The Christian Right, both Catholic and Protestant, teach that the death of Jesus is a sin offering to a just God, removing the stain of the sin of Adam from all who believe. This belief is seen as essential to attaining heaven. True believers feel that unless one accepts salvation in this way, salvation is impossible. In the Christian Left, we believe there is more to the story of the passion and death of Jesus than meets the eye.
My first exposure to the Passion story was in fourth grade at St. Helen's Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio. On Palm Sunday, the Passion was read at Mass. It was really the first time I was open to the story. Later that night, for some reason I was upset that Jesus had to die this way. It just made no sense to me. Now, I understand the theology behind the traditional explanation. I do believe that the sufferings of Jesus are the key to our salvation, but I do not believe that the mechanism for this is the placation of an angry God. Such a terrible God did not pass my personal smell test then, and it does not now.
That same week, school was closed on Good Friday. Since I had been confirmed just a month before and was going through my holiness phase, I went to afternoon services. I remembered from the Gospel the night before the words of Jesus stating that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until he did so in his Father's kingdom. However, in the Gospel of John, Jesus clearly drinks wine before he dies. I found this odd, to say the least.Years later, in religion class at Regis High School, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the part of the Passion story where Christ says "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" was being discussed. At the time, I was sure that Jesus was saying this to fulfill prophesy, and that his faith was not truly shaken. However, the discussion started me thinking. Years later, while channel surfing late at night, I came across a discussion of the same passage on a Christian station. The theologians were discussing what brought Jesus to this point, concluding that it was one of the great mysteries of salvation. This added another question to my personal inquiry. Years later, while in doctoral school at American University in Washington, I finally did what I had been promising myself I would do. I looked at all the Gospels to figure out the order of events and see if they answered any of my questions. I will duplicate that sequence now, and explain my conclusions.Catholics believe that the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the re-enactment of the passion and death of the Lord. This passion began with the Last Supper, which tradition tells us was held Thursday, April 6, in the year 30.
"When the hour came, he took his place at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; because I tell you, I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Then he took some bread and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which will be given for you; do this as a memorial of me. He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you." (Luke 22:14-20). Matthew and Mark relate the story in the same way.
When he is first crucified at 9:00 the next morning, he honors his promise. "When they reached a place called Golgotha, that is, the place of the skull, they gave him wine to drink mixed with gall, which he tasted but refused to drink." (Matthew 27:33-35) On the cross, he is taunted by the soldiers, the leaders and one of the thieves crucified with them, though the other believes in Jesus and is told I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise. Clearly then the kingdom arrives that day, not the day of the resurrection.
At almost 3:00, after a night of trial and torture and a six hour ordeal on the cross, the Kingdom is almost at hand. Jesus is truly broken and he knows he is about to die. All his disciples have fled save one, John. Returning to the scriptures. "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near, Jesus said to his mother, Woman, this is your son. Then to the disciple he said, This is your mother."(John 19:25-26)
With these words, Jesus gives up everything he was, both human and divine. Mary and John were the two main people in His life. Mary holds a unique place in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was and is his most beloved friend, as well as his most perfect creature. Even before his birth, she begins his message of social justice in the Magnificant to her cousin Elizabeth. More importantly, she symbolizes to him the very essence of his most unique self. Because of the way he was conceived, she is the physical manifestation of both his human and his divine origins, which he knew of originally through her telling of the story of his birth. I expect that she could not look at him in her grief.
In like manner, John was the symbol for his mission, and for all who would believe in him. John was the last disciple, as all the others had fled. By giving John up to his mother, he both abandons and joins us. He is utterly emptied. At this moment his identity as God-man, son of the Virgin, his role as savior and teacher, are all gone! He has now been reduced to a state of complete isolation and hopelessness. It is a state that, as God, he does not know. Only by emptying himself and accepting this suffering does he ever know the despair and separation from God that each and every sinner feels.
"And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which means My God, my God, why have you deserted me? When some of those who stood by heard this, they said, Listen, he is calling on Elijah."(Mark 15:33-35)We know from the Gospel of John that salvation is now achieved. "After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed, and to fulfill the scripture perfectly he said: I am thirsty. A jar full of vinegar stood there, so putting a sponge soaked in the vinegar on a hyssop stick they held it up to his mouth." (John 19: 28-29). Mark continues "Someone ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink saying, Wait and see if Elijah will come to take him down. "(Mark 15:36)John continues, stating that "After he took the vinegar he said, It is accomplished and bowing his head he gave up his spirit." (John 19: 30)
Completing the story with Luke, "...and when Jesus cried out in a loud voice, he said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. With these words he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46)Crucifixion, at the end, is a lot like a bad asthma attack. The lungs are filled with fluid and each breath is impossible. I have no doubt, as one who has suffered from asthma, that the last words of Jesus are best translated as Its over!
Of course, it is not over. It is the very beginning. The mechanism for human salvation must be understandable to humans, as it is for humans. As presented above, the origins of our salvation are obvious. Jesus suffered for God to know human suffering first hand. With this knowledge, he reaches out the suffering sinner and offers salvation. This suffering is what saves those who believe in him. This presentation of the passion helps us understand God, as well. To save man in this way God must be a Trinity. Without His humanity, the Son of God could not experience the abandonment of the crucifixion. If he had suffered abandonment in His purely divine form existence or all would have ended.
This version of the passion also helps Christians understandthe perfection of God. The essence of salvation is what it does for the sinner, not what it does for God. It was not a blood offering to satisfy an angry God. God is not moved by anything! An angry God is not perfect, as that anger is moved by the actions of mere creatures, both in sinful man and in His sinless Son, who became a creature. The unmoved Will of God is His Love, which is a free gift without hint of anger. The God Christians come to in faith is not some distant icon of perfection, but a God who, in Jesus, shares the experience of isolation. Humans do not reach God on our own, so he comes to them in their pain. Understanding this, people understand the meaning of salvation, because it makes right in our hearts what sin makes wrong.
What is the proof of this proposition? The scriptures show that the Kingdom of God had come when Jesus drank from the fruit of the vine on the cross at the moment of his death. He had promised at the Last Supper that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until he did it with us in his Father's kingdom, yet the scripture is clear that he took the wine on the cross. For salvation to be effective, it is accomplished without blemish. Had Jesus taken the wine before the completion of salvation, he would have rendered it impure and void. This, of course, is not so. Christianity is not some colossal practical joke with a secret meaning saying that we were all just kidding or some divine exercise in prophetic ticket punching. This is the proof Christians need to believe that the passion was real for Jesus, and that in it he joins mankind, not as a sin offering, but as a fellow sufferer. Ultimately, the proof is born out by the Resurrection, which shows that Jesus, who drank of the fruit of the vine just before his death, was justified by God. Christians are confident that as he died as they die, they will rise as he rose.The passion also shows Christains how to seal their salvation. They seal it in his Blood, which comes to them through the fruit of the vine. Whenever Christians drink of His Blood in Communion, we share in the second covenant. This removes all taint of sin, and brings them back to God. They come back to Him in confidence, because they know that He knows the emptiness and pain of the sinner. God loved mankind so much that He sought the pain it feels when it is apart from Him. As Christians drink His Blood at the altar, they share in the kingdom and fulfill his command. For he said "...if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you." (John 6:53)
There is a price for salvation, however. That price is forgiveness, not for the individual first, but for others. Jesus was very clear on the necessity of forgiving others in order to accept His Divine forgiveness. In his Sermon on the Mount, he states "If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you." (Matthew 6:14-15) Forgiving others is an essential step in personal salvation, as one cannot ask forgiveness of another, or of God, until one forgives them first. Granting and receiving forgiveness is necessary to escape Hell, not in the afterlife, but in this one. Indeed, the next life is only an extension of the current life. Living in a world where you do not forgive is creating your own Hell. Granting forgiveness to others is a release from despair. Peace and salvation are not sought for the next world, but for this one. Those who have been saved, but have not forgiven, are on dangerous ground. This is why, even as a leftist, I still believe in Purgatory. I do not believe it is possible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven anger is purged. Forgiveness has a social dimension as well, which I address in the essay on criminal justice. Of course, prior to discussing this we face how this view of the passion of Jesus impacts how we view morality. But first, I conclude this part with a bit of verse for your consideration:
In Light of our salvation,
The mercy of God being what it is
We do not suffer in the afterlife
For the sins which we ourselves commit,
But for those sins which we refuse to forgive.