You fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed.
As a young boy I was brought up in the richness of Catholic faith. Its powerful symbolism opened new dimensions of reality for me. I had as mature an image of God as I could at that age. Increasingly, though, I related to this distant, elevated ever-observing, supposedly loving and yet terrifyingly cold construct of our collective imagination a bit like a bank robber would to a surveillance camera.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” St Paul insists that we have to grow up religiously and break through into the reality, not the construct, of the divine dimension. These words from today’s gospel come from the High Priest who, with a political ruthlessness ever present in the corridors of power, gives us a key to this maturation of our understanding about the Easter story. This re-telling is soon to go into high gear for those of us following the liturgies.
As a child I was given a simple, in fact a greatly over-simplifying, explanation of this myth-shattering story. Debt-redemption. The suffering and death of Jesus, the innocent lamb-sacrifice, was explained as the paying off a debt that humanity owed to a good and loving Creator. If you asked what the debt was, you were told the story of Eden and the fatal piece of fruit that brought death and misery into the human condition. In that form it was an inversion of the Santa Claus story. Father Christmas gives you something for nothing. God the Father punishes people for things they didn’t do and calls it original sin. Like a credit card debt you can’t pay off, the guilt just kept getting bigger and bigger.
After a certain age and level of reflection this becomes an insult to most people’s intelligence. They look for a better explanation or they go off looking for the truth in another direction altogether. The High Priest’s comment helps. It exposes a universal dynamic in every human society and all communal relationships. Rene Girard, the French thinker, recognised it as a scapegoat mechanism whereby in a time of crisis a group in conflict blames its woes on an innocent victim – who is sacrificed, brings a temporary peace and is often later divinised. We still do it with Jews, gays, immigrants, anyone who is ‘other’ to the majority.
The Passion of the Christ reflects this universal dynamic, but does so uniquely from the victim’s perspective. The mask is exposed – although, because it is such a useful mechanism, we continue to use it, choosing to be unconscious of what we are doing. Lent and meditation are able to change this choice and make us conscious of what we are doing and what our true relationship with the Father is. The problem is not with the divine nature but with the human psyche. How can you help people to grow up and take responsibility for themselves? By treating them as adults. The Easter story is for grown-ups.
Inside the crowd mentality, however, humans act like animals or young children. We go with the strong and trample the weak if that seems the safest thing for us to do. The story we will soon be re-telling reveals the huge solitariness of the alternative to the crowd. It shows how personal experience and myth merge. Rejection, suffering, death and the tomb are solitary ordeals. Let’s face it. But it is not the whole story, nor, happily, is it the end of the story.