It’s early morning, and I’m sitting in the dark in a hotel room on Palm Sunday in Kingston, N.Y., where my son Dan and I are visiting relatives for a few days. There was a time when I would never miss Mass on a Sunday, much less on a holy day. Things change, and time keeps moving forward. One of the luxuries of aging is worrying less about what all the rules are and instead remembering the basics, whatever those are for you. Mine are: Love is stronger than fear (although it rarely feels that way), love is stronger than hate, and if you choose to let it, love always wins. And, most important, God is love, so he wins. Sometimes, though, I feel like it can’t possibly be that simple.
The Easter season has always been tough for me. Why would God let Jesus suffer like he did? Psalm 22 says he (or a different sufferer, which ultimately could be all of us) cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” If God could let his only son go through crucifixion, just imagine what you or I might have to go through. That’s sobering.
Every year I try to make sense of this, of why Jesus died after walking among humanity and teaching and performing miracles. Why couldn’t he have just kept on going, eventually dying as an old man? Or better yet, if he is the son of God, why can’t he come down here now and straighten out this war between Ukraine and Russia?
It helps me to read things by those who study such questions; I like to see what they come up with. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, days away from his 95th birthday, is a pretty scholarly writer, so I looked up his take on Psalm 22, the one filled with lamentations about suffering and being forsaken. That particular Psalm is filled with grim descriptions of agony. The person suffering says, “Like water my life drains away; all my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me.” He/she keeps begging God to listen as they cry out in pain. Then the words change, as you can almost see the understanding come to the suffering person. Benedict wrote in 2011, “‘But you, O Lord, be not far off! O you my help, hasten to my aid! … Save me’” (vv. 20; 22a). This is a cry that opens the Heavens, because it proclaims a faith, a certainty that goes beyond all doubt, all darkness, and all desolation. And the lament is transformed, it gives way to praise in the acceptance of salvation: ‘He has heard … I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’”
It’s like the ultimate ‘aha!’ moment. The tortured one realizes that he has been defeated by everyone living around him, but that does not mean he’s been abandoned by God. In his fear, the agony and pain caused by those surrounding him becomes amplified. Benedict wrote, “Anguish alters his perception of the danger, magnifying it. The adversaries seem invincible, they become ferocious, dangerous animals …” But when the poor tormented person cries out, the heavens finally open up, and he/she sees salvation, in the end exclaiming praise to God forever.
Psalm 22 mirrors Christ’s suffering on the Cross and his final words of mercy: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
So forgiveness becomes a key element of the Easter season. Jesus on the Cross forgiving his killers seems like the ultimate living out of his teaching: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
This all just reminds me that I have a long way to go. I could spend days licking my wounds — either self-inflicted or those I perceived were caused by someone else. Now I’m supposed to let go of all that, and rejoice in God’s participation in my life. But it was so absorbing and sometimes a little gratifying to go through all that rehashing of past hurts.
Scripture and other reading always calls me back to the same thing: God is love. Maybe that’s the simple lesson of Easter.
If you have news for Have Faith, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.