For us and our salvation: Father Donald Senior on the passion

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Article Scripture and Theology
What do we mean when we say that by Jesus’ suffering and death we are healed—a mystery if ever there was one?

You might imagine that Father Donald Senior had always wanted to study the Bible, given that he is a world-renowned scripture scholar and a longtime member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. But you’d be wrong; what he really wanted to be was a missionary.

Back when Senior was studying to be a Passionist priest, one of the order’s missionaries came to tell the students about his time as a chaplain in a leper colony off the coast of Korea. “I had dreams of doing just that—of being another Damian of Molokai, who gave his life in solidarity with the lepers he served,” says Senior.

But in those days, he says, ”religious communities handled assignments something like an arranged marriage.” He was “asked” to plan on teaching scripture and sent off to Europe to begin his studies.

Senior has indeed spent his life as a missionary, albeit a different kind than he envisioned. He has brought the Jesus of the New Testament to the thousands who have heard him speak, read his books, taken his classes, traveled with him to the Holy Land, or attended Catholic Theological Union, which he headed for 23 years.

The man who didn’t want to be a scripture scholar today considers it one of his greatest blessings. “In the beauty and power of the Jesus portrayed in the gospels,” he says, “we who seek the face of God in our lives are given a sense of who God is, and there can find our hope.”

What do we know about what actually happened to Jesus at the time of his death?

Jesus died most likely around A.D. 30. He has had a public ministry for several years, and now he comes to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover festival. He’s drawing crowds in a very dangerous situation. The Romans ruling Judaea had already been dealing with riots and unrest; there was increasing tension with Roman rule, particularly under Pilate.

Jesus comes into the city and goes to the Temple. He does some provocative prophetic act involving the Temple, purifying it, even predicting that it eventually might be taken down and replaced with something purer. If you go to Jerusalem today and stand on the Mount of Olives, you’ll see that the Temple platform of Herod still dominates the city. You can understand how volatile it would have been for this Galilean peasant worker to come in and stir the whole thing up.

Why would the Jewish leaders at the time turn Jesus over to Pilate?

The Jewish religious leadership, particularly in Jerusalem, was in a way entrusted with maintaining public order by the Romans. Yes, there was Roman rule and a Roman procurator, but most of the time he was about 75 miles away in Caesarea Maritima. The Romans’ message to the religious leaders was, “We’re counting on you to keep the lid on things,” particularly in the sacred precincts.

So when Jesus comes in with his road show, the religious leaders have trouble on their hands. In John 11:48, after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests get together and say, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” The high priest, Caiaphas, tells them it’s better “to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

What was at stake for Caiaphas?

That the Romans could do what they eventually did in A.D. 70—they besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, which was the biblical equivalent to 9/11.

The great obsession of the Romans was public order. They particularly feared rebellion and slave revolt. The Romans could be very punishing and intolerant; they could take the high priests out of office. So the religious leaders had a big stake in maintaining order.

It becomes a human drama involving Jesus. The chief priests have him arrested and then discuss, “What are we going to do?” They decide to take him to Pilate, who was the authority and who was in the city at the time. The gospels describe this meeting among the chief priests as a trial, but it was really more of a strategy session.

Then Jesus is turned over to the Romans, the chief players. We don’t know if Pilate was as reluctant to execute him as is portrayed in the gospels. But he does say, “Take him yourselves and kill him.” This shows Pilate’s attitude: We know historically that there was no love lost between the Jewish leaders and Pilate.

Don’t the gospels play down the role of the Romans?

In a sense, the Romans didn’t count from the point of view of the early Christians. Look at what Jesus has to say about the Romans in the gospels—almost nothing. They’re like ciphers in the background.

Look at the Roman characters in Matthew and most other gospels—they’re a mixed bag. The centurion is good, Pilate’s wife seems like a good person, while Pilate is weak and vacillating. The soldiers do their job in crucifying Jesus.

What really counted for the early Christians was Jesus’ relationship to Judaism. They were trying to see how they fit into the great heritage that Jesus represented. All the passion in the gospels is in Jesus’ interaction with the Jewish leaders.

What would Jewish leaders have had against Jesus?

Well, Mark says this testimony is false, but the high priest accuses Jesus of blasphemy in that he claimed to be the son of God and claimed messianic authority.

They must have found something very difficult about Jesus. It could have been his claims to religious authority. He was a layperson; he had no position. He was basically learned, but he wasn’t a sage. Yet he was claiming quite a bit of authority in interpreting the law, in jousting with them.

How did this all lead to crucifixion?

The gospel tradition agrees with what we know of crucifixion from Greco-Roman records and such: the trial, the severe beating beforehand, the procession with the person carrying the cross, the means of impalement, the placards, a public setting. The Romans wanted crucifixion to have deterrent value for slaves and lower classes and those they called “strangers.”

It wasn’t a penalty for Roman citizens; it was given to rebels from outside who agitated against Roman order. Crucifixion was supposed to totally hu­­miliate someone and repudiate their cause.

Why would Jesus deserve this worst form of Roman execution?

The crucifixion tells us that the impact of Jesus on his own community and as a potential threat to the Romans—even if the Romans didn’t really believe it—had enough weight that they would agree to this, because they didn’t crucify just anybody. Jesus is not a Roman citizen.

In the gospels, his opponents accuse him of rebellion, of withholding taxes, and so on. Whether these were the actual charges against Jesus, they give a political cast to his religious program. It says that Jesus was really talking ultimately about the transformation of relationships.

This implies a powerful social and political impact. What he had to say and the symbolic actions he performed were a threat to public order, as perceived by those who wanted to keep control.

Picture the Romans: Who is this guy, claiming to be a king? He’s got crowds coming in and he causes a riot at the Temple at the Passover. We’ve heard that Herod Antipas wanted to kill him, too. He critiques the rulers, he’s stirring up the crowds. Let’s just get rid of him.

In the minds of the Romans, then, he’s a rabble-rouser?

Right, a rabble-rouser. This is actually an important theological issue, because the emphasis on atonement can take us into a lot of metaphors about what crucifixion means. But the gospels emphasize that the reason Jesus was crucified is because of his ministry. The authorities decide to kill him because he’s healing on the Sabbath and he’s interpreting the law and he’s confronting the leaders.

This connection between his mission and his crucifixion is what causes modern theologians to say that some expressions of atonement theology can be repugnant—the belief that God would be saying, “My anger is assuaged because you’ve destroyed my beloved Son, so that will pay for the debt you owe.”

That’s a caricature, of course, but what I find is that even for the New Testament authors who use sacrificial language, the driving force is not an angry God seeking vengeance. The driving force is God’s love for the world that sends Jesus in the first place, not to die but to create life. Then Jesus faces the consequence, and that leads to metaphors of atonement.

Mark 10:45, for example, says, “The Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve, to give his life a ransom for the many.” But “ransom” here is equivalent to serving. Jesus is serving, giving his life by healing, confrontations with evil, and exorcisms, and when the opposition reaches its climax against him, that’s the ultimate—he gives his life. Through his mission, he’s been giving his very being, the cup poured out for us, and in the crucifixion it reaches its final expression.

So how does Jesus suffer “for us”?

Here’s a way to think about atonement that’s helped me: In my family, when we’ve lost someone, the grief is not evenly distributed. Usually someone emerges in that moment who carries the rest of us, for a while anyway.

They’re the “suffering servant.” They carry more than their share of the suffering on behalf of the community. I think the early Christians saw Jesus that way—he bears more than his share, and by his sufferings, we are healed. Because of who he is, he bears it for the rest of humanity.

That’s why I would never dismiss atonement language in popular piety. There are people who are chronically ill, for example, who really think of the value of their suffering for somebody else. Who knows that they’re not correct? Not because God is cruel, but because we’re connected somehow.

When innocent people suffer, we may wonder, “Is there meaning in this? Are they strangely draining off for us the things we can’t bear?” It’s mysterious.

When John says that Jesus laid down his life for his friends, what did he mean?

John’s gospel says the raising of Lazarus causes the priests to condemn Jesus. Lazarus is someone Jesus loves as a friend. He comes and rescues Lazarus from death, not just from illness. In doing so, he is expending himself and risking himself for the sake of the other. Even when it brought opposition, he told the truth, he healed the desperate.

His risking his life for the sake of those he loves becomes fully expressed in the crucifixion. It’s the unimpeachable human act. When you lay down your life for another, no one can say, “Well, that’s impressive, but what else have you got?” John seizes on it: “There is no greater love than this.”

How can we connect our own suffering to Jesus’ suffering?

I think of two gospel sayings: “Take up your cross” and “Bear your cross.”

The first brings to mind certain fidelities that we’re called to, certain commitments. It could cost us something to really be true to ourselves, true to our faith. We could suffer economically or even physically; we could suffer tension with our families. This is a suffering that is a result of our commitment.

There’s other suffering that is uninvited and more “bearing your cross”: illness, loss, disappointment in life, a broken relationship. We don’t control it, but we do have a part in what it means for us.

How so?

The scriptures speak of the number of ways in Christian tradition that suffering can be purifying. Suffering can tell us what counts and what doesn’t count. It exposes some false securities that we might have. If we’re faced with a serious illness, for example, it can be a source of discipline and wisdom.

Suffering is also a witness. The Letter of James speaks of anointing the person who suffers—the sacrament of anointing. Anointing gives the person a role. James speaks about the witness of the person who suffers in the community.

Suffering borne not necessarily in a heroic way but borne faithfully is a witness to how we confront our mortality, what our deep virtues are, what humanness means. It puts the lie to false images of human beauty. Think of Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane, his dignity, his bearing of the cross, his forgiveness, his compassion, his nonrecrimination, his prayer of trust. The passion narratives are a school of wisdom for human life because of the suffering of Jesus.

It’s also important to say that we Christians are against suffering before we’re for it. Our first response is not, “How lucky you are that you’re going to suffer.” Like Jesus himself, you eradicate suffering. You heal, you drive out the evil and confront it. But when suffering comes, you bear it with dignity and commitment, and value can come from that.

Was a big part of Jesus’ suffering that his friends deserted him?

I think of Jesus as a very vital human being and relatively young, full of energy and zeal. People were trusting him, touching him, and then to run smack into that wall and have the people around him basically abandon him—I think that was part of his acute suffering and brought up the question of meaning.

I sometimes wonder what kind of a story it would be if, when the guards came into the garden to arrest Jesus, the disciples said, “If you take him, you take us, too.” They’d have had to put them all on trial. When the authorities asked, “Are you his disciple?” they’d say, “You bet,” and they’d all get taken down to Pilate, so there would be 13 crosses. What would we do with that?

It would be a hero story, but there would be no connection to our own story of weakness and failure. In the gospels even Peter, who could be set up to be a superhero, is dropkicked at the very end. Paul is acutely embarrassed for his role in persecuting the church of God.

Founding literature almost always idealizes the first generation, but Christian literature does not. We can identify with these fallible people—that’s why these texts speak to us.

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 4, pages 28-31).

Image: Flickr photo cc by John Ragai