The sufferings and death of Jesus, which Christians commemorate on Good Friday, may seem far removed from our everyday lives. After all, it is almost impossible to imagine that anyone reading this essay will ever be crucified. (On the other hand, persecution of Christians continues in many parts of the world even today.) So what can the story of Jesus's crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospels almost 2,000 years ago, teach us about our own lives?
One. Physical suffering is part of life.
Unlike philosophies or belief systems that suggest that suffering is more or less an illusion, Jesus says this from the cross: suffering is real. As a fully human person, Jesus suffered. On Good Friday, he was beaten, tortured and then nailed to a cross, the most agonizing way the Roman authorities had devised for capital punishment. There, according to the Gospels, he hung for three hours. Victims of crucifixion died either from loss of blood or, more commonly, asphyxiation, as the weight of their bodies pulled on their wrists, compressed their lungs and made breathing impossible. Jesus's life, like any human life, included physical suffering, and an immense amount of it on Good Friday.
But even before Good Friday, Jesus suffered physically, because he had a human body like yours and mine. Growing up in the tiny town of Nazareth, and later as an adult traveling throughout Galilee and Judea, Jesus likely had headaches, got the flu, sprained an ankle or two, and perhaps even broke a bone--in an era of lousy sanitation and only the most primitive of "medical" knowledge. As a fully human person with a fully human body, he suffered physical aches and pains. Good Friday was not the only day he suffered physically.
Two. Emotional suffering is part of life.
When Christians speak of Jesus's suffering on Good Friday, they tend to focus on his physical trials. Many Early Renaissance artists, for example, depicted that agony in gruesome detail, as a way of reminding Christians of what their Savior underwent. But Jesus's "Agony on the Cross" included emotional sufferings as well. In these emotions we can see further intersections with our lives.
To begin with, Jesus of Nazareth felt a deep sense of abandonment. How could he not? All of his disciples had abandoned him before the crucifixion, save for a few faithful women and the Apostle John. Peter, his closest friend, denied even knowing him. Moreover, Jesus felt the suffering of betrayal: another close friend, Judas, betrayed him outright. How that must have weighed on his heart as he hung on the cross.
Finally, Jesus likely knew the crushing disappointment of seeing his great work seemingly come to an end. That is, he may have felt like a failure. While it's almost impossible to know what was going on in Jesus's mind on Good Friday (save for the few words he utters before Pontius Pilate and while on the cross) it's not unreasonable to think that he lamented the end of his public ministry.
Now, here we enter some complicated theological terrain. On the one hand, since Jesus had a human consciousness, he would not have known what was going to happen. On the other hand, since he had a fully divine consciousness he would have.
So, on the one hand, it is possible that Jesus knew that the Resurrection was coming. (By the way, for anyone who thinks that this "lessens" his suffering, think of being in a dentist's chair: knowing it will be over soon does not remove the pain.) In fact, Jesus predicts the Resurrection at various points in the Gospel. But it is also possible that Jesus the fully human one may have been surprised on Easter Sunday, when he was raised from the dead.
Thus, as he hung on the cross, Jesus might have mourned the end of his great project--into which he had poured his heart and soul--the end to his hopes for all his followers, the end to all that he tried to do for humanity. And so he says, "It is finished."
Three. Suffering is not the result of sin.
Sometimes it is. If we do something sinful or make immoral decisions that lead to our suffering, we could say that this suffering comes as the result of sin. But most of the time, particularly when it comes to illness and other tragedies, it is assuredly not. If you still harbor any doubts about that, think about this: Jesus, the sinless one, suffered a great deal. He was not being "punished for his sins."
This idea was more or less common in Jesus's time. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus meets a man who was born blind, his disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered bluntly. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned."
Sadly, this attitude is still common today. Recently, friend living with inoperable cancer received a visit from friends she knew from her church. They callously told her that they felt her illness was the work of "Satan." In other words, sin had entered her life and she was being punished. When she told me this, I reminded her not only of the Gospel of John, but Jesus's own suffering.
Four. Jesus is fully human.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Now this is, as theologians like to say, a mystery, something that we will never be able to fully comprehend. But belief in this is essential for Christian belief. Besides, attempts to paint Jesus as either only human or only divine simply don't square with the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels. We read of him both weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus (hardly something that the classic Aristotelian or Platonic God would do), and we also see him heal the sick, still storms, and raise people from the dead (hardly something that people expected of religious figures in first-century Galilee and Judea, or modern-day anywhere today).
In the events of his Passion, we see Jesus's humanity on display. On Holy Thursday, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, "Remove this cup." In other words, I don't want to die. Only when he realizes that it is his Father's will that he undergo death, does he assent. But initially the human one expresses, in the bluntest language possible, that he does not wish to die. Later, also revealing his humanity, he utters a great cry from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" I don't think Jesus ever despaired--to my mind, someone in union with the Father would not be able to do that--but he clearly struggled and, at that moment, felt a profound sense of God's absence. Here is his humanity on full display.
This is often a consolation to people who pray to Jesus, the risen one in heaven. Why? Because he understands their humanity. He gets it. Christians do not have a God who cannot understand them, because God endured all the things that we do.
Five. Suffering is not the last word.
The message of Good Friday is incomplete without Easter. The story of the passion is not simply of a man being brutally tortured, nailed to a cross and executed by the Romans. It is the story of a man who turns himself fully over to the Father's will, trusts that something new will come out of this offering, and receives the astonishing gift of new life. The message of Easter is not only that Christ is risen, not only that suffering is not the last word, not only that God gives new life, but this: Nothing is impossible with God.
So may you have a prayerful Good Friday, but, more important, may you have a happy Easter.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of the new book Jesus: A Pilgrimage.