This is the only Sunday in which we come close to hearing a Gospel the way its authors intended it to be heard. Usually, we’re given only a few verses at a time, removed from the original setting in which the sacred authors placed them.

The evangelists never could have foreseen a time when their Gospels would be chopped into "liturgical hunks." Like parts of our body, parts of Gospels make sense only when we know how they relate to the whole.

As the Gospel is being proclaimed this week, relax and concentrate on the words. Create images of the events just as Luke presents them (Lk 22: 14-23: 56). Forget about the Stations of the Cross and especially Mel Gibson’s movie. Experience the message as Luke originally put it.

Suffering

Notice, first of all, how Jesus suffers. His pain is rarely physical. The narrative is almost half over before Luke mentions anything about physical suffering: "The men who held Jesus in custody were ridiculing and beating Him."

Luke’s only other reference to bodily pain comes in the middle of the next chapter: "When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified Him." No wonder Gibson depended on private visions for his two-hour movie. At most, he could have gotten only two minutes of his material from all four Gospel passion narratives combined.

Luke is not concerned with people leaving his narrative saying, "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you! Thank you!" He wants us to leave church saying, "Now I know what I have to do to die with Jesus." That’s why, in verse after verse, passage after passage, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ psychological suffering.

From the Last Supper to the ridiculing on Golgotha, Jesus is in pain, a pain which comes from the giving of Himself to others. He’s misunderstood, betrayed, used. Yet, in the midst of all this, he’s still concerned for those around Him. "I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers....Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test....And the Lord turned and looked at Peter....Do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children....Father, forgive them, they know not what they do....Today, you will be with me in Paradise."

Luke seems to believe Jesus would have risen from the dead and saved us even had He died a natural death with His family and disciples gathered round His bed. How He physically died was irrelevant. That He died was the key. The psychological death He daily endured by giving Himself to others — epitomized by — but not restricted to His passion — was essential. It’s that death which "other Christs" are expected to imitate.

Dying like Christ

We hear about that kind of death in Paul’s oft-quoted Philippians hymn (Phil 2: 6-11). "He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

Each step Jesus takes contains an "emptying" of Himself. He leaves Himself behind for the sake of others. And because He’s willing to do this, "God greatly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name [Yahweh] which is above every name."

Though Deutero-Isaiah mentions in his third song of the suffering servant that he suffered physical pain (Is 50: 4-7), his real pain comes from his openness to Yahweh’s word. "Morning after morning," he says, "Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back."

For followers of God, physical pain is incidental; psychological pain is essential. As soon as we pull God’s word into the center of our being, we begin to hurt, because that word also forces us to pull others into the center of our lives.

That’s real death!

(4/1/04)