of making everything all right; part of the truth that the Passion draws attention to is that sometimes the world we live in is irreducibly messy . If more of us reflect on the human emotions that the Passion draws from us, then in time, maybe, that world will become a better place, with fewer every-day passions of this kind.
But even if the world doesn’t change, we will
. Our awareness of the realities of the human drama will be heightened . A central part of the Jesus teaching was that for human beings to try to operate as rule-following automata was to miss the best bit of being human . Allowing ourselves to feel the successive emotions that swirl through any meditation on the Passion story will help us feel the emotions that, acknowledged or not, swirl through every human life – its joys, its sorrows, its follies, its satisfactions, its rages . It may teach us how to make fewer mistakes and hurt fewer people, but that is not its point . Its point is to release in us the forces that can make us fully alive . Alive of course to our own emotions, but just as importantly alive to those of other people . For meditation on the Passion will help make us com-passionate people, better able to share in other people’s joys and sorrows, and more willing to react positively to them .
I said that mediation on the Passion ‘will’ do these good things
. That is not quite true . It is entirely possible to get very worked up about the sufferings of Jesus two thousand years ago, perhaps even to the extent of self-flagellation and other excesses, without it affecting our human interactions today . When this happens, the Passion will have done nothing to make us better people . Religion will once again have been divorced from everyday life and put into a separate compartment, satisfying in its own terms perhaps, but not really making much of a contribution to human life in general . In other words, religion will have been put back in the box that Jesus tried to take it out of; it would be bitterly ironic for his followers to do this with the story of his Passion, given that he was executed for trying to correct exactly this mistake . If the blood of Jesus is to save us from our sins, we must see how elements of the Passion story repeat themselves in ordinary human life around us, and see to it that we allow our reactions to the Passion flow over into our everyday interactions .
There are of course some important aspects of our lives that meditation on the Passion will not help us with, and if our emotional education is focussed too narrowly on the Passion story, there is a risk that other aspects of our development will be neglected
. But we must never underestimate its effectiveness in shaping human lives for the better.