Thursday, April 21, 2011

Christ's story is our story (Reflections on Good Friday, John 18:1-19:42)

Have you ever wondered why the Bible doesn’t say anything about the life of Jesus from ages 12-30? I've often been asked that question by perplexed students. This rather odd situation has led many to speculate about the so-called “hidden life” of Jesus. There are a lot of theories of course.

There’s the traditional one we were taught—that Jesus grew up quietly with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, living an ordinary life as he waited for the day when he would begin his work at the age of 30. And then there are the theories of authors used by Dan Brown in "The Da Vinci Code" which speculate all sorts of things, including a trip of Jesus to India where he learned yoga and other forms of magic that enabled him to perform miracles. While the first seems to leave a great deal of questions unanswered; the second leaves far too much to unfounded speculation.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. In fact, it can be gleaned from both the Gospel as well as the Liturgy of Good Friday. Let me explain. When we normally think of the story of Jesus in scripture, we think of it as one complete story, written from beginning to end, from the stories of his birth we celebrate at Christmastime, and ending with his death and resurrection, which we’re commemorating this week. His birth and childhood come first, then his public ministry where he preaches and heals, and then his passion and resurrection. And isn’t that how life stories or biographies are written: birth, childhood, young adulthood, adulthood, death, etc.

But that leaves an entire hole right smack in the middle. No teenage years, no early adult years, nothing at all about his twenties. But you see, that’s not exactly how the life story of Jesus was written. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t simply write it from beginning to end like biographers who sat down and wrote. Rather they wrote it from the end, backwards to the beginning; they were, as scripture scholars theorize, “extended passion narratives”.

They argue that the parts of the gospel we read today (the account of the Passion)—which was also read last Palm Sunday—are actually the oldest, most ancient, and earliest parts of the gospels ever written. It’s actually the first and oldest part of the gospel to be written, simply because it was the story that those who lived during the time of Jesus’ passion and death, could easily remember. It was the event most of them actually saw and experienced. It was the news that they all heard about. It was the thing everyone talked about. And hence it was the first story they decided to write down.

And then, slowly, as their faith in Jesus grew, they began remembering the other bits and pieces of stories people were telling about him: the words he spoke, the miracles he performed. And much later, they also began to write down, stories about his birth and his early childhood. The account of Jesus’ passion was written first, his words and miracles were written next—gathered from accounts and recollections of many who heard Jesus speak; and finally, the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood were added, completing the entire narrative of Jesus’ life. This very simple idea which we learn from biblical exegesis, or the theological study of the bible, tells us two things.

First, it tells us that when it comes to how the early Christians understood the life of Jesus, they saw his passion, death, and resurrection, as the events that color the rest of his life. The passion served as the lens from which they viewed his words, his miracles, and even his birth. Thus, we sometimes hear it said that the “shadow of the cross is cast on the manger itself.”

Second, it also shows how important the passion was for the writers of the gospels. They wrote it first was not only because it was the part of Jesus’ life they could easily remember, they wrote it first because it was the part of Jesus’ story that they identified with most. In the story of Jesus, suffering and death, they saw their own suffering and death. They saw their lives, their difficulties, challenges, headaches, suffering.

However, they also saw that the passion of Jesus didn’t just end there. He suffered and died. But he rose from the dead and lived again.

The passion and the resurrection are two sides of the same coin. In Christ’s life, we see our life. In his passion and death, we see with our passion, our suffering, the challenges we constantly face in life. But just as Jesus’ story ends, not in the passion, but in the resurrection, neither will our own.

Today we remember how suffering and death is the story of us all, just as it was the story of Jesus. We recall that for a brief moment, suffering and death triumphed over us all. But we also know for certain that this isn't the end of our story. For Good Friday isn't our end; it is Easter, when we too shall triumph over death, and together with Christ, proclaim with the words of St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory? O, death, where now is your sting?”

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)