The Gospel accounts of Ss. Matthew, Mark and Luke each relate three occasions during Jesus’ public life when he offered ominous predictions of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. This coming Sunday’s passage from St. Mark offers a brief statement on Jesus’ initially sad but then glorious end: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise (9:31).” Other predictions are more detailed. St. Matthew writes, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again (20:18).” Again, St. Luke offers even more details on Jesus’ horrific death, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again (18:31).”
Jesus’ triple predictions of his Passion and Death, uttered at different times and soberly recalled by the evangelists, should be just as instructive to later Christians as it was meant to be a revelation to the Apostles. Yet mankind has never favored the true significance of a suffering Messiah. Recall St. Peter’s spontaneous utterance: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you (Mt.16:22).” Certainly modern believers prefer not to imagine the suffering Christ, Holy Week notwithstanding, but would rather embrace the Risen, Ascended and Glorified Christ. (Note how a few parish churches have exchanged the sanctuary crucifix for a figure of the triumphant Savior!) Yet Jesus clearly and soberly knew that a suffering Messiah was integral to his Father’s plan and he felt duty bound to warn the disciples, as well as successive generations of believers, that his suffering and death were just as much a fruitful lesson worth pondering as his triumphant return from the grave would prove to be.
“Why a suffering Messiah?” No reply to this fateful query will ever surpass the profound but simple response of St. Thomas Aquinas. The horrendous passion and horrible death of Jesus Christ stress two weighty revelations from God and about God. The intense sufferings of Jesus’ final days reveal 1) the horror of God the Father toward sin and 2) the love of God the Father toward the sinner.
So great is God’s hatred of sin, evil, and immorality that he challenged his Son to undergo the tortures of the damned on mankind’s behalf, graphically illustrating what the wicked truly deserve. Unlike the present generation, God does not treat sin lightly. He recognizes sin for the evil that it is. He cannot measure wrongdoing with latitude. The wise believer will ponder the torture and agony of Christ’s last days and conclude that defrauding the laborer, mocking authentic marriage, killing the unborn, exploiting the environment, sacrilege against the holy, and mindless violence truly grieve God. Such exploits grieve him so much that the death of his Son was the only adequate indicator of his disgust with sin before the human race and especially before believers.
What happened to Christ during Holy Week clearly should have happened to sinful mankind. Instead, by Christ’s bruises, humanity was happily healed. How more magnificently, how more tenderly, how more graphically could God the Father verify his paternal love for his wayward creatures than to send his only-begotten Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” to bear the burden of mankind’s sins. God the Father could indeed have come himself as Savior to the world. But the pain of seeing his own Divine Son pilloried was a greater, the greatest, confirmation that sinners are loved intensely by God in spite of themselves.
Jesus had a clear vision of the last three days of Holy Week — betrayal by Judas, deliverance by his own people, abandonment by his followers, judgment by pagans, abuse by soldiers, mockery by the crowds, and public execution. Yet he did not shrink from such humiliation and pain. Christ embraced suffering and death as a reminder to all that sin is horrendous, deserving punishment; but more especially that God is a loving Father, going to any length to remind his wayward creatures of their eternal destiny.
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