Good Friday and the "Passus" of the Gospel
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
It is Good Friday and we are in a pandemic. This is a good time to contemplate the role of suffering in the life of the Christian. This is what we might call the "passus of the gospel." In the Apostle's Creed it states, "I believe
in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,
passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,
descendit ad inferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,
ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis,
inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
The word we must consider here is "passus," for this is the word (in its Latin origin) that gives its name to this time of Holy Week, sometimes called "Passion Week." Passus means "suffered," and lest there be any gnostic tendency, we confess that his suffering took place in history, that he "suffered under Pontius Pilate," who was a real man who lived a real life at a real time on the earth. Thus, the creed summarizes in nuce the core elements of the gospel, as it relates to the person of Jesus Christ.
However, we must first confront the disquieting fact that modern American Christians have a very strange relationship with suffering, as if we doubt its existence as a given in the world or designated part of human life. To illustrate this, we need only look to the phenomenon of "MTD."
"Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is the term given to the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion. Having interviewed thousands of young people on the nature of Christian belief and practice, the sociologists who conducted the study distilled their findings down into five commonly held beliefs. Here they are enumerated with their matching worldview taxonomy to boot:
A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on Earth (Deism)
God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions (Moralism)
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself (the triumph of the Therapeutic)
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem (Deism)
Good people go to heaven when they die (Moralism)
As troubling as each tenant is (and much has already been written on these), it is point three which concerns us. Popular Christian belief in America basically denies suffering as an inherent and connate part of human existence. In other words, many young Christians—Catholic and Protestant alike—seem to all agree that life's primary end is about being happy, and that if one is confronted with a modicum of suffering, then something is pretty wrong with God's plan for one's life. (Is it any wonder why the depression rate continues to rise?)
The only slight problem with this widely-accepted belief is that it's a lie. Such an idea is alien to Scripture and to the historic teachings of "mere Christianity." (That it would have been rejected by many of the virtuous pagans is also telling.) Recall the simplicity of the creed: Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate." He did not come to make us feel better about ourselves or to secure happiness in our circumstances. Nor, shocking as it may be, did Jesus come to take away suffering. Rather, he promised the opposite (to the vexation of the Joel Olsteens of our age). "In this world," he says, "you will have trouble (tribulation, affliction—thlipsis), but be of good courage, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
What is more to the point, Jesus suffered, and he promises that any disciple worthy of his salt will follow suit. "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8:34). And what is the cross but the metonymy and apotheosis of suffering? Christ indeed spread out his arms upon the hard wood of the cross and died as the agnus Dei qui tollit peccatum mundi (John 1:29). But he also gave his back to be whipped and did not hide his face from shame and spitting. Why? Why did Christ suffer? Couldn't he have saved us in his death alone without suffering?And, moreover, why did Christ not do away with suffering in his resurrection?
The fact that Jesus' life is marked by suffering, arguably the greatest any human could endure, means that he deals with one of the most significant effects of the Fall. "Suffering," according to the catechism, "is a consequence of original sin." From infancy to old age, we know this to be true. Existence itself is mysteriously tainted with pain, and every human life is marked by some degree of suffering. But Jesus didn't make suffering magically disappear for a reason. He plumbed the depths of human misery in order to transform suffering, along with the entire existential landscape. Because Jesus was a "man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief," the suffering inherent in human life takes on new meaning. Our own suffering then can "participate in the saving work of Christ."
In other words, suffering then becomes a tool in hand of the Creator to redeem, to sanctify, to save, and even (as Flannery O'Connor testified) to be mercy. O'Connor, who suffered from the wasting disease of Lupus all her life and died young, remarked on her plight in this way: "In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies."
This is a profound mystery. While it's true that you don't get Easter without dealing with Good Friday, and that you don't get Shiblimini without first climbing Golgotha, it is not simply the reward that might come at the end of suffering that gives suffering its meaning. It is in the suffering itself that reward can be found, precisely because Christ is known in a more in suffering, not less. Suffering might alienate us from others, but Christ made sure it does not alienate us from God. Christ not only redeems the stigma of suffering, then, but he also transfigures it to be a "place" sacramentally nearer to Himself. The passus of Christ means that our suffering can now be a more mysterious and dynamic way (via) to know God, and that the degree to which our suffering occurs is also commensurate to the degree of our intimacy with Him and of our knowledge of the Holy.
This is the shocking truth that O'Connor expresses and part of the paradoxical scandal of the gospel—that what looks like complete weakness in the sorrows and torments of Christ, especially in his Passion, is actually the power of God. For "my power," says God to a suffering St. Paul, "is made perfect in weakness." It's tempting to conclude that suffering communicates a kind of secret knowledge to which only the white-robed martyrs, saints, and ascetics were privy. But the fact is we all suffer, and it is not a matter of kind but of degree.
And maybe this is one of the good things to come of out of our current COVID-19 pandemic. I don't mean the simple remembrance of our mortality, however salutary the momento mori may be. I mean the fact that we are forced to confront suffering as a given in life, that there is no life without some degree of suffering, however relative it may be. For those of us shut up in our homes, without access to work or school or beach or park, yet still with the abundant comforts of home, our suffering is perhaps so light as to barely register in comparison to those Christians in China or Syria or Africa, let alone to Christ's own Passion. And yet here we are in the middle of a pandemic, where, within the varying degrees of agony, Christ can be known in a measure proportionate to our present pains.
Our discomfort, then, however mild or severe, always presents us with some kind of opportunity to experience the "passus of the gospel," to the end that on this Good Friday we might know Christ more fully in the "fellowship (koinōnian) of his sufferings."