Everything changes, thanks to mercy.
The first two characters to fall in love are the soldier Claudio and his sweetheart Hero. They’re winsome, sincere, and (if we’re honest) occasionally quite tedious. So the real stars of the show are Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, and Claudio’s army buddy, Benedick. These champions of snark trade insults with such masterly precision that their spats attract a riveted audience. They’re perfect for one another, except they hate each other. Hilarity ensues.
The play’s central crisis comes just before Claudio’s and Hero’s wedding, when the blushing bride is falsely made out to be sleeping with another man. Deceived, Claudio humiliates Hero publicly and leaves her weeping at the altar.
By now Beatrice and Benedick have realized they love one another. In the heat of that discovery, Benedick makes an extravagant proposition: “bid me do any thing for thee.” Beatrice, not in the mood for sweet nothings, takes his offer seriously. “Kill Claudio,” she demands. When Benedick protests she charges him with hypocrisy: “you dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy.” For her, the matter is clear. If Benedick really loves her, he’ll bring vengeance upon his friend for wrongfully disgracing her cherished cousin.
Hero’s response is utterly different and initially harder to understand. She’s been slandered by her fiancé and almost disowned by her father. But Friar Francis, who was meant to consecrate her marriage, believes in her innocence. He persuades the family to pretend Hero has died from the shock of the rejection so that Claudio will be filled with remorse and forgive her. Ultimately when Hero “comes back to life,” the joy of her reunion with Claudio convinces even Beatrice to relent.
When Friar Francis suggests this plot, he tells Hero she has to trade a moment of death for a lifetime of bliss. “Come, lady,” he coaxes her, “die to live.” In Beatrice’s world of bloody retribution, that advice is utter nonsense. Why should Hero suffer to be reunited with Claudio? She’s the victim. He’s at fault and deserves punishment.
True enough. But Francis’s plan reflects a different set of values altogether, the counterintuitive and self-sacrificial values of grace. Hero loves Claudio enough to bear the consequences of his mistake herself. She’ll take the pain of his misguided accusations, because it’s worth it to her to rescue their union. Sound like somebody you’ve heard of?
Before Christ’s intercession, the human race had no defense from heaven’s fearsome justice. Like Beatrice, God in the Old Testament often demands that men prove their allegiance to him by killing those who offend him. He orders King Saul to slaughter the wicked Amalekites, but Saul spares his victims’ leader and their best livestock. Since he didn’t exterminate every last Amalekite life as God asked, Saul is rejected and dethroned. Yaweh often gives the faithful the exact choice Beatrice gives Benedick: destroy my enemies or be counted among them. And because we feel the righteousness of God’s judgment, we can’t escape the terrible responsibility of obeying him.
But Jesus establishes a new arrangement. He does it in the same way Hero does, by taking a penalty that should rightfully have gone to his beloved. Jesus understands that we scorn and reject him because we’ve been deceived just like Claudio — because our pride and shame blind us to the goodness of the one person we should adore unshakably. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”: yes, we sin and so do violence to God’s law. But in Christ, God shows himself willing to endure that violence rather than visit it upon us.
Everything changes thanks to that mercy. When Jesus returns from the grave, we can be at rights with God because our debt to justice has been improbably, miraculously cancelled. When Hero reappears onstage, Claudio is redeemed and Beatrice can release Benedick from his obligation. Forgiveness, that excruciating and illogical blessing, means valuing love more highly than your own self-preservation. It’s the price of everything worthwhile in this broken world. And it’s the price God paid to be reconciled with us.
Whoever gives up his life will preserve it. If a grain of wheat dies, it bears great fruit. “Come, lady, die to live.” The tomb is open; the bridegroom is back; the wedding is on. Happy Easter.
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