The way John tells the story of the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus, you would think Jesus is in complete command of the situation. He knows what is going to happen; the people who come to arrest him are more frightened of him than he is of them. The guard who slaps him for speaking too boldly to the High Priest is given a neat put-down. When Pilate “tries” Jesus it is more like Pilate being on trial: Jesus stands still and poor Pilate goes in and out of the Praetorium like a cuckoo in a clock at midday. The carrying of the cross feels like his choice rather than an imposition. The new relationship between the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother, whatever the deep significance we read into it, is his initiative. He thirsts, not as a victim but as one who is fulfilling the scripture; his actual death is an accomplishment, and perhaps it is the giving of the Spirit with a capital S. His unbroken body is a fulfilment of scripture, his piercing is a new birth for humanity – blood and water - and his burial, with all that ointment and spice, is a royal one.
And yet he is helpless. Bound, nailed, buried, things are done to him and he is passive (“the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ”).
This is a paradox, and it speaks to our human condition, and offers a vision for our struggling attempts to be truly human, which means truly holy.
We are a puzzling mixture of freedom and interdependence and unfreedom. Our physical make-up gives us scope for action and yet limits what that action will be. We want happiness and something we might call fulfilment, and usually we want that for others too; but others are experienced as positive and negative – not just friends and enemies, but friends who obstinately won’t follow our agenda. And of course within ourselves we find goodness and badness, freedom and compulsions, generosity and resentment, hope and fear. We are not simply individuals: we belong to groups, to nations, to the human race in a challenging and challenged eco-system. We are heading towards death whatever our age or state of health.
If we are Christians we try to follow Christ, and the Christ of John’s gospel in particular is this amazingly free person in charge of his life, yet totally subject to the will of the Father, seemingly beyond the authority of those around him and yet bound to humanity by that Father’s will, so that he may bring them life. For him there is not a contradiction between his will and the constraints of his life. He chose to be bound, nailed, imprisoned in a tomb. He was in charge of his helplessness. Close to the time of his death, in Jerusalem, some Greeks came looking to meet him; he said, in words reminiscent of the Gethsemane scene in the other Gospels, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
Aunt Ruth died of cancer while I was in Zimbabwe, and when I got back to England I was given one of her books – a now very battered copy of Teilhard’s Le Milieu Divin. A marker was in a page which contained an italicised prayer entitled “Communion through Diminishment” in which he reflected how in his younger years he rejoiced to draw nearer to God through activity and the exercise of his powers; but he goes on: “grant, when my hour comes, that I may recognise you under the species of each alien or hostile force that seems bent upon destroying me…..;when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old;…..when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me;…. grant that I may understand that it is you …. who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance …It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.” I sensed that Aunt Ruth, in leaving the marker there, had wanted to say she was dying in peace. By surrendering to God’s will she was following the Christ who was in charge of his helplessness.