Sunday, March 24, 2013

By his stripes...

This is Mr. Weber's Easter message to the students of JPII, given at the assembly during Holy Week, 2013. 

The last three hours of my mother in law’s life were so horrible that I find it difficult to speak about even now. She died of congestive heart failure. One of the symptoms of that illness is that your lungs fill up with fluid. Early on you take diuretic drugs to remove the fluid, and she did this for over a year, but eventually, the diuretics cannot keep pace, your lungs fill up and you can’t breath, and the sensation is you’re drowning because you can’t get a good breath. In her last hours, my wife, Daniel and I stood by her side in utter horror, completely helpless, watching our mother and grandmother drown before our eyes.  When she finally passed away, we were deeply saddened, but we were grateful that her suffering was over.

Though I try not to think about it, I am reminded of all this when celebrate the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week this week. We read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death from one gospel during our Palm Sunday liturgies yesterday, and we will read it again on Good Friday from a second gospel.

The problem, of course, is that the story of Jesus’ death is so familiar to us that it’s almost as if we are inoculated from feeling any of the horror or pain that Jesus experienced. Those of you who are Catholic know how we read the story at Mass: the priest is Jesus, the "narrator" is usually the deacon or lector, a third "voice" is usually another lector, and the congregation plays the "crowd". So at that climactic moment just before death, when Jesus is in so much pain that even HE feels abandoned by God, here’s how we read it (in dull monotone): 

Narrator: Then Jesus cried out in a loud voice:
Priest: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabbachthani”
Narrator: Which means
Priest: “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me. "

I don’t think so! 

This was a man who had been scourged. We imagine scourging as being whipped, but the Roman practice resembled more of a beating, as the whip was very short, with ropes tied to a handle, and at the end of the ropes were lead balls or pieces of bone. When the whip hit the back, it wasn’t so much as a whippow! snap! as a thud, as the bits of bone landed on the back and tore at the flesh. 

Then Scripture tells us that the soldiers mocked Jesus by making him a crown of thorns, which they pressed onto his head and scalp. These are areas, if you’ve ever been cut there, that bleed profusely, so it’s quite likely that Jesus could barely see through the blood in his eyes.

Then Jesus was made to carry his cross to Golgotha. Archaeologists say that Golgotha was just outside the main city gates of Jerusalem, which like most ancient cities, was walled —part of what the Romans wanted to achieve by crucifying people was to send a warning to whomever might violate Rome’s dictates.  To add to that, the person to be crucified often had to carry the upper beam of the cross, which was tied behind his head, and weighed anywhere from 75 to 125 pounds.  Tradition has it that Jesus fell three times on the way to Golgotha, and if you think about it, he wouldn’t have had any way to break his fall, And though our Christian sensibilities require us to put some sort of loincloth around Jesus—we don’t want a naked man hanging in our churches—the reality is the crucified were stripped naked to humiliate the victim.  

When he arrived at the site of crucifixion, he was flung to his back, and his wrists and feet were nailed. Rome was expert at this, and wanted to prolong the agony, so they were careful to avoid puncturing any major arteries, which would have allowed the person to bleed to death too quickly. He was likely nailed through his wrists. Then he was hoisted up.  From there, the victim might live on 12, 24 or even 36 hours, depending on how badly beaten he was before hand.  The most common cause of death wasn’t blood loss but asphyxiation, or suffocation, caused by the pressure on the lungs from hanging. Rome knew this, which is why they nailed the feet to the cross, so that when the lungs were about to burst, the person’s survival instinct would cause him to push up from the nail in the feet, despite searing agony, thus prolonging the suffering. That’s why it was considered merciful to come and crush the man’s legs, because without the ability to push up, the person would suffocate more quickly.  (If breaking someone’s legs is an act of mercy, it gives you some sense of the horror of it). 

So we come to the part of the story where Jesus cries out to God. But with nails in his feet and wrists, with blood from the crown covering his face, with his back ripped apart by the scourging, as his lungs gasp for air, I tend to think it was more like this: (screaming) MY GOD! MY GOD! WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

Back to my mother-in-law: Part of what happens to you when you see someone suffer so much is you ask yourself why? My mother in law was a saint. She prayed daily. She suffered some hardships throughout her life, but always remained faithful. She and my father in law had seven kids and sent them to Catholic schools all the way through, which meant she didn’t have much money to go on vacations or enjoy some of the finer things in life. Now that her children were grown up, why didn’t God give her good health and allow her the chance to travel and enjoy the golden years of her life? 

And the longer you allow yourself to go down that path, and the more you think about how much she suffered at the end, the less sense it all makes, and the angrier you can get at God. Maybe he doesn’t truly care. Maybe he’s not truly all-powerful. Maybe he doesn’t answer prayers. Maybe her faith in him was misplaced. MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN HER?

For those of you who have gone through something painful—maybe you’ve lost someone close to you—a parent, a grandparent-- maybe your parents have gone through a divorce and now you don’t see your dad much and you miss him, maybe a friend of yours has betrayed you, or someone that you thought was a friend has said something deeply cutting or unkind about you behind your back—these are occasions of real suffering, and it’s OK to recognize them for what they are. Jesus clearly suffered. So do we.

We live in a society of comfort, of pampering, and of instant gratification.  In such a society, suffering is seen as the ultimate evil—if you’re suffering, you’re cursed, or acting stupidly, or not seeing things the right way and have to change your perspective. Something’s wrong with you. But the story of Easter that we celebrate this week tells us something dramatically different: suffering IS.  It was a fact in Jesus’ life, it is a fact in our lives, and it’s a fact in the lives of people we love and care about.

But it’s not the ONLY fact, and ultimately, it’s not the FINAL fact. The final fact is the resurrection! --that somehow, through our suffering, God redeems us and lifts us up. The Jesus beaten down and crucified becomes the risen Jesus, transfigured and glorified.  My mother in law, once sickly and dying, is now with the saints in heaven, pain-free, enjoying the company of her husband, her mother and father, and all of her friends and family who died before her. 

This is what we celebrate this Easter. This is our ancient faith.  In some of the most beautiful poetry of the Old Testament, centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold of what we celebrate this Easter, saying:

He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.  (Isaiah 53:3-5)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well-written and important message.