RonRolheiser,OMI

The Meaning of Jesus’ Death

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Jesus’ death washes everything clean, including our ignorance and sin. That’s the clear message from Luke’s account of his death.

As we know, we have four Gospels, each with its own take on the passion and death of Jesus. As we know too these Gospel accounts are not journalistic reports of what happened on Good Friday but more theological interpretations of what happened then. They’re paintings of Jesus’ death more so than news reports about it and, like good art, they take liberties to highlight certain forms so as to bring out essence. Each Gospel writer has his own interpretation of what happened on Calvary.

For Luke, what happened in the death of Jesus is the clearest revelation, ever, of the incredible scope of God’s understanding, forgiveness, and healing.  For him, Jesus’ death washes everything clean through an understanding, forgiveness, and healing that belies every notion suggesting anything to the contrary. To make this clear, Luke highlights a number of elements in his narrative.

First, in his account of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he tells us that immediately after one of his disciples struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear, Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him. God’s healing, Luke intimates, reaches into all situations, even situations of bitterness, betrayal, and violence. God’s grace will ultimately heal even what’s wounded in hatred.

Then, after Peter denied him three times and Jesus is being led away after his interrogation by the Sanhedrin, Luke tells us that Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter in a look that made Peter weep bitterly. Everything in this text and everything that comes after it suggests that the look from Jesus that caused Peter to weep bitterly was not one of disappointment and accusation, a look that would have caused Peter to weep in shame. No, rather it was a look of such understanding and empathy as Peter had never before seen, causing him to weep in relief, knowing that everything was alright and he was alright.

And when Luke records Jesus’ trial before Pilate, he recounts something that’s not recorded in the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, namely, Pilate sending Jesus to Herod and how the two of them, bitter enemies until that day, “became friends that same day.” As Ray Brown, commenting on this text puts it, “Jesus has a healing effect even on those who mistreat him.”

Finally, in Luke’s narrative, we arrive at the place where Jesus is crucified and as they are crucifying him, he utters the famous words: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Those words, which Christians forever afterwards have taken as the ultimate criterion as to how we should treat our enemies and those who do us ill, encapsulate the deep revelation contained in Jesus’ death. Uttered in that context as God is about to crucified by human beings, these words reveal how God sees and understands even our worst actions: Not as ill-will, not as something that ultimately turns us against God or God against us, but as ignorance – simple, non-culpable, invincible, understandable, forgivable, akin to the self-destructive actions of an innocent child.

In that context too, Luke narrates Jesus’ forgiveness of the “good thief”. What Luke wants to highlight here, beyond the obvious, are a number of things: First, that the man is forgiven not because he didn’t sin, but in spite of his sin; second, that he is given infinitely more than he actually requests of Jesus; and finally, that Jesus will not die with any unfinished business, this man’s sin must first be wiped clean.

Finally, in Luke’s narrative, unlike the narratives of Mark and Matthew, Jesus does not die expressing abandonment, but rather dies expressing complete trust: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”. Luke wants us to see in these words a template for how we can face our own deaths, given our weaknesses. What’s the lesson? Leon Bloy once wrote that there is only one true sadness in life, that of not being a saint. At the end of the day when each of us face our own death this will be our biggest regret, that we’re not saints. But, as Jesus shows in his death, we can die in (even in weakness) knowing we are dying into safe hands.

Luke’s account of the passion and death of Jesus, unlike much of Christian tradition, does not focus on the atoning value of Jesus’ death. What it emphasizes instead is this: Jesus’ death washes everything clean, each of us and the whole world. It heals everything, understands everything, and forgives everything – despite every ignorance, weakness, infidelity, and betrayal on our part. In John’s passion narrative, Jesus’ dead body is pierced with a lance and immediately “blood and water” (life and cleansing) flow out. In Luke’s account, Jesus’ body is not pierced. It doesn’t need to be. By the time he breathes his last he has forgiven everyone and everything has been washed clean.

The Dispelling of an Illusion

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We don’t much like the word disillusionment. Normally we think of it as a negative, something pejorative, and not as something that does us a favor. And yet disillusionment is a positive, it means the dispelling of an illusion and illusions, unless we need one as a temporary tonic, are not good for us. They keep us from the truth, from reality.

There are many, many negatives to the current coronavirus that’s wreaking a deadly havoc across the planet. But there’s one positive: Against every form of resistance we can muster, it’s dispelling the illusion that we are in control of our lives and that, by our own efforts, we can make ourselves invulnerable. That lesson has come upon us uninvited. This unforeseen and unwelcome virus is teaching us that, no matter our sophistication, intelligence, wealth, health, or status, we’re all vulnerable, we’re all at the mercy of a thousand contingencies over which we have little control. No amount of denial will change that.

Granted, at one level of our consciousness we’re always aware of our vulnerability. But sometimes after we have walked a dangerous ledge for a long time we forget the peril and are no longer aware of the narrowness of the plank upon which we’re walking. Then too our sense of our vulnerability to a hundred million dangers is, like our sense of mortality, normally pretty abstract and not very real. We all know that like everyone else we are going to die one day; but normally this doesn’t weigh very heavily on our consciousness. We live instead with the sense that we’re not going to die just yet. Our own deaths aren’t really real to us. They are not yet an imminent threat but only a distant, abstract reality.

Generally, such too is the vagueness of our sense of vulnerability. Yes, we know abstractly that we are vulnerable, but generally we feel pretty secure. But as this virus spreads, consumes our newscasts, and brings our normal lives to a halt, our sense of vulnerability is no longer a vague, abstract threat. We’re now much more aware that we all live at the mercies of a million contingencies, most over which we have little control.

However, to our defense, our innate sense that we’re in control and can safeguard our own safety and security should not be too-hastily and too-harshly judged. We can’t help it. It’s the way we’re built. We’re instinctually geared to hate our weaknesses, our vulnerability, our limitations, and our awareness of our own poverty and are instinctually geared to want to feel secure, in control, independent, invulnerable, and self-sufficient. That’s a mercy of grace and nature because it helps save us from despondency and helps us to live with a (needed) healthy pride. But it’s also an illusion; perhaps one that we need for long periods in our lives but also one that in moments of clarity and lucidity we’re meant dispel so as to acknowledge before God and to ourselves that we’re interdependent, not self-sufficient, and not ultimately in control. Whatever else about this virus, it’s bringing us a moment of clarity and lucidity, even if this is far from welcome.

We were given the same lesson, in effect, with the downing of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11th, 2001. In witnessing this single tragic incident we went from feeling safe and invulnerable to knowing that we are not able, despite everything we have achieved, to ensure our own safety and safety of our loved ones. A lot of people relearned the meaning of prayer that day. A lot of us are relearning the meaning of prayer as we sit quarantined at home during this coronavirus.

Richard Rohr suggests that the passage from childhood to adulthood requires an initiation into a number of necessary life-truths. One of these can be summarized this way: You are not in Control! If that is true, and it is, then this coronavirus is helping initiate us all into a more mature adulthood. We are becoming more conscious of an important truth. However, we may not see any divine intent in this. Every fundamentalist voice that suggests that God sent this virus to each of us a lesson is dangerously wrong and is an insult to true faith. Still we need to hear God’s voice inside of it. God is speaking all the time but mostly we aren’t listening; this sort of thing helps serve as God’s microphone to a deaf world.

Illusions aren’t easy to dispel, and for good reasons.  We cling to them by instinct and we generally need them to get through life. For this reason, Socrates, in his wisdom, once wrote that “there is nothing that requires as gentle a treatment as the removal of an illusion”. Anything other than gentleness only makes us more resistant.

This coronavirus is anything but gentle. But inside all of its harshness perhaps we might feel a gentle nudge that we help us dispel the illusion that we are in control.

Love In The Time of Covid 19

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In 1985, Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published a novel entitled, Love in the Time of Cholera. It tells a colorful story of how life can still be generative, despite an epidemic.

Well what’s besetting our world right now is not cholera but the coronavirus, Covid 19.  Nothing in my lifetime has ever affected the whole world as radically as this virus. Whole countries have shut down, virtually all schools and colleges have sent their students home and are offering classes online, we’re discouraged from going out of our houses and from inviting others into them, and we’ve been asked not to touch each other and to practice “social distancing”. Ordinary, normal, time has stopped. We’re in a season that no generation, perhaps since the flu of 1918, has had to undergo. Furthermore, we don’t foresee an end soon to this situation. No one, neither our government leaders nor our doctors, have an exit strategy. No one knows when this will end or how. Hence, like the inhabitants on Noah’s Arc, we’re locked in and don’t know when the flood waters will recede and let us return to our normal lives.

How should we live in this extraordinary time? Well, I had a private tutorial on this some nine years ago. In the summer of 2011, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, underwent surgery for a resection, and then was subjected to twenty-four weeks of chemotherapy. Facing the uncertainty of what the chemotherapy would be doing to my body I was understandably scared. Moreover, twenty-four weeks is basically half a year and contemplating the length of time that I would be undergoing this “abnormal” season in my life, I was also impatient. I wanted this over with, quickly.  So I faced it like I face most setbacks in my life, stoically, with the attitude: “I’ll get through this! I’ll endure it!”

I keep what might euphemistically be termed a journal, though it’s really more a Daybook that simply chronicles what I do each day and who and what enters my life on a given day. Well, when I stoically began my first chemotherapy session I began checking off days in my journal: Day one, followed the next day by: Day two. I had done the math and knew that it would take 168 days to get through the twelve chemo sessions, spaced two weeks apart.  It went on like this for the first seventy days or so, with me checking off a number each day, holding my life and my breath, everything on hold until I could finally write, Day 168.

Then one day, about half way through the twenty-four weeks, I had an awakening. I don’t know what specifically triggered it, a grace from above, a gesture of friendship from someone, the feel of the sun on my body, the wonderful feel of a cold drink, perhaps all of these things, but I woke up, I woke up to the fact that I was putting my life on hold, that I wasn’t really living but only enduring each day in order check it off and eventually reach that magical 168th day when I could start living again. I realized that I was wasting a season of my life. Moreover, I realized that what I was living through was sometimes rich precisely because of the impact of chemotherapy in my life. That realization remains one of the special graces in my life.  My spirits lifted radically even as the chemotherapy continued to do the same brutal things to my body.

I began to welcome each day for its freshness, its richness, for what it brought into my life. I look back on that now and see those three last months (before day 168) as one of richest seasons of my life. I made some lifelong friends, I learned some lessons in patience that I still try to cling to, and, not least, I learned some long-overdue lessons in gratitude and appreciation, in not taking life, health, friendship, and work for granted. It was a special joy to return to a normal life after those 168 days of conscripted “sabbatical”; but those “sabbatical” days were special too, albeit in a very different way.

The coronavirus has put us all, in effect, on a conscripted sabbatical and it’s subjecting those who have contracted it to their own type of chemotherapy. And the danger is that we will put our lives on hold as we go through this extraordinary time and will just endure rather than let ourselves be graced by what lies within this uninvited season.

Yes, there will be frustration and pain in living this through, but that’s not incompatible with happiness. Paul Tournier, after he’d lost his wife, did some deep grieving but then integrated that grief into a new life in a way that allowed him to write:  “I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man.”  Words to ponder as we struggle with this coronavirus.