Christianity is sometimes seen as a sad, perhaps even sadistic, religion because of the cross.
Christ’s cross — a central symbol of Christianity — elicits diverse emotions and responses. For some it signifies death; to millions it symbolises life. In it, some see sheer suffering; others, salvation. The cross has been venerated and desecrated; gazed at with devotion and derision. Whatever emotions and explanations it evokes, this week — called “Holy Week” by Christians—we could reflect upon pain, suffering, living, dying. And rising.
Four moments in Christ’s life, annually commemorated during Holy Week — namely, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday — like four movements in a musical composition, summarise Christ’s life.
Maundy Thursday — from the Latin mandatum, meaning, mandate, re-echoes Jesus’ teaching: “A new commandment I give you — love one another just as I have loved you.” Jesus’ love is seen in the washing of his disciples’ feet. Shocked as they were, this act taught them lessons in love, humility and servant-leadership.
Good Friday commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, which was the outcome of his faithfulness and fearlessness. In taking a stand against multiple forms of sickness and suffering, Jesus alleviates suffering by taking it upon himself. He makes suffering sufferable, so to say.
All religions teach about suffering. Buddhism, for instance, speaks of dukka as the first noble truth referring to the painful, transitory nature of this world. Recognition of suffering is one of three basic characteristics of existence — along with impermanence (anichcha) and the absence of a self (anatta). These constitute “right knowledge”.
Christianity is sometimes seen as a sad, perhaps even sadistic, religion because of the cross. It is not! Pain and suffering must be seen in right perspective. Pain is physical hurt, illness, disease, or discomfort. It is inevitable. However, suffering is the meaning one attaches to situations of pain. Given our human capacity for self-reflection, you and I can make meaning of pain.
If one truly loves the “other”, one is bound to feel the pain of the other. Such deep love fructifies into acts of kindness, compassion, service, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. The passion of Christ is ultimately the fruit of his compassion for the sick and the suffering. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” says Jesus, as he surrenders his life in a sacrifice that promotes salvation.
Holy Saturday is a day of silence. Amidst sin, evil, victimisation, darkness and death, one must pause to reflect in order to respond. Suffering bids us to reflect not only on the “why” of pain but also on “how” we must respond to it.
Easter Sunday sees the sun piercing the clouds. Life will defeat death; truth will triumph over falsehood; and we shall rise — only if we’re ready to die to all forms of selfishness and egocentrism.