As we face our own modern anxieties and troubles this Holy Week, we would do well to turn to the martyr's reflection on Jesus' Passion.
“Living by faith includes the call to something greater than cowardly self-preservation.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien
How did he do it?
How did Christ, possessing full knowledge of the horrific torture and death he would endure, bear it?
Oh, the fact that he was fully God does not quite explain it — for he was fully human as well. With bones that could be broken, flesh that could be pierced and nerves that could burn with blinding pain, this God was simultaneously man.
And he worried. In what has forever been aptly described as The Agony, Jesus knelt in the oppressive blackness of a lonely garden with drops of sweat like blood pouring from his head, and begged,
Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.
But his Father’s will would be done.
During Holy Week we pause to consider God’s will: the humiliation, scourging, crowning, piercing and suffocating of the God of the Universe and the purest of men. Why? Why did God allow this to happen? To serve man’s unpayable debt. A supreme, incomprehensible act of mercy offered to a slovenly, ungrateful creation: you and me.
No matter how many Holy Weeks I am blessed to live through, I will never fully understand it. How God could endure so much torment for so great a gain on behalf of so little a man as me defies rational explanation. The cosmic reconciliation of justice and mercy in a broken man on a cross utterly boggles my mind. But God’s grace is not dependent upon my comprehension. It simply is. It is of God. And I am in awe of it.
As I write this, it is late at night. Playing on the television screen across the room is Robert Bolt’s brilliant play-made-movie A Man for All Seasons. I can’t tell you how often I have watched this brilliant story of the courage and martyrdom of St. Thomas More, but Holy Week is the perfect time to watch it again. In the name of Christ and his Church, St. Thomas saw himself stripped of his home, his family, his freedom and ultimately his life.
The last book that St. Thomas wrote during his imprisonment was The Sadness of Christ, a searing reflection on the Agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It wrestles with the anxiety, fear and despair that can come out of martyrdom. Surely, this reflection provided some degree of comfort and sense to the horrors that St. Thomas was enduring. But it also speaks to you and me in our modern daily worries, uncertainties and imperfections. It is an extraordinary thing that, while achieving such great ends for the kingdom of God, for you and for me, Christ’s Passion and St. Thomas’ martyrdom would tragically fully consume them.
St. Thomas sensed in his own suffering a small echo of Christ’s Passion. And yet he found that Jesus’ Passion also teaches us that fear and anxiety are a natural part of suffering. And what Christ taught exquisitely through his actions is that one can still find strength in God and remain faithful in the face of fear and anxiety. As Hans Urs von Balthasar so wisely observed,
When one surveys even from a distance how often and how openly Sacred Scripture speaks of fear and anxiety, an initial conclusion presents itself: the Word of God is not afraid of fear or anxiety.
Here is what St. Thomas would assure,
To such a [wavering, fearful, uncertain] person [suffering a trial], Christ wanted his own deed to speak out (as it were) with his own living voice,
“O faint of heart, take courage and do not despair. You are afraid, you are sad, you are stricken with weariness and dread of the torment with which you have been cruelly threatened. Trust me. I conquered the world, and yet I suffered immeasurably more from fear, I was sadder, more afflicted with weariness, more horrified at the prospect of such cruel suffering drawing eagerly nearer and nearer. Let the brave man have his high-spirited martyrs, let him rejoice in imitating a thousand of them. But you, my timorous and feeble little sheep, be content to have me alone as your shepherd, follow my leadership; if you do not trust yourself, place your trust in me. See, I am walking ahead of you along this fearful road. Take hold of the border of my garment and you will feel going out from it a power which will stay your heart’s blood from issuing vain fears and will make your mind more cheerful, especially when you remember that you are following closely in my footsteps (and I am to be trusted and will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear, but I will give together with the temptation a way out that you may be able to endure it), and likewise when you remember that this light and momentary burden of tribulation will prepare for you a weight of glory which is beyond all measure. For the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come which will be revealed in you. As you reflect on such things, take heart and use the sign of my cross to drive away this dread, this sadness, fear and weariness like vain specters of the darkness. Advance successfully and press through all obstacles, firmly confident that I will champion your cause until you are victorious and then in turn will reward you with the laurel crown of victory.”
St. Thomas concluded,
And so among the other reasons why our Savior deigned to take upon Himself these feelings of human weakness, this one I have spoken is not unworthy of consideration — I mean that having made Himself weak for the sake of the weak, He might take care of other weak men by means of His own weakness. He had their welfare so much at heart that this whole process of His agony seems designed for nothing more clearly than to lay down a fighting technique and a battle code for the fainthearted soldier who needs to be swept along, as it were, into martyrdom.
Without question, Christ suffered to redeem us. But also to teach us hope and perseverance.
Thanks be to God.