The Word Encountered
“My heart is filled with sorrow to the point of death.” (Mk 14:34)
I can admit now that when I was young, I hated those movies portraying the life of Christ. They were never snazzy enough. The miracles were never convincing. To top it off, those movies always ended in failure. There is no way around it. He died. He failed. And it was a mess.
Perhaps that is why I rarely found our churches very appealing. In addition to the associations of glumness and guilt, there he was, bleeding and broken up, for all to see.
One of the best things about the Forty Hours devotion was the fact that, in addition to the incense and the processions, the cross, especially the body, would soon be covered.
Much later in life I would hear reports that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the head of the Unification Church, as well as Ted Turner, found it somewhat strange that people would worship a figure who ended up in such failure.
And that’s what it was all about. I wanted a winner. We all want one. And a winner does not end up like the rest of us—weak, beyond earthly help, frail, and failing before the great force of death.
Superman had X-ray eyes and could fly. Captain Marvel muttered “Shazam!” and zapped defeat into sudden victory. Wonder Woman, better than the Amazons, could take on armies of marauders. But not Jesus.
I would have rewritten the script. Instead of picking up the ear of an enemy and somehow reattaching it, why not have Jesus use that power to knock all their heads off?
Even after Jesus was put on the cross, I thought the army could have come in at the last minute. The heavens could have opened up and the thunderous voice of God would boom: “What are you doing to my beloved Son? Take that!” Lightning and earthquakes. Instead we get this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I chose then to ignore this unpleasantness for years. Easter would come sure enough, candy, spring, and all.
This avoidance reappeared when I became a Jesuit novice. I could never adequately enter the mystery of the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, the week (or day, as the case may be) that concentrated on the passion and death of Jesus. Everything seemed to come to a stop. I would wait for the resurrection narratives and the promise of the retreat’s end.
Somehow, over the years, it has all changed. A child knows death but not its implications. Most adults do know them.
When you get right down to it, every death is disaster. Death is a total, utter negation of everything that leads up to it. Many nonbelievers, in their more honest moments, admit the unmentionable: death seems to mock our every hope and achievement.
And after seeing so many loved ones die, whether old and frail, middle-aged and struck down by infirmity, young and suddenly disappeared, I realize that nothing less than a God who would face our death could suffice.
Could a God truly love and heal us, all so burdened with sin and its weight of death, if that God, too, had not been filled somehow with sorrow, even to the point of death?
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University