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- Creative Transformation
March 25, 2005
In many respects, Good Friday for Christians is like Yom Kippur for Jews: a day of asking forgiveness for one’s sins of the past and promising to lead a better life with the help of divine grace in the future. Yet, beneficial as these rituals of atonement may be for one’s personal spiritual life, they still sometimes raise questions about our ongoing relationship to God. Does God require specific penitential practices as a condition of offering us forgiveness for our sins? In particular for Christians, was the painful suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday necessary to atone for our sins before God the Father? Did Jesus really have to make "satisfaction" for our sins in such a painful way in order to redeem us from our sins? In a recent book (Into the Abyss of Suffering: A Catholic View [Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003]), Kenneth Overberg, S.J., proposes that, while the theme of atonement and sacrifice for sin is prominent in the Synoptic Gospels and the letters of St. Paul, this may be due to the need for the early Jewish Christians to understand and accept the scandal of Jesus’s shameful death on the cross as a condemned criminal. These early Jewish converts to Christianity, in other words, searched the Hebrew Bible for texts to prove that the Messiah would indeed have to suffer and die in order to save us from our sins, and they found an abundance of such texts in the Book of Job, the image of the Suffering Servant in Second Isaiah, and in various Psalms (e.g., Psalms 22, 69).
But, argues Overberg, there is another line of thought for the interpretation of Jesus’s passion, death and resurrection which admittedly has been underplayed in the life of the Church in past centuries but which still finds expression in the Gospel according to John and in the Pauline letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. Here the focus is on the mission of Jesus the Incarnate Son of God to share the divine life with his human brothers and sisters, with their help to establish a new humanity in which pain and suffering would be curtailed in this life and forever eliminated in the life to come with the divine persons. According to this interpretation, Jesus basically redeemed us from our sinful state simply by becoming human and opening the possibility of living the divine life even as a human being in this world. His passion and death at the hands of his enemies were really not part of the divine plan for the redemption of the human race but were simply foreseen as a virtually inevitable consequence of his challenging the religious and political powers-that-be about their exploitation and oppression of ordinary people in Israel at that time. By his preaching and healing miracles, Jesus sought to bring about the Kingdom of God in his own lifetime, and his refusal to back down in the face of entrenched opposition from people in authority was the real reason for his painful suffering and death.
Is it possible that both of these interpretations of the passion and suffering of Jesus are legitimate and that both of them have saving value for Christians as they each year relive the passion and death of the Lord during Holy Week? I believe that this is indeed the case. Unquestionably many Christians have found in the figure of their Crucified Lord a source of comfort and solace in the midst of their own pain and suffering. Moreover, for nearly all of us the thought of God not only becoming one of us but of taking upon himself the burden of our sins, both individual and collective, has been very powerful in awakening a sense of contrition for our sins and a firm purpose of amendment. But the enduring value of the interpretation offered by Overberg and others is that we should not add to our personal pain and suffering in this life by believing that God is thereby punishing us for our sins, that we have grievously sinned and therefore are only getting what we deserve when unexpected pain and suffering come our way. Nor are we then likely to resent without fully admitting it the cruel way in which God appears to deal with us.
The key value in Overberg’s approach to suffering, on the contrary, is to claim that God, too, is opposed to pain and suffering. This is the process view, as well. What Dog wants is for us to have life in abundance but in such a way that we do not enjoy the good things of this world at the expense of others less fortunate than ourselves. God wants us to find solace for the inevitable pain and suffering in our own lives by reaching out to help others in their time of need. Shared pain and suffering brings relief to everyone involved, and it is primarily for this reason that Jesus lived a full human life with all its inevitable ups and downs. Pain, suffering and death are a necessary part of human life but they do not possess the key to the ultimate meaning of our lives. Something better is in store for us as Jesus witnessed by his resurrection on Easter Sunday. All that is asked of us here and now is like Jesus to remain faithful to the Father’s Will for us, even when it hurts.
The Rev. Joseph A. Bracken, S. J., is professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also the author of The One in the Many, The Triune Symbol, Christianity and Process Thought , and coeditor of Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God.