For months now, we have been inundated with pictures of a bloodied Jesus. Without in any way dismissing the concerns raised by this media event, it should be pointed out that the scriptural Passion texts do not concentrate on the details of Jesus’ suffering. In fact, there are only three brief, explicit references to them in the account of the Passion read today: “His sweat became like drops of blood” (22:44); “The men who held Jesus in custody were...beating him” (22:63); “They crucified him” (23:33). References to Jesus’ Passion seem to be more focused on its effects in our lives than on specifics of the suffering itself.
Perhaps the best way to understand the message of today’s readings is to place them within the context of St. Paul’s hymn of praise of Christ Jesus. Paul does not sketch a graphic account of Jesus’ agony, but neither does he minimize it. He interprets the suffering: Jesus emptied himself; he took the form of a slave; he humbled himself; he became obedient even to death on the cross. Paul identifies Jesus as a man who knew suffering, but he does not portray him as a mere helpless victim.
According to Paul, Jesus emptied himself of all divine prerogatives; his torturers sought to empty him of all human dignity. But his deliberate self-emptying allowed them to apprehend him. Though he suffered, he did not relinquish his dignity. Jesus was in the form of God; their brutal treatment left him deformed. But he freely took the form of a slave, and it was his choice to be physically broken. Jesus humbled himself; they set out to humiliate him. Here again, this was his choice. Jesus was obedient to his destiny; they thought that they were putting an end to him.
The reading from Isaiah is the third of four poetic passages known as the Servant Songs. Here the “servant of the Lord” tells us that he was called by God to speak words of comfort to the weary. Some resented this, so they assaulted him. In the face of this, he did not defend himself but continued to trust in God. Early Christians easily identified Jesus with the “servant.” Jesus too preached to the needy; for this he too was assaulted; neither did he defend himself, but trusted in God throughout the entire ordeal.
Psalm 22 is a combination of a lament and a hymn of praise. The psalmist complains of having to endure ridicule and of being attacked. Complaint is followed by a prayer of trust and a petition for help. The psalm ends with a promise of praise and a call to others to praise God. As bitter as the suffering may have been, the psalmist does not end on a note of despair. Rather, praise implies that the psalmist is certain that God will answer the prayer. For this reason, praise is appropriate.
The two readings and the psalm all begin with suffering, but end with trust. The proclamation from Paul goes even further than trust, ending with Jesus’ exaltation. These passages set the context within which we should consider the Passion. They do not minimize the bitter rejection that Jesus faced or the excruciating suffering he endured. But they assure us that there is more here than meets the eye. Jesus’ sacrifice was the price he paid for being faithful to his calling.
As for the Passion narrative itself, the sobering details of the story point out how easy it is for any one of us to sacrifice genuine integrity. Judas is not the only one who ever betrayed a friend, nor is Peter alone in protecting himself at the expense of another. Many of us know how easy it is for people in positions of authority to sacrifice an individual for what they consider the best interests of the group. Religious leaders, convinced of their own legitimacy, have been known to silence any opposing voice. Finally, we should not underestimate the force of the crowd mentality. It is easy to join it and lose our sense of justice in the process, or to be so frightened by it that we fail to stand by those who might become its victims. There is enough culpability here to go around.
Let us enter into the Passion of Jesus in a way that will move us toward genuine conversion and transformation. Let us recognize our own strengths or limitations in the characters of the story and note how Jesus calls them to greater fidelity. Or let us identify with Jesus. He willingly set aside privilege for the sake of others; he remained true to his calling, despite the cost that was exacted; he refused to meet violence with violence. Through it all, Jesus remained tenaciously faithful to God and lovingly open to all others. The readings of this Sunday set these challenges before us.