July 21, 2024

Relocations: A brief journey through Holy Week

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March 28, 2024

Jesus had to endure what seemed the death of his vision — of the hungry fed, the enslaved freed, the suffering comforted and peace accomplished

By Herbert Rothschild

You’re probably reading this column on what in the Christian calendar is called Good Friday. While I’ve been a Quaker for many years and Quakers treat every day as an equal opportunity to manifest our spirituality to the world, I like the differentiations of the traditional Christian calendar. They impart a rhythm to life that is partly in sync with and partly contradicts the rhythm of the solar year.
Herbert Rothschild

No portion of the Christian calendar is more fraught with variable moods than the portion that begins with Carnival, proceeds through Lent and ends with Easter. I grew up in a Catholic city — New Orleans — where those moods are pronounced. Mardi Gras is the biggest party in the country, a transgressive revelry that the full spectrum of life invites. And then those who just hours before were immersed in material indulgence kneel before the priest and, marked with ashes, are reminded that “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.”

The mood of Good Friday is somber, as befits a commemoration of the judicial murder of a nonviolent activist against the oppressive powers controlling his world. That’s not the usual way orthodox Christians view the crucifixion. For most of them it’s an act of “substitutionary atonement,” God offering up his blameless son to be sacrificed so that God won’t have to reject forever all us sinners. Many people, and I am one, regard as appalling the belief that a being worthy of devotion would require blood sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the firstborn child, but that belief was deeply embedded in Hebrew religion and in many others.

Despite that take on the crucifixion, which I guess is why the day is called Good, all orthodox Christians believe that Jesus’s suffering was real. That wasn’t true in the first three centuries after the event, before understandings of his life, ministry and death contracted into orthodoxy. Many of his early followers, usually grouped under the name Docetists, denied that Jesus had a material body and thus suffered on the cross, because they adhered to the Gnostic views that matter was either illusory or evil. But as early as the first letter of John, that belief was condemned: “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (4:2-3).

I hold no theological understanding of Jesus, but during Lent I dwell on his death. Not so much his physical suffering, grim as it must have been, because thousands endured the same fate at the hands of the Romans. Rather, I think of his having to endure what must have seemed the death of his vision — of the hungry fed, the enslaved freed, the suffering comforted and peace accomplished.

Jesus must have thought, when that vision came to him, that the kingdom was at hand because it seems so easy to enter. All we need do is let go of our will for self and receive each other as gifts. But in practice it isn’t easy to see one another that way. Instead, we exist as helps or hindrances to one another’s purposes, sometimes ambitious, mostly petty. Instead of coming alive to each other, we stay dead. And Jesus couldn’t will us into life. He could only invite us.

Suffering isn’t just the experience of pain. Suffering is unchosen passivity in the face of avoidable or remediable wrong. What is happening in Gaza, in Sudan, in Haiti, in Ukraine and everywhere else to lesser degrees, need not. To know that and to care about it and yet to be powerless to transform it is to suffer.

And so Jesus’s time on the cross is called his Passion. With its Latin origin long forgotten, the term has lost, if not all of its meaning, then much of its power. “Patior” is a deponent verb — passive in form but active in meaning. It means “to undergo,” “to endure,” “to suffer.” Indeed, it’s the quintessential deponent verb, because from its gerund we derive the word “passive.” And also “passion.” And so Jesus’s Passion is the consequence of his deep love for a deformed humanity and his seeming inability to awaken us to what we can be for each other and thus for ourselves. Perhaps he died in despair, but maybe he didn’t.

Which brings us to Easter. What did Jesus’ followers understand by the Resurrection? We can’t be sure. Understandings changed over time until they were frozen in the creeds. What we do know is that the movement Jesus started didn’t collapse with his death. A dispersed and discouraged group of followers somehow was transformed into a community energized and emboldened by the conviction that the kingdom was still at hand, that the life that they had experienced in Jesus’s presence wasn’t dead and therefore neither was he. They could still experience joy, only now it was inextricably coupled with suffering.

I suspect that none of this will resonate with adherents of religious traditions that urge us to escape suffering through detachment and to cultivate spirit by devaluing matter, but it all resonates with me. I like to think that nothing in our world delights God more than the laughter of small children. Tomorrow I’ll dye some eggs.

Herbert Rothschild’s columns appear on Friday in Opinions expressed in them represent the author’s views. Email Rothschild at

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