Iris Murdoch, with a single phrase, states a great irony: A common soldier dies without fear – Jesus died afraid.
There is a fruitful meditation in that and it has already been done for us by Michael Buckley, the American Jesuit, who some years ago published a homily he had delivered at an ordination. In it, he asks the man who was being ordained: “Are you weak enough to be a priest?”
That’s an interesting twist. His question was not about strength for the job, but about weakness: “Are you weak enough to do this well?” I want here to give a bit of background to this question, as Buckley asked it, because it is one which can be widened and asked of everyone of us: “Are you weak enough to be a real Christian?” “Are you weak enough to be a fully sensitive human being?”
Shouldn’t one try not to be weak? Isn’t it best to be strong? That is true if one is speaking morally, but it isn’t true if one asks a different kind of question: “Are you deficient and weak enough so that you cannot ward off significant suffering in you life?” “Are you weak enough that the sufferings of others affect you deeply?”
For Buckley, Jesus was weak in precisely this sense. It was this deficiency in him, his incapacity to protect himself against pain that made his life and his death so particularly redemptive.
To try to explain this, Buckley makes a comparison between Jesus and Socrates, a comparison in human excellence (as this is often judged humanly). The result is that Socrates, judged by certain categories, is superior to Jesus on virtually every score. Thus, for example, one can compare their deaths. Both were good men, unjustly condemned by jealous opponents, but they met their deaths very differently:
Socrates went to his death with a certain calmness and poise. He heard the judgment of the court, accepted it, calmly spoke concerning what death might mean and about the possibilities of immortality, appeared unafraid, drank the poison and died. One pictures his death scene like Hollywood has so often portrays its heroes and heroines dying: Paul Scofield dying in Man for All Seasons or Ali McGraw in Love Story. Death without a hair or emotion out of place! Death faced in a way that the rest of us ordinary, less-put-together, mortals can never approximate!
How different Jesus’ death! He sweated blood. From the time it became inevitable that he was going to die, Jesus became afraid, very afraid, and began to pray “with loud cries and tears to him who was able to have him from death.” He sought, repeatedly, for comfort from his friends and prayed for escape from death. He found neither. Finally, in the end, he established some control over himself and moved towards his death in silence and lonely isolation, crying out in agony to a God who seemed to have let him down. Not exactly the way one would imagine a God to die!
Let me quote Buckley, as he assesses this: “I once thought that this was because Socrates and Jesus suffered different deaths, the one so much more terrible than the other, the pain and agony of the cross so overshadowing the release of the hemlock. But now I think that this explanation, though correct in as far as it runs, is superficial and secondary. Now I believe that Jesus was a more profoundly weak man than Socrates, more liable to pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, and more affected by love and hate. Socrates never wept over Athens. Socrates never expressed sorrow and pain over the betrayal of friends. He was possessed and integral, never overextended, convinced that the just person could never suffer genuine hurt. And for this reason, Socrates © one of the greatest and most heroic people who has ever existed, a paradigm of what humanity can achieve within the individual was a philosopher. And for the same reason, Jesus of Nazareth was a priest: ambiguous, suffering, mysterious, and salvific.”
Obviously the word “priest”, as Buckley uses it here, refers not only to those of us who have been ordained presbyters in the church but to a way of being in the world so as to help carry its pain. To be a “priest”, in the Christian sense, is to live and die in such a way that our lives and deaths optimally help others, especially those suffering. When I am strong enough to, calmly, block out most of that suffering, I am much more of a philosopher than a priest, more of a Socrates than a Jesus.