“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
I wonder if you and I have in common the fact that every year we come to Holy Week and find ourselves asking the meaning of it, almost as if we had never been through Holy Week or ever figured out what it means. It would seem that the opposite would be the case. Millions of people discover themselves deeply moved by the depth of his suffering, the enormity of the abuses he endured. Others are impressed by what they hear as something that was always in the Mind of God, foretold fairly explicitly by the old Hebrew prophets, and obediently endured by Jesus. Still others are horrified by the thought that a good and merciful God could possibly have sanctioned, let alone planned, such suffering and cruelty, a notion that leads them to appropriate Holy Week quite differently, often seeing it as part of the continuing struggle of innocence against oppression, of good against evil.
I find myself staring at the Passion of Christ much as I remember looking at the Grand Canyon for the first time—seeing something that exceeds all the stories I have ever heard, grander and more terrifying than all the photographs and paintings could possibly convey, a tragedy at once easy to follow and yet impossible fully to grasp.
Most intriguing of all is the figure of Jesus himself. No matter what gospel you read, all of them portray a Jesus not the least bit interested in saving his hide. The four canonical accounts that we have of the Passion differ in a number of details, some of them mutually contradictory. But in all of them Jesus is clearly in control of his fate. That is not to say that he experiences no struggle. In Mark’s account he goes to Gethsemane and is “distressed and agitated.” But when he is arrested by the Temple police and brought before the Sanhedrin, as charges are flying back and forth, false and conflicting testimony given, he is silent and gives no answer. When he finally opens his mouth, it is to answer the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
Ah! That question is the one that we keep asking, isn’t it? We ask it even if we have firmly answered it in the past. We ask it even if we know that the answer is not going to change from what we heard when we last asked the question. Thank you, Mr. High Priest, for saying out loud what I was about to ask but a little bit afraid or embarrassed to. I have no idea what the high priest was thinking, short of the obvious need to come up with a charge that would stick, one that could be used to justify the death penalty. And blasphemy was not such a charge actually. Nonetheless, where there is a will, there is a way, especially, it seems, if the will is evil.
Momentarily your mind is off the questioner and the question as you sit looking at Jesus, waiting for his answer. Silent he is. And in that silence there opens a corridor stretching back through your whole life. Look at all the things that have defined you since you can remember. You were a daughter or son, a sister or brother. A few years later, someone labeled you with a word or phrase or name that seemed to fit. “Smart,” or “troublemaker,” “shy,” or “talkative,” or “insecure” or something. School defined you for awhile. And the sports or music you excelled at. Maybe you chose a work that became your life. Perhaps you fell in love with someone or ones. Maybe in time you became the mother or the father of someone, the friend, associate, lackey, sidekick, flunky, boss, chairperson.”
As you go down the corridor, do you hear yourself forming your response to all those who might have asked you the question, “Are you…?” Are you this or that? Who are you, what are you? Amazing that most of those personas we have worn from time to time have something to do with a role or a function, maybe even a relationship, but few of them have anything to do with the core of who we are. And we know it. That is what makes for increasing pain, frankly, as we continue the project of living. There is something down deep inside us aching to express itself, something like the archaic crying that we let out when we were babies, crying so far back we can’t possibly remember it. Something is at my core and your core that transcends roles and won’t fit into categories of function and work and career and relationship. Maybe it is something so inchoate that it feels like a piece of ourselves aching to be born. Does it feel like a passion that has not yet quite figured out what its name is? Does it lodge somewhere in your chest, feeling like an old hope or a dream that has not dared describe its contours? We are talking here about something that is deeper than any of the surface things about you, something that is wired into your core Self, indeed maybe your core Self itself. And the high priests question, “Are you?...are you?” put to Jesus echoes the voices that keep asking us who and what we are, most of the time perhaps our own voice asking just that.
Out of the silence, Jesus answers. “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” This might be the all-important moment in Mark’s story, perhaps even the all-important moment in Jesus’ life. The interesting thing about it is that, if you take his answer at face value, it is beyond debate. Mark must have known that none of the members of the Sanhedrin were around to read his gospel, and all of them (with possibly an exception or two) died presumably without having seen anything like what Jesus was describing. Quite clearly, his “I am” spills over beyond the borders of human history, and surpasses what can be quantified, proved, or conventionally described. “I am,” Jesus says.
On one level we hear in his answer all that we need to hear, whether we love it or dread it. He is the one who stands at the center of life and meaning. His ministry, his teaching, his suffering, his death, all that had preceded the trial and all that was to follow, are caught up in his answer. The high priest obviously didn’t believe him—he tore his robes and called it blasphemy, maybe out of grief, maybe out of anger, or some combination of the two—and it is equally possible to hear it today and contest it, discount it, or lament it.
But you may choose to take the story as trustworthy and true. More importantly, if you hear something in Jesus’ response that spurs you to give your life to him, to take him as the way you learn God and therefore what is most true in the Universe, then it will not be long before you begin to sense that the way he speaks Truth is the way you have to speak Truth, beginning with your own truth. If you accept and embrace who he is, the chances are heightened that you will find in him the power fully to accept and embrace who you are.
And that is just the beginning. It does not explain Holy Week. It does not necessarily make the terrible tragedy of Jesus’ Passion less difficult to swallow. It does not explicate the nuances of scripture or give a solid answer to all of your questions. But what it does is launch us on a quest, and for some of us already long launched, to spur us on to hear the truth and obey the truth and be the truth. Simply to keep following him is enough, for deep down we find ourselves wanting to live always and only for the Son of Man, seated at the right hand of the Power, coming with the clouds of heaven. Though life may beat us, spit on us, close all the doors to us, shut out the light from us, we know we are loved and kept by the One who is “I am,” One who touches that place deep within us causing us to say, “In you, Jesus, so am I.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012