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Entering the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death

March 27, 2015
Father Charles Puthota

In his influential book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl speaks about an older doctor who approached him on account of his depression. His wife had died, and he was inconsolable. Struggling to find a way to help him, Frankl asked him: “What would have happened, doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her it would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Frankl replied, “You see, doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” The grieving doctor left without saying a word. Frankl felt that in some way suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

Sparing humanity all the suffering and sadness, Jesus takes on himself the excruciating burdens of our sin, guilt and evil. His purpose cannot be fulfilled without anguish, uncertainty, humiliation, vulnerability, and even a sense of being abandoned by his Father. Yet, he knows that he has to go through this sacrifice not because his Father is a sadist demanding his suffering and death but because our human condition chooses the cross for him. To free us from our sinful condition, Jesus is ready to do anything, even to throw his life away, a sacrifice based on absolute and unconditional love.

As we begin Holy Week this Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, we enter the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death. A hush of sadness descends on us as we process with palms and contemplate Mark’s passion narrative. Through ritual and remembrance, symbolism and paradox, we are led into the sanctuary of Jesus’ passion. Our hearts are heavy. In a mystical way, deep within us we can sense Jesus going through the agony. We are in utter amazement of what the divine love is willing to do for us. This is the desirable frame of mind and heart for us as we are drawn into contemplating Jesus’ life-giving events.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem ends the Messianic secret of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is now out in public as the Messiah people have been waiting for. His messiahship will be revealed fully now in his suffering, death and resurrection. Riding a donkey signifies humility, not subjugation. His power lies not in control but in self-sacrifice. He is Isaiah’s suffering servant. As Paul says, Jesus empties himself and becomes “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Mark’s Passion narrative confronts us with the brutality and humiliation that Jesus experiences as he faces his execution. Unlike the Gospel of John which portrays Jesus as majestic and in full control, Mark’s Gospel captures vividly Jesus’ humanity and vulnerability, his despair and abandonment.

The spirituality of Holy Week will connect us intimately – and redemptively – with these grace-giving events. We are not outsiders or spectators but participants in and sharers of these divine mysteries. On Holy Thursday, the Lord will wash the feet, institute the Eucharist, give the love commandment, and establish priesthood (both universal and ministerial). The Good Friday ceremonies will place us at the foot of the cross and at the heart of love and ask us “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Holy Saturday will take us, uncertain and anguished, into the cave of waiting in hope of new life. For many, life might seem one long Holy Saturday. When Easter comes, we will be suffused with indescribable joy and light, as Hopkins captures it: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”

Father Puthota is pastor of St. Veronica Parish, South San Francisco.

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