Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
– Philippians 2:5-8 (RSV)
Beginning on Palm Sunday—this past Sunday—the universal church entered the holiest week of her liturgical year. During this week, we remember the climax of the story, the center of the ancient faith, the very core of our beliefs. We remember Jesus Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the first Holy Eucharist (Holy Thursday), the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ (Good Friday), and Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Easter Sunday).
On its face, the whole thing seems absurd. We are worshiping a man named Jesus who lived and worked in a backwater Roman-occupied territory, was betrayed by a member of his closest inner-circle, got caught in a wave of political and religious scandal, and was sentenced to die a gruesome, torturous death at the hands of the occupiers. The story seems to end with his dead body locked away in a borrowed tomb. Even in the earliest days, Christians recognized that this story of our faith would be difficult for many to take. The writers of Holy Scripture record the disbelief and skepticism of the people, and prophesied that the very same disbelief and skepticism would dog the Church until the end of time.
The Gospel according to St. John records that, prefiguring his real presence in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus told the gathered crowd, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:53-56, RSV). In response, “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ . . . After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:60, 66, RSV). The teaching was so hard, so unexpected, so implausible—that we would be expected to eat Christ’s body and blood in the form of bread and wine—that people simply walked away.
And what of Jesus’s death on the cross? It’s the ultimate anti-climax. The hero dies at the hands of brutal enemies who hated him so much that, even is his suffering, they mocked him viciously. His followers abandon him. Even St. Peter, the man whom Christ appointed head of the Apostles, the rock upon which he would build his Church, one of his closest friends, denied three times that he even knew him. St. Paul explains that the crucifixion—the moment at which Christ died in atonement for all of our sins—is the center of our religion, but also said that it would also be a stumbling block to belief. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles . . . ” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, RSV).
The faith is not one of signs, or wisdom—though each has a place in it. No, the faith is one of suffering and, ultimately, rising above our fallen, human condition. That’s what we celebrate this week. We celebrate the depths of darkness and suffering, because we know that through that suffering comes our forgiveness, and our salvation.