A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Death of Jesus

by Fr Neil Vaney sm

The disbelief

One of the objections devout Muslims have to Christianity is that the All Holy and All Powerful One could die as a man. Others, who lean towards conspiracy theories, believe that Jesus’ disciples rescued him from the cross, then hid him, while spreading abroad the story that he had risen. They, like many non-Christians, refuse to believe in the resurrection.

The inevitability of death

Roman soldiers were veterans at dispatching the crucified. They’d done it hundreds of times. Part of the barbarism was to allow bystanders to see the cost of rebellion, even to death, which they ensured with a final deadly lance thrust into the heart (John 19:34). In medical terms, the process involved weakness from severe blood loss, gradual asphyxiation, as tortured lungs no longer draw air, and finally, heart failure.

Christ’s body was then anointed, wrapped in a winding sheet, and placed in a tomb sealed with a massive rock (Luke 23:52-3). Guards were posted to deter tomb robbers (Matthew 27:62-6). This helps us to understand why Jesus’ disciples were so sceptical when the women came to report to them that his body had disappeared (Luke 24:11).

To die is to be human

The Catholic belief is that Jesus, though divine, was also totally human. Part of being human is to know the inevitability of death, to know that we all have to pass into that dark night. Jesus also accepted that to be totally one of us, he had to walk the same road, leaving all else behind, while looking upon the apparent loss of hope and desertion of his followers.

It’s this darkness and sense of the loss of everything that makes the Christian story of resurrection so stunning, even shocking. Given such a paradox, what is impossible, humanly speaking?

Is there a purpose to our
suffering?

The Lebanese mystic, Kahlil Gibran, uses the analogy of a lute when reflecting on joy and sorrow. He points out that until the wood is carved out by a knife it will never play a note. Like the lute, we will never sing our song until we are hollowed out by suffering.

This analogy presumes we can find some purpose in our sorrows. Yet, so often, calamity arrives like a freight train emerging from darkness, smashing all in its way, then vanishing into the night. A husband left with two young children, having lost his life’s partner to cancer, can see no purpose. How can he see anything but an empty life in front of him? He is like the old soldiers Auden observes lying in the surgical ward as part of the wash-up from World War I: They are and suffer; that is all they do. A bandage hides the place where each is living.

In times like these, we struggle to find a purpose to our suffering, to find something positive to hold onto. This is when the Catholic faith can save us, filling our darkness with light.

How the suffering of Jesus brings us hope

Dying alone is a form of suffering that not even the Catholic faith can explain. In an attempt to understand it, the Catholic faith turns to the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s suffering and death. Most portray Jesus as being abandoned by nearly all his followers. In Luke’s account, however, Jesus dies with a criminal on each side of him. He assures one of them:

Truly, I tell you, today, you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).

Such words can never take away the loneliness of death, the passing into the unknown, but it is a promise that we will not make the journey alone – nor without purpose.

Jesus’ promise gives us hope that no matter how bad things seem and how lonely we feel in life, or when approaching death, our suffering – like the suffering of a young widower or the soldiers Auden describes –  is not in vain. The peace God gives us at the end of our journey makes all the hardship worthwhile.

This article and the one on page 41 are re-printed from the New Zealand Catholic Enquiry Centre website

catholicenquiry.org.nz

They are used with permission.


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