The Gospel readings of Lent remind us that opposition to Jesus and his mission frequently grew out of the desire for a redeemer who was more like what various characters in the drama thought a redeemer should be.
Jesus’s fellow-townsmen reject him because they can’t imagine a messiah whose relatives are all around them. In Jerusalem, the upper crust rejects Jesus and his claims because he’s from the Galilean boondocks: “A messiah from Galilee? Please. We had something else in mind.” The Sadducees reject Jesus because he challenges their notion of the Temple as the privileged locus of God’s presence, while the Pharisees object to his understanding of the Mosaic Law. The Twelve, along with Martha and Mary, miss the point when Jesus deliberately delays his visit to Bethany so that the glory of God may be revealed in his raising Lazarus from the dead. Then the final, degrading insults come on Calvary. There, Jesus writhes in agony and struggles for breath on a cross surmounted by the mocking Roman inscription, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews), while passersby hurl taunts—“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35).
Notwithstanding the “Suffering Servant” canticles of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus’s contemporaries found the idea of a messiah who would redeem Israel through his suffering (especially suffering unto death) implausible, bordering on ridiculous. Surrounded by misery, including such horrors as leprosy and demonic possession, these men and women had difficulty imagining that the Chosen One would manifest God’s glory through the suffering that was ubiquitous in their time and place. Our contemporaries often have a different problem:
Because suffering is typically kept distant, sheltered in special facilities, Western culture tends to forget that suffering is an irreducible part of the human condition and that suffering teaches us something important about us.
Throughout his long life, St. John Paul II knew suffering from the inside. In the 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (Redemptive Suffering), he invited the Church to look deeply into the mystery of suffering—a meditation especially apt in this plague time.
Animals feel pain, John Paul noted, but only men and women suffer. So suffering, even great physical suffering, has an inner or spiritual character; suffering touches our souls, not just our nervous systems. That is why the Bible is “a great book about suffering” (in John Paul’s striking phrase). And while the Scriptures contain many accounts of profound suffering, the Bible also teaches that “love . . . is the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering.” That was the truth to which Isaiah prophetically pointed in the “Suffering Servant” songs. To grasp that truth fully, however, humanity needed more than images or arguments; a demonstration was required.
That demonstration, Salvifici Doloris teaches, was what God ordained “in the cross of Jesus Christ.”
There the Son, giving himself without reservation to the Father’s plan of redemption, took the world’s evil upon himself and immolated it in perfect self-sacrifice to the divine will. On the cross, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, the Son freely bore “all that the Father finds loathsome,” and did so in order to “clear out all the refuse of the world’s sins by burning it in the fire of suffering love.” At Calvary, the divine wrath at the world’s wickedness coincides with the divine mercy, determined to heal all that evil has broken or disfigured. On Calvary, the purifying fire of divine love reaches into history and transforms everything in this world that seems to stand against love, including suffering and death.
To embrace the cross is to embrace the logic of salvation as God has established that logic, not as we might design things. God’s “demonstration” does not end on Good Friday, however. It continues through Holy Saturday until the full meaning of “redemption” is revealed on Easter.
There, in the Risen Lord who manifests what Benedict XVI called an “evolutionary leap”—a new and supercharged mode of human life—we encounter the supreme demonstration of the divine logic of redemption. There, in the “Lamb . . . [who] had been slain” (Revelation 5:6) but who is now gloriously, radiantly alive, we meet God’s triumph over death itself and over all that is death-dealing in the world. There, we meet the redeemer God ordained.
Jesus . . . has become a high priest forever. . . . For all eternity he lives and intercedes for us . . . there is no limit to his power to save all who come to God through him (First Responsory, Office of Readings for Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent, from Hebrews 6:19–20, 7:24–25).
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.