Turn your eyes upon Jesus. That’s the message of Holy Week. The crucifixion and resurrection are the focal points of our faith in Jesus and the foundation of our whole belief structure. However, if we are honest, turning our gaze towards the brutal execution of a tortured human ought to generate revulsion and horror rather than loving reflection. Perhaps the casual decorating of our bodies with this emblem of execution and filling our buildings with depictions of torture suggests that we have lost something of the visceral offence of the cross.
That God the Father was reconciling the world to himself in the events of Holy Week is indeed an affront to human reason and taste. Who indeed could imagine that God is to be found in the depravity and degradation of Roman crucifixion? Worshipping a crucified man, believing that his defeat means eternal victory, runs counter to every intuition and belief we humans hold true.
In an article for the New Statesman, historian Tom Holland makes this exact point about the crucifixion:
“Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.”
Holy Week claims that a life, laid down in sacrificial offering, is the means by which our world and our lives are remade. This mind of Christ, the suffering servant, clashes with the belief systems that fuel our politics and personal ethics in 21st Century western culture.
Our modern self-serving outlook has been described as the “sovereign self”. We live in a culture of socially validated narcissism where every individual is captain of their own souls without reference to other people or past tradition. Our task, we are informed, is to discover our true selves lurking in the corners of our inner world. Once I have unwrapped the internal layers that obscure this authentic me I am compelled to express it to the full, whether you like it or not. Any external judgment which questions the results of my self-discovery is regarded as offensive.
Theologian Miroslav Volf describes our modern mood:
“No longer experiencing ourselves as constituents of a meaningful cosmos and members of a social body we modern human beings imagine ourselves and act first and foremost as individuals, ideally sovereign owners of ourselves and our actions.”
So far, so philosophical! My point, however, is entirely practical. This “find yourself, express yourself and follow your dream” mentality is the plot line of most Disney movies and Hollywood films. It is often the challenge dropped in the lap of unsuspecting teenagers who feel the pressure to find out who they are and what exceptional life they will live before they can even drive a car.
Sadly, identities cannot be discovered by foraging around in our subconscious. At the very least we need time and people around us to “mirror” back to us what we can’t see ourselves. It’s unlikely that any of us have the capacity to work that out before we are 18, or 80 for that matter!
Now, back to Holy Week!
Rom 6:5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection.
Paul here reminds us that our identity is formed not by introspection but by identification with Jesus in his death and resurrection.
In this is freedom and certainty! Death means that in Christ we are no longer victims of the past, driven to live out the patterns of dysfunctional thinking and behaviour we have inherited from the world. Resurrection means the opportunity to live a new life. A new life formed in the mould and pattern of Jesus.
Holy week decentres me. It requires me to find identity beyond myself in the character of Jesus. His character, indeed, the nature of the God who made and maintains the universe is not self-serving but other-centred He is “faithful and loving to all he has made”. The true identity in whose image we are made and into whose character we are being formed is one who shows himself in self-giving sacrifice, even to the cross, for others.
Now, that is the way.