Arguments for Easter: Keeping an ugly appointment in Jerusalem

Jesus did not wilfully court self-annihilation, argues Stephen Sykes, the Bishop of Ely, in the first of a series of reflections for Holy Week which begins today
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The Independent Online
It is impossible to read the narratives of Holy Week and not ask the question: what was Jesus's intention? The Gospels say that he "set his face" to go to Jerusalem; that he knew his fate; that he rebuked Peter for resisting his arrest. The early church (in 1 Peter 2:23) referred to Isaiah in interpretation of the events of the Passion: "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly".

But the picture of Jesus being led passively like a lamb to the slaughter is not wholly adequate to the nuances of the stories: there is the betrayal by one of his close friends, the acute mental struggle in Gethsemane, the vigorous performance before Pilate; the story of Jesus's way to death is no deliberate courting of self-annihilation. The rulers who abuse Jesus and order his crucifixion are condemned; only the responsibility of those physically carrying out the execution is mitigated by the words "They know not what they do".

There is no avoiding the notion of sacrifice, but neither is there any easy escape from the objections to it. Moreover the idea of sacrifice is all too often used to justify the abuse of humanity: the casualties of grossly unjust warfare, incitement to nationalistic zealotry, the victimisation of women - all have marched under this banner. Are we not better rid of it altogether?

Sacrifice is dangerous, yet the remedy is not abandonment but discriminating usage. As social anthropologists observe, sacrifice has mostly to do with power. From such a premise it is more dangerous to hand over the concept to secularism, to pretend that it has no common matter with religion or to cordon it off as the realm of the amoral. Power - or rather powers - are in need of redemption and transformation.

Jesus's involvement with powers of various kinds is profound as he goes to his death. The violence being done to him is to a guiltless victim, but Jesus's response is neither of revenge nor complicity. Those who condemn him unjustly to death are included within his liberating forgiveness. Jesus is not simply powerless - a dangerous simplification of the subtlety of the narratives. He uses his residual freedoms creatively to the very point of death.

His final violent entrapment in the ferment of Jerusalem politics vividly illustrates the gulf separating the rulers and the ruled. This was at the very heart of his preaching of the kingdom. He concerned himself with the life of the marginal, the sick, prostitutes, the ritually unclean, the mentally distressed. To achieve their inclusion Jesus was ready to do battle with the powers of darkness. A new normative world is thus created. Its central qualities are immediacy to God and freedom from indebtedness, pollution and evil.

The narratives also make clear that Jesus's death was a crisis of literally cosmic proportions. A darkness falls, which is metaphysical as well as physical, and in which for a time "the world rulers of this present darkness" appear to have triumphed. From this perspective the powers of the creative order are not a neutral backdrop to an individual or social drama. There is a profound resonance between human beings, animals and the stuff of the world. We participate, as Paul put it, in the groaning of a creation subject to futility and longing for renewal. At stake is the capacity to remain at the heart of ugliness, decay and death, and to resist the instinct for the merely pretty.

At Christmas we are accustomed to being invited in heart and mind to Bethlehem, to see those things which have come to pass. This week we have an appointment up the road at Jerusalem; it is more disturbing, uglier, more dangerous than the manger. But we should not miss it. The theme of the Passion stories is that Jesus embraced sacrifice on the way to his death. It was an embrace which draws us into that story. For we too are enmeshed in those powers that entrapped him. Our relationship to them is always ambivalent. But because Jesus did not flinch in their face, because they could not hold him, his unique sacrifice can illuminate, and ultimately, transform our relationship to them.