I have indicated on various occasions that I am not greatly impressed by wordiness when it comes to talking about the Christian faith. But the parallel between our theme of the abuse of power and the Passion Story cannot go uncommented on during this Holy Week 2014. Were I an active parish priest I would be preparing numerous services for this special season, but in retirement I find I have the leisure to prepare something for this blog.
One of the striking themes of the gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ is the way that the authors present Jesus as a victim. Not only does he undergo a terrible and cruel trial and death, but he is also shown as doing nothing to defend himself. The account of his trials reveals the fact that, for most of the time, he was silent, patiently enduring the floggings and tortures prepared for him. He becomes the object of the narrative, the one to whom things are done. Up to the point of his arrest he had been the active subject, the one at the centre of the action and decisions. It may be that the writers deliberately wanted to identify him with the mysterious figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. This servant is the one who bears ‘our infirmities and carries our diseases’ . He also, by being ‘numbered with the transgressors .. , bore the sin of many’. One way of reading the Passion story in the Gospels is to see the whole account as allowing Jesus to fulfil the vocation of the Servant. He is the innocent victim, through whom God can mediate his forgiveness to the human race.
It is possible to read the accounts of the giving of the Last Supper to support this interpretation. In Luke’s account of the giving of the bread, Jesus says ‘Do this as in remembrance of me’. Looking at the word ‘remembrance’ with its associations with sacrifice in the OId Testament, we can see that Jesus may have understood his death to be a sacrifice. An innocent death, the death of a victim as Christ’s death would be, could be re-enacted endlessly in a ritual act to ‘remind’ God to fulfil his promise to forgive sins. Jesus on the cross, like the Servant of Isaiah, is the God-given means of reconciliation for humanity.
The idea of Jesus as a victim is not suddenly introduced in the Passion accounts. We see, throughout the gospel story, Jesus involving himself with the marginalised and the poor. This focus of concern is anticipated in the words of the Magnificat when it is said that God ‘has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly’. There is a lot to suggest that Jesus spent far more time with the ‘riff-raff’ of society than with the respectable. The story of the Good Samaritan can be read in a way that is deeply subversive to the established religious order. The account of the Passion can be seen to continue this theme, except that instead of Jesus involving himself with the poor and oppressed, he in fact becomes one of them. There is no place or situation more shameful than to be executed on a cross.
In thinking about our overall theme of the abuse of power in the church, we can see that Christ in the passion story (and before) would always be on the side of the victim. They might be a victim of illness, a sufferer from a life-time of exploitation or being in an abusive relationship. It would not be wrong to suggest that Christians should always seek to identify with victims of all kinds. But we know in practice that the Church is better at cosying up to privilege and wealth and this has gone on for centuries. The task for those of us who are privileged in any way is, first of all, to enter with our imaginations into the victimhood of Jesus in his suffering and see how it was a deliberate choice. In that act of identification we may find ourselves more sensitised to the victims who are all around us. If we want to know what Christian love actually looks like, we have before us the love being demonstrated as Jesus moves out to embrace the victims of society during his ministry. Then there is his supreme act of identification with the lowest of the low in accepting death through crucifixion. It is quite hard for us to grasp the breadth and depth of that love, but at least it is demonstrated to us in a concrete form.
What is our task? The first is to identify with Jesus as the lover and healer of the victims and follow him in bringing love, healing and comfort to them as much as we can. The second thing is to follow him as far as we can in his identification with the victims and suffering of our world. Jesus is the minister to the suffering as well as the one who suffers by being himself a victim. The story of the Passion once more stretches our imaginations to understand anew this supreme involvement by God with the human race. It takes guts and strength after this to be able to sing that line of the hymn which says ‘ Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.’