Although I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for many years now, and even though I disagree with the core belief of the Roman Church that
Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became one of us to free us from sin and to bring us the fullness of God’s revelation . . . Jesus Christ is the Messiah, God’s anointed One, the Savior of the world . . .
there is still one Catholic ritual that I like to participate in. And that takes place once a year on Holy Thursday, the evening of the Thursday before Easter. To commemorate the Last Supper and the vigil of Jesus as he awaited the fatal kiss from Judas and the Temple Guards of the Sanhedrin, some of the local Catholic parishes keep their churches open late so that the faithful can sit in silence. My brother, a practicing Catholic, visits four or five local churches between 9 and 11 PM every Holy Thursday, and so I tag along.
Hey, I still believe in God (pretty much the same kind of God that Jesus believed in), but at this point in my life, sitting in silence each week with a Zen sangha works better for me. And even if I don’t worship Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, I still find him to be a hugely compelling figure who should be taken very seriously. Most of the time, I take Jesus seriously by reading and learning as much as I can about his life and times. Over the past 15 years I’ve digested a lot of books, articles and programs from the “historical Jesus” movement in academia; my “Lenten project” for this year was an audio course by The Teaching Company entitled “Jesus and His Jewish Influences” by Prof. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist with extensive field experience in Israel.
But once a year it’s nice to actually participate in a Jesus-focused ritual with others, and there’s nothing that the good Catholics that I sit in silence with on Holy Thursday do or say that I would disagree with. We would certainly disagree regarding the ultimate implications of what happened on that Passover evening of two millennia ago in Jerusalem, but we all accept that it was very important, and that holy silence is the best way to commemorate it.
Our Holy Thursday itinerary usually includes a stop at the Holy Rosary Church in Passaic, NJ, a Polish-American parish that has family ties for me, given that my mother went there as a child and young adult (before she got married and moved out to the ‘burbs with my father, in order to bring me and my brother up). As we sat in the darkened, candle-lit nave of the church, I pondered the portrait of Jesus that was hung over the right altar, which is the focal point for their Holy Thursday and Good Friday commemoration. There was something a bit different about it, relative to most of the other portraits of Jesus that I’ve seen in churches.
Not surprisingly, Jesus was depicted here wearing the crown of thorns, one of the various devices used by the Romans to inflict additional pain and humiliation to their crucifixion victims. But there was something about the expression on his face . . . instead of reflecting the usual divine forbearance for the suffering of earthly human life, this Jesus actually looked like a human being in the midst of a lot of angst. There were notes of fear and despair mixed in. This Jesus did not seem to have received the memo that he was “God’s anointed one”, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, true God, fully divine even if (for the moment) also fully human.
OK, I understand the part about Jesus being fully human, subject to human fears and suffering. But the good Buddhists that I hang out with seem to believe that non-divine humans can develop themselves to the point of transcending suffering, so long as they learn to make themselves “one with The Way”. If Jesus was in fact God, you’d have thought that he also could have done that. What about the stories of the heroic martyrs going happily to their grizzly fates? In modern times, you don’t often see or hear of Islamic terrorists who have moments of doubt before they pull the cord on their explosive vest.
I apologize up front for the horrible comparison, and I don’t mean to imply that religiously-inspired terrorists are on the same level as the ancient Christians who went before the beasts to defend their beliefs, or the Zen masters who have attained “enlightenment” (at least those few have really done this — a much smaller number than those who CLAIM to have reached it). However, for the limited matter regarding emotional acceptance, the 9-11 terrorists seemed to have marched into the face of violent death with more equanimity than the Jesus figure depicted in Holy Rosary, confidently chanting their “Allahu Akabar” mantra. So why didn’t the good priests at Holy Rosary envision the holy Jesus accepting his painful hours with a similar inner drive and lack of fear and doubt?
As a “Jesus realist”, I really liked the portrait hanging in the Thursday evening darkness in Passaic. From the historical perspective, this was probably a fairly accurate emotional depiction of Jesus in his final hours (albeit, the facial features in this painting are rather far from what a first Century Galilean man in his early 30’s would look like). Jesus had obviously convinced himself that God was ready to bring the Kingdom to fruition on the hills and plains of Palestine that Passover; his arrest and preparation for torture were obviously the coda to the grand moment when the angels would burst forth from the heavens. As the Romans and corrupted Jews were pushed into the sea by these great powers, Jesus would be gloriously and triumphantly installed by them as “The Son of Man”, in charge of bringing forth a new age for the lowly and just.
That was the dream. The portrait in Holy Rosary perfectly depicts the Jesus who held that dream, and yet was starting to realize that something had gone wrong. The angels and heavenly powers were late. Were they coming at all? Was this all just a delusion? This is the Jesus who was remembered in Mark (the earliest and probably most fact-oriented Gospel) and Matthew (the most “Jewish” of the Gospels) as crying out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — why have you abandoned me. This was the moment of doubt. Sure, the pain of whipping, torture and crucifixion were horrible; they no doubt caused a lot of angst and agony in and of themselves. But it was the sense of rejection and abandonment by God — that was the true suffering of Jesus, after devoting the past 3 years of his life to God. After all I did, Jesus might have thought, why have I lost God’s love and favor? Or is there a God at all?
Actually, the cry in Mark and Matthew came “in the ninth hour”, once the fix was in — i.e., there just weren’t going to be any trumpeting angels or the bearded “old one” way up in the clouds that afternoon. The Jesus in the picture, by contrast, was still in the first or second hour on the cross, before the suffocation effects started taking hold; this was when he was just beginning to realize that abandonment was a real possibility. This might be recognized in some psychological circles as the “oh sh..” moment. So, for purposes of “the historical Jesus”, this portrait of initial doubt and dread was quite appropriate.
But what about the purposes of the Catholic faithful? Well, a portrait like this might make the doctrine of Jesus’s “trans-substantiality” as “true God and true man” that much harder to grasp intellectually. Some teenager or college student will ponder all of this and decide that the Church and its teachings are inconsistent, not really “on the level”. If Jesus was God at all times, then he shouldn’t have had doubts about God — so the young mind might reason. But for adults who face a lot of pain and fear and doubt in their daily lives, this Jesus is a point of acknowledgement and comfort. The promise of Easter translates for them into hope, hope that in the end, the suffering and insensibility of so much in our own lives will not triumph but will ultimately be healed and shown to have been meaningful after all.
So it looks like the holy men of Holy Rosary decided to go with the real-life concerns of their flock versus the theoretical and abstract theological implications of an angst-filled, doubting Jesus. The Redeemer is also the Suffering Servant who himself was redeemed. He’s been there himself. He can help you get to the Easter moment, if you keep the faith and don’t give up. Again, even if I don’t agree with the notion of a Christ come in glory, even if I myself don’t believe in the literal / physical resurrection of Jesus, I do see the usefulness of a suffering Jesus to our world of suffering.
Oh, do you want to see what I’m talking about? OK, two pix — first, the painting itself, and second, an overview of the Good Friday altar. Yes, this is the “Jesus in jail” set-up that Holy Rosary is noted for!