Here in the final days of the Lenten season of penance and atonement, I tried to watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
I couldn’t do it.
It wasn’t the fact that the dialogue is in (mostly) Aramaic without subtitles. Certainly I know the stories well enough to suss out the dialogue without English subtitles.
It wasn’t the violence. Although I think this movie depicts the violence surrounding Jesus’ suffering and death in a brutally truthful way, and it is hard to watch, the violence had barely started when I had to turn the film off.
It was this: I began watching this movie in a prayerful way, asking the Holy Spirit to let me enter into the redemption story (for that truly is what it is!) with an open mind and heart and learn what He wants me to know as Easter approaches. And as the beginning scenes unfolded on the screen, thoughts began to unfold in my head. You see, I know how it ends – or more accurately, that it doesn’t end! Not here in the garden, not in Pilate’s mock court, not on the road to Golgotha, and certainly not on the Cross or in the tomb. What happens next in God’s salvation story is – well, it’s the salvation!
I sat there for a few more moments with the remote in my hand, as it occurred to me that perhaps God was suggesting that I not dwell too much on the horrors of the events of the Passover Eve and following day; that I must see and know those events in the bright light of where they led; that if I dwell only on His suffering, my sadness might overshadow the complete joy of the redemption His suffering bought; that getting lost in the emotions that His sufferings evoke could actually lead me astray from the beautiful and glorious fact of His Resurrection.
The cycle of Holy Week – the solemnity of Maundy Thursday in remembrance of the first Eucharist, the tragic sorrows of Good Friday, the emptiness of Holy Saturday – can too easily lead to such an indulgence of feelings – feelings that reach their peak in the trumpets and the organ music and the alleluias of Easter Sunday. I contemplated this for a moment, and my finger found the “off” button on my remote as I opted for some quiet time in conversation with Jesus about all this. The conversation has continued, off and on, ever since, and here are some things I’ve learned from it.
Jesus did indeed suffer, beyond what we can imagine, as he stood in for us in atonement for our sins. We need to know that He suffered, because without the suffering, the glory of Resurrection would never have come about.
When we consider and reflect upon God’s story of salvation, we must see and know the whole story rather than getting stuck on just one part of it. Without the Cross there is no empty tomb. Without the empty tomb there is no Easter joy. And without the joy of Easter, we have no context for the suffering that came before it.
The next thing that I learned in this time of reflection is that we celebrate all of these wonderful events as a cycle of anniversaries, partly so that we are reminded of all the parts of the salvation story, but also in large measure because celebrating this cycle over and over again helps us to see the salvation story in its essential integrity as a seamless event that wound its way through history, continues in our lives, and will continue long after we have gone to our hoped-for reward. By celebrating all of these anniversaries, we put our selves on the path toward truth.
The truth – and it is a startling truth! – is that our redemption made mercy and forgiveness and blessings readily available to us because we continue to sin. Jesus’ once-for-all-and-once-for-all-time redemptive act did not remove the free will with which God our Father created us. And that, combined with the effects of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, means we are still sinful creatures.
We sin; we seek and avail ourselves of mercy and forgiveness; we repent, and join our acts of atonement with those of Jesus; and inevitably, we sin again.
And here are the most important things I learned:
He never tires of taking us back.
We sin, we repent, we atone, we sin again – and He waits for us to come back, to repent, to seek out His love and mercy. Every. Single. Time. Jesus is the ultimate Example of His own admonition to forgive without limits.
And He will not be outdone. For every time that temptation lures us back, He waits with yet one more act of forgiveness, if we will only seek it. No matter how many times we fall, or how badly, there He is with outstretched hand to offer not just mercy and forgiveness, but strength.
Does the world abound with thrills and delights and temptations? He waits for us with serenity and joy and peace. He will not be outdone.
Do we suffer physical illness or mental illness or addiction? He waits for us with abundant healing, and He smiles when we reach to just touch the hem of His garment. He will not be outdone.
Are we in love with material things and success and the praise of others? He waits for us with rewards that last endlessly longer than these, and He rejoices when we seek them. He will not be outdone.
I love being the child of a God Who never tires of taking me back and Who will not be outdone. The more I learn about how much He loves me, the greater my joy.
I can live with that.
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