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Monday, March 30, 2015

To the End: a Reflection for Holy Week

Crucifix in Abbey Refectory


 [Jesus] loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. (John 13:).

Nice thought, true of many good people, we might say.  Until we pay attention to the whole story.

No one questions that Jesus loved his own in the world.  Where matters get tangled is when we turn “his own” into a neat box with the disciples, and by extension all disciples, ourselves safely inside and everyone else locked out.  

Jesus did love his disciples.  The warmth and intimacy of John 13-15 make that very clear.  But he didn’t stop at the boundaries marking off the twelve, or the seventy-two, or even the hangers on.  Jesus loved them all.  He loved the friends who accompanied him, the crowds who drained him, the suffering who counted on his power to save them from their plight.  And he didn’t stop with those who needed him.  He loved Jerusalem and wept over those of its people who refused all his efforts to gather them in as a hen gathers her chicks.  That startlingly tender image makes it clear that his love was always deeply personal,  even when it was not returned.  And he didn’t stop with the anonymous populations of the city.  

His failure to stop becomes more and more incomprehensible to us as the story unfolds. He loved even those who fought him tooth and nail over his upsetting message.  He loved the angry little knot of leaders who condemned him, men who could have held such promise.  He loved Pilate, who had a glimmer of the truth and refused it for his own political safety.  He loved the crowds who hollered for his crucifixion, though they were mostly his own people, and crucifixion was an alien barbarity imported by the Romans.  He loved the soldiers who whipped him, forced rough thorns onto his head, mocked him, and led him pitilessly to the place of execution under the weight of an unbearably heavy cross.  They were doubtless all strong men, but it was a bystander they forced into helping him.  He loved the crowds assembled for the spectacle of crucifixion.  He loved the soldiers who threw him down on the ground, the men who drove nails into his hands and feet, the none-to-gentle crew that hauled the cross upright and set it in its place.  They were not ghouls, though they seem so to us.  They were soldiers just doing their job, hardened by years of violence.  They even took the trouble to offer him a bit of wine on a sponge when he was thirsty.   He didn’t love them in the abstract, after the fact.  He loved them, all of them, even at the very moment they went about their terrible task.  He loved them not as an aggregate—“the Romans,” “the Sanhedrin,” “the soldiers.”  He loved them personally one by one.

You see, they were all his own, because they were all the works of God’s hands, all part of the distorted human race God set out so resolutely over centuries and millennia to retrieve from their selfish choices, all potential members of Christ’s body crucified and risen and, in a way we will never comprehend, opened out to gather all human beings into his own being, except those who refuse.  And even those, he loves enough to let them make their own choices, though he did and does go to unimaginable lengths to convince them otherwise. 

Love, said St. Thomas Aquinas, is not about fuzzy feelings.  Love is willing the good of the other.  To will a good means to go to every length possible to bring it about.  And Jesus did. And does.

As we read the Passion accounts this week, and remember the events they recount, we may ourselves think ill of the “enemies,” from the relative safety of our assurance that we belong to “his own,” and they, of course, do not.  What is nearly impossible for us to imagine is that they do.  From our perspective, what they did gave him every reason to strike them all down in retaliatory rage.  We would have found it satisfying if he had.  We like to see the good win and the villains come to grief at the end of the story.  But Jesus did them no harm at all.  No doubt the evil at work everywhere in the story did its best to tempt him to hate them enough to wreak havoc on them.  Perhaps that was his final temptation.  If so, he refused it to the end.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We cannot even stand back in remote admiration at so remarkable  a choice.  That’s a luxury he denied us himself.  “Love your enemies,” he says, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  And, this week, shows us what he meant.

Some days, I wish he hadn’t.

Note:  St. Benedict articulates all the demands of love, mostly through extensive Scripture quotations, in Chapter 4 of the Rule, “The Tools of Good Works.”

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