The Meaning of The Passion
Beyond the debate about Mel Gibson's film, what is the spiritual significance of Jesus' suffering and death?
What does it mean to us as individual Christians for Jesus to suffer? How does it affect me? How does it connect with my life of faith and my struggle with doubt?
I think there are three ways into this question, and I'll take them in turn.
The suffering of Jesus is a pivotal event in the moral order of things. When, in the ordinary course of our lives, we consider something awful which has been done by someone, our first--not perhaps our best, but our first--instinct is to say, "Somebody's got to pay for this." Justice seems to demand that someone take some concrete action to set the moral scales in balance again.
The bad things that human beings do are likewise events in the moral order of things. To put the matter somewhat inelegantly, we do savage, immoral, despicable things to each other every day, with barely a casual acknowledgment of our culpability. We frankly, deserve punishment. This view of our just deserts is not very popular these days. But consider what life would be like if we did not accept the awfulness of our actions. We would be saying that the atrocious things we do are not important. And, to posit the existence of a God who is willing to brush off human failure and perversity would be to create a God who is indifferent to moral good and evil. "Somebody has got to pay for this" is a statement which can be self-serving and distracting. But it can also be a clear statement about the degree to which human sin has tipped the balance of the moral order.
The suffering of Jesus restores the balance. By living a sinless life, Jesus sets himself against the powers of his day, just as the virtuous still, today, inspire the hatred of the malevolent. And his steadfast righteousness attracts the animosity of sinful men and women and causes him to suffer. His suffering restores the moral balance as he absorbs into his body, into his being, the consequences of our alienation from God and from each other. So, the suffering of Jesus is an event in the moral order.
The suffering of Jesus is an event which measures love. Years ago, I happened to become slightly acquainted with Catherine Hearst at the time that her daughter, Patricia, was kidnapped by and later became a part of a violent left-wing paramilitary group. I remember seeing Mrs. Hearst after church one day and looking into her eyes. Whatever one might think of the Hearst family, or of Patricia or her political dalliances, in the eyes of that woman was the pain of love that I suspect only a mother can feel. The cost of love is often very high indeed. As I looked at that San Francisco society matron that day, I did not see a mover or a shaker in popular culture or an heiress to a newspaper fortune. I saw a tired, middle -aged woman aching with sorrow for her daughter in pain.