Friday, April 2, 2010

The meaning of the Passion

The bloody violence of the death of Jesus Christ – the skin torn by scourging, the nails driven through hands and feet, the thorns pushed into scalp and forehead, the spear thrust into the side – naturally impresses upon our minds His fleshly humanity. But it is in contemplating the Passion, perhaps more than in any other context, that we must fixate our minds precisely upon Christ’s divinity, lest we miss the event’s significance entirely. Modern people think they understand it well – a miscarriage of justice on the part of a corrupt political system, an affront to freedom of conscience, an expression of reactionary hostility to novel ideas comparable to the execution of Socrates. Thus is Christ transformed, absurdly, into something like an early martyr for Liberalism. (This gets the death of Socrates completely wrong too, of course. The popular understanding of both events reflects a Whiggish narcissism: “He was a great man; ergo he must have been anticipating us moderns in some way.” But that is another subject.)

In fact the significance of the Passion has nothing to do with such comparative trivialities. “We preach Christ crucified,” wrote St. Paul; “to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness.” The Jews and Greeks of old were (here as in so many other ways) closer to the truth than the moderns. For whatever else the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was, it was, first and foremost, the supreme blasphemy. It was Pure Act, esse ipsum subsistens, That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, the “I Am Who Am” of Exodus, our First Cause and Last End – spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a cross. All other meanings – political, socioeconomic, legal, moral – fade into insignificance in light of this most incomprehensible of sins. Unlike us moderns, always trying to wedge moral and religious truth into our narrow, this-worldly horizon, the ancient Jews and Greeks knew this, and rebelled at the thought. How could it be? How could Being Itself be put to death? How could the Most High allow Himself to be brought so low? A metaphysical impossibility! An inconceivable sacrilege! And yet it happened.

The “death of God” of Nietzsche’s “madman” parable was not the crucifixion. Nor, of course, was it a literal killing of any sort. But the moral (if not the metaphysical) magnitude of deicide was not lost on him:

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

No silly talk here of “Flying Spaghetti Monsters” and the like; Nietzsche, unlike so many of his successors, still had a sense of the noble, indeed of the Holy. (The New Atheist is none other than Nietzsche’s Last Man in rationalist drag.) And what he said of the modern, metaphorical “death of God” is true of the real thing: We are each of us guilty of it. We are each of us the worst of murderers. We have, each of us, slain our Maker and sought to make ourselves gods in His place. And we cannot possibly atone.

For the crucifixion, in its sublime gruesome blasphemousness, lays bare the true meaning of sin. It is Non serviam, “My will, not thine, be done!” pushed through consistently. To rationalize evil, we must obliterate the Good. To justify lawlessness, we must put to death the Lawgiver. And yet there can be no “rationalization” of any action in the absence of Good. There can be no “justification” without Law. In the crucifixion we see the sheer, satanic madness of sin.

And we cannot possibly atone. Yet we are not without hope. For the Supreme Lawgiver against Whom we offend is also Infinite Mercy. The God Who can lay down His life can raise Himself up again. And He lays it down willingly, for those He calls His “friends” – for us, His very killers! Even as we commit the greatest of crimes against Him, His thoughts are – astoundingly – with us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Having put Him on a cross, we can but humbly kneel before it – in sorrow, in thanks, in worship.

11 comments:

Daniel Smith said...

Wow.

I've been a practicing Christian for 30 years but this is the first time I've heard the Passion portrayed as the world, all of us, literally coming together to "kill God". It's a truth I'd known in principle but had never fully realized until this moment.

I am deeply humbled by your words Dr. Feser.

Warren said...

WOnderful, thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

How much more cruelty to take and destroy the earthly life of an innocent who cannot reverse what you have done.

Anonymous said...

Any slaughter of life is evil, not just this particular one.

Flood said...

Two thoughts:

1) "(This gets the death of Socrates completely wrong too, of course. The popular understanding of both events reflects a Whiggish narcissism: “He was a great man; ergo he must have been anticipating us moderns in some way.” But that is another subject.)"

May I request, Dr. Feser, your thoughts on the death of Socrates and its meaning some day? I am intrigued what you would have to say about that secular martyr, given your moving and deep thoughts about the death of Christ.

2) Anonymous 4:39 AM and Anonymous 12:55 PM, I think Dr. Feser's thoughts about the greatness of the crime relate to the intent behind it rather than the nature of the victim. There is an interesting discussion to be had here, though, about whether evil can be done to non self-conscious beings, and if so what the nature of that evil consists in, and whether it can be justified.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous 4:39 AM and Anonymous 12:55 PM, I think Dr. Feser's thoughts about the greatness of the crime relate to the intent behind it rather than the nature of the victim. There is an interesting discussion to be had here, though, about whether evil can be done to non self-conscious beings, and if so what the nature of that evil consists in, and whether it can be justified."

The purpose of the Church's (and all of mideaval passion art) is to make one viscerally FEEL the suffering and then say, 'This is what evil is like, especially since Jesus was innocent.'

Much worse cruelty is done everyday to so many others innocents.

Horatio said...

The Res, whatever it is, is nothing like the Death of Socrates--indeed Feser suggests as much, by insisting on the miraculous nature.

Yet--if Christ is God (and capable of supernatural acts his entire life--as scripture makes clear--ie feeding 5000 with a few loaves, walking on water, etc), then He must be sort of...acting. He could at any time stop the proceedings. And He knows how it will turn out! He predicts the betrayal. In effect, He produced and starred in his own movie, and is playing ...everyone.
So He must be a bit of a masochist.

However the traditional catholic narrative insists on the pain, misery, suffering, etc.; the trad. catholics are the ones who humanize Christ (as the docetists realized--their messiah was no mere human....but the Word made flesh).....so who are the real blasphemers??/

Bigland said...

Anonymous/mice, cruelty has little, if anything, to do with it.

Ilíon said...

Horatio: "Yet--if Christ is God ..., then He must be sort of...acting. He could at any time stop the proceedings. And He knows how it will turn out! He predicts the betrayal. In effect, He produced and starred in his own movie, and is playing ...everyone."

Horatio,
The Christ was not play-acting when he lived among us and allowed us to murder him.

And, as he was not play-acting, and as he really was tempted in all ways as other men are tempted, then he really might have sinned. For, if it were impossible that Jesus the Christ might have sinned, then it is meaningless to assert that he was tempted.

But, had he sinned, what would that mean? Why, it would mean the non-existence of all created things ... and of the Creator; for if “the ground of all being” is self-contradictory, then all being contradicts itself, denies itself, refutes itself. Christ was not play-acting; and there were real things at stake in the Incarnation.


Christ was not play-acting when he lived among us and allowed us to murder him. And, in fact, Christ has *always* -- and not merely when we murdered him -- made himself vulnerable to his creation. For Christ, by whom, and through whom, and for whom all that is created is created, continuously upholds the creation. All that exists exists because Christ participates in its existence (*). In creating/upholding the creation, Christ has always given himself into the hands of that creation; Christ has “always* placed himself at our (ahem) mercy -- we, who do not even have the standing to pass judgment, nor therefore to grant mercy, have *always* been given the ability to wound the Creator. And we have always done so; he has always been wounded for us, and by us.


(*) For, Christ is not "up there" ... watching our lives as though we were entertainment. He is, always, right here, living it with us. He lives it with us when we are betrayed ... and when we betray. Our sinfulness is so vile precisely because we drag The Holy One into the mud with us.


Horatio: "So He must be a bit of a masochist."

He has *always* loved you. He has always *known* you, and still he loves you. So, I guess, he must be a bit of a masochist.

Anonymous said...

I hope I'm not out line in linking to an old article of Fr Cessario, OP's on what Thomas's Summa has to say about Christ's Passion:

http://www.passion-movie.com/promote/cessario.html

Mary said...

It is not for nothing that for the readings of Passion Sunday and Good Friday at Catholic mass, the congregation takes the part of the crowd -- including when it shouts, "Crucify him!"