Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
Tuesday, March 26, 2013Tweet
In the Catholic Church, on the Sunday before Easter we read the entire "Passion" story, or the part of one of the Gospels from the Last Supper all the way up to Jesus' death and the immediate aftereffects. This year the reading was Luke 22:14-23:56, which you can read in full here.
What struck me about the reading this year was what a testament it is to our humanness.
We think we know exactly how we will act, think, or feel in the future or in a hypothetical situation because we imagine ourselves, exactly as we currently are, being transplanted in a different place or time. We think we understand people who are completely different from us because we think of them as having all the same knowledge, experiences, and privileges we have. We take the best possible view of our future self's motivation and actions ("I will get up at 5am every day and run!") because we project our current intentions, motivations, and energy level onto that future self.
Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will deny knowing Him -- three times, even! That very night! And Peter, despite all that he has seen and all the reasons he has to trust Jesus, absolutely insists that he would go to prison or die before denying his association with Jesus.
It's beyond the capabilities of Peter's human mind to mentally put himself in a situation in which he would want to dissociate himself from Jesus. He is around a table with Jesus and all of his closest friends, the men he's been traveling with for years. He's just had food and wine and is relaxing, feeling comfortable, feeling safe, feeling loved. The most he can imagine is leaving the building they're in and having someone say, "Hey, do you know Jesus?" and imagine himself saying, "Of course! We just had the Passover meal together."
He cannot conceptualize the heart-wrenching fear and isolation that he will be experiencing before morning, so deep as to make him lie out of fear for his life.
Likewise, I imagine if you had asked the disciples in Gethsemane, "Will you stay alert and pray as Jesus has asked you to do?" they would have said, "Of course! We will do anything our Lord asks of us." But their best intentions could not keep them awake, and they fell asleep. Even having the motivation to do what Jesus asked, they probably wouldn't have accounted for possible drowsiness due to the meal and the wine, nor thought through their tendency to rationalize ("I'll just close my eyes while I'm praying..." "I can take a quick nap before Jesus gets back..."), and so wouldn't have made preparations to ensure they followed through with what Jesus had asked them to do.
They also had no way of understanding what was about to happen -- how could they? And so while Jesus, understanding full well what was going to happen, prayed so fervently that he was sweating, the disciples didn't really get the importance of praying that they wouldn't fall into temptation. If they'd had a preview of the following hours and seen firsthand how they would get scared and run away, then I can imagine them, wide awake, praying just as desperately that what they'd seen wouldn't come to pass, that they wouldn't desert Jesus that way. But not truly understanding the importance of what Jesus was telling them, they let their sleepiness take precedence.
And finally we have "the people." As the priest on Sunday said, likely many of the same people who waved palm branches, laid down their cloaks, and shouted "Hosanna!" when Jesus entered Jerusalem were there on Good Friday morning shouting "Crucify him!" Yet how many, at the moment they were welcoming and praising Jesus, would have said they would like to see Him crucified, or would have believed that they could ever want such a thing?
When Pilate attempted to get an explanation for why Jesus should be put to death, everyone was so swept up in the mob that they only continued shouting what they'd been enticed to say: "Crucify him!" and "Release Barabbas!" The body of research on conformity has two consistent messages: that the majority of people believe they will not conform to a group, and that the majority of people do conform. It's not a conscious choice we make; it's something that we do out of deep human need for belonging and acceptance. The people shouting for Jesus' death were caught up in the moment, even if they would otherwise wish no ill-will on Jesus and would, on any other day, tell you that they would definitely never take part in a group of people screaming for a man's death.
Which brings this back to us. To me. To you.
It is tempting sometimes to see the characters in the Bible as fundamentally different from ourselves. We laugh at the disciples when they misunderstand Jesus' parables, ask Him where they can possibly get enough food for a large crowd, or get scared when a storm rocks their boat. We laugh at Nicodemus asking how a grown man can get back inside his mother's womb. We, who have the benefit of two centuries' worth of Biblical analysis, are already familiar with the phrase "born again" in a spiritual sense, and we know how the story of the loaves and fishes ends.
And we secretly think that, unlike Peter, we would not have denied Jesus. Unlike the disciples, we would not have fallen asleep. Unlike the crowd of people, we would not have shouted for Jesus' death.
Because we are human, and we cannot mentally put ourselves in any of those situations enough to make them real.
I believe it's important that we rein in this way of thinking. If we don't, the Passion story becomes the story of Other People, people who were too stupid to understand what was going on, people who were too lazy to stay awake, people who were too easily influenced into becoming a mob. Jesus' death becomes a result of what some Other People did or didn't do, and it seems to have nothing really to do with us.
Instead, let's acknowledge how much we have in common with all these people. How little we comprehend the future, how our best intentions fall flat, how we give in to peer pressure or care too much about what the people around us think. How easily we would have fit into any of the scenes in the Passion.
And how, despite all of that, we are loved by God. We are forgiven by Jesus on the cross. We are able to be instruments of God's will rather than obstacles to it.
We are part of a story bigger than us. Bigger than our weaknesses, our mistakes, and our utter humanness.