For people of my generation, one of the watershed events of our youth, one of the benchmarks by which we measure the passage of time, was the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. I was in the seventh grade when it happened, too young to have a very mature political perspective. All I knew was, he was the President of my country, the father of two young children, and he had been brutally murdered. To this day, I cannot hear the Navy Hymn, Eternal Father, strong to save, without getting a lump in my throat, because I associate it so strongly with hearing it played incessantly as President Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was drawn through the streets of Washington while millions of Americans watched on television. Many times, I have watched a dramatic portrayal of that trip to Dallas, and knowing full well how it was going to turn out, found myself glued to my seat in anticipation, subconsciously hoping that there will be a last-minute change in the parade route, or that Oswald’s gun will jam, or that the Secret Service will discover the plot and save the President’s life, that it will be like every other TV movie and have a happy ending.
But it never happens that way. Every time, it ends . . . the way it ends, and the assassination takes place.
I sometimes experience the same pattern of feelings when I read an account of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. What if he takes the advice of his disciples and decides not to go up to Jerusalem? What if Judas changes his mind and tells the authorities where they can put their thirty pieces of silver? What if somebody like Nicodemus is able to convince the Sanhedrin to take a deep breath and count to ten before dragging Jesus in front of the Roman governor? What if Pontius Pilate develops a political backbone and refuses to be bullied by the Jewish leaders? What if God the Father sees the anguish of his only Son in the Garden of Gethsemane, and decides that he cannot, after all, go through with the plan? These and a host of other “what ifs” come to mind, and I look for the story to somehow develop differently, some way that will spare Jesus the shame and the humiliation and the sheer pain of death on the cross.
But it never does. It always ends the same way: Jesus dies. But then I stop and ask myself, “Why did God let that happen?” And then the answer comes back, and hits me like a ton of bricks: for me! God forsook Jesus in that moment for me. God chose my interests, over the interests of his only Son.
Because God loved Dan Martins, he sent his only Son to be born of a woman, to share my human nature, and to suffer death on the cross in order to save me from the consequences of my sin. The lips that shouted “Hosanna” when he entered Jerusalem were my lips, and the lips that shouted “Crucify him” in the courtyard of Pontius Pilate were also my lips. In the words of one of my favorite Holy Week hymns,
Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas! my treason,
Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
So what if Jesus had decided not to go up to the earthly city of Jerusalem? I would forever be denied entrance into the heavenly city of Jerusalem. What if Jesus had never been handed over to the authorities? I would be forever handed over to the authority of a law which can only remind me of my failure and inadequacy. What if the Sanhedrin had not decided to get serious and bring Jesus to be tried by Pilate? I would be perpetually on trial, with no basis for my defense, no grounds on which to plead for mercy. What if Pontius Pilate had blown the whole thing off and ordered Jesus’ release? Jesus would be free, but I would be a slave, a slave to the power of sin and death. And what if . . . what if God the Father had decided to grant Jesus’ request from the Garden of Gethsemane that “this cup pass from [him]?” If the “cup” of suffering and death had passed from Jesus, then I would have to drink it until I drain the dregs, and then over and over again, without any meaning and without any hope. I would have no respite in an earthly existence that is nasty, brutish, and short—and the prospect of an eternity that is nasty, brutish, and long, cut off from love, cut off from beauty, cut off from goodness, cut off from God.
Come to think of it, I guess I’m glad the story of the Passion ends precisely the way it does. And my heart today is filled with gratitude and adoration and love for the Crucified One—the One whose death takes away the sting of my own. I adore you, O Christ, and I bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed . . . me.