When I was a child, Lent for me was a time to meditate on Jesus’ suffering. I was pretty good at it. I could imagine mountains of suffering far beyond what the Bible describes. And I could imagine loving Jesus all the more because of his extreme suffering for me. When it came to bearing up under his cross of suffering, Jesus rocked – in my imagination. What occasions this memory of my childhood? Two words from The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: “Jesus wept.” I happened across a meditation on these tears, and it echoed my childhood imaginations. The source I won’t reference. After all, it’s a rather common thought and, I think, a mistake.
“Jesus wept.” But did Jesus suffer more than you or I or anyone else ever could, when he cried at his friend Lazarus’s death — or on the cross for that matter? That seems theologically unnecessary. More importantly, one must ask, “What kind of comfort would that be?” When you go to a suffering friend, you don’t (or shouldn’t) say, “I’ve suffered worse.” There’s no comfort in that. How can it be consoling if it’s Jesus who endures worse?
Jesus wept, like us
I’m thinking of a mother in Chile or Argentina during their dictatorship years. She has endured the kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing of her child by her own government. Or the sorrows of the mothers in Ukraine and in many other countries witnessing similar acts against their children. Or the mother who has to watch her children die from hunger and can’t do anything about it.
“Jesus wept” in the depths of his heart. Jesus experienced anguish at the cruelty of this world. But did Jesus experience an agony greater than what these mothers knew? Did Jesus suffer more on the cross in three hours than the many others who suffered the same punishment for their supposed crimes against Rome? Crucifixions often lasted for days instead of just hours. That Jesus suffered more than any other human being seems theologically unnecessary and factually simply untrue.
Suffering is part of a human life, and Jesus suffered. It’s certainly worthwhile to meditate on this way that Jesus is so like all of us, so human. That value is mostly lost, I think, when we make Jesus’ suffering, in quality or quality, very much unlike ours.
Jesus, divine and human
Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. We look at Jesus’ miracles reported in the Gospels and think of Jesus’ divine nature. How does that square with Jesus’ humanity? A Benedictine monk, whom I remember now only as Father Tom, explained: There were times when divinity so overwhelmed Jesus that it shone visibly in a miracle, or in understanding of people’s hearts, or knowledge of the future.
I don’t know what to make of my friend the old monk’s theory. But, even if true, this sporadic, unpredictable, unexplainable, divine incursion happens to others as well, and not just in the Christian tradition. It doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus wasn’t human. But if Jesus walked around with awareness of his divinity a regular feature of his consciousness, that would make him something other than human. Actually, I doubt that the thought “I am divine” ever crossed Jesus’ mind.
On the same occasion when John’s Gospel says “Jesus wept,” Jesus also shows forth his divinity. He predicts that Lazarus will rise again, and he makes the astounding claim: “I AM the Resurrection.” It’s one of many “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel. These are echoes of the name that, out of the burning bush, God gave himself. (Exodus 3:14) John gives us historical details that the other Gospels don’t, but most likely Jesus’ manner of speech, including this “I AM,” isn’t one of them. His words are too different from what we know of Jesus from the other three Gospels. They’re so often divine-like, they seems to obliterate, rather than occasionally overshadow, Jesus’ humanity.
A death like ours?
Jesus talks most like a God in John’s Gospel, but it’s in the other three Gospels that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection after three days. He does this three times in the Gospel of Mark. Did Jesus walk to his death aware that he would rise in three days? That seems to say, as I heard in a homily recently, that Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours.
In the Gospels we do not find literal transcriptions of Jesus words and deeds – no more in the first three than in the fourth. Mark and, following him, Matthew and Luke sometimes put their own community’s faith in Jesus’ divinity into Jesus’ words and deeds. Some, though not all, of the Bible’s miracle stories may be legends. Jesus’ reputation during his lifetime as miracle worker must have had some basis in fact. (See this post.) This was God working through Jesus. We should not think of Jesus as a man with super-human powers.
The same is true for Jesus’ thoughts and feelings about death. Jesus no doubt could predict his own death. Others have done the same. But Raymond Brown is one Catholic scholar who doubts that the predictions of resurrection are Jesus’ own words. In his An Introduction to New Testament Christology he says:
A Jesus who walked through the world with unlimited knowledge, knowing exactly what the morrow would bring, knowing with certainty that three days after his death his Father would raise him up, would be a Jesus who could arouse our admiration, but a Jesus still far from … a humankind that can only hope in the future and believe in God’s goodness, far from a humankind that must face the supreme uncertainty of death with faith but without knowledge of what is beyond. (p. 151)”
It’s hard to keep both ends of the Church’s teaching about Jesus – his divinity and his humanity – equally in mind. The one that’s most likely to be shortchanged is the humanity. That may happen as we meditate on the risen Jesus or on his amazing deeds of healing, exorcising, and declaring sins forgiven. It may happen in this time of Lent as we read that “Jesus wept” and come face to face with Jesus’ agony. But neither Superman nor Rock Star of Suffering is an appropriate image for the one who saves us. Salvation is only through the One who became like us in all things but sin.