What do you like best about Jesus?
- Damsel, I say unto thee, arise by Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max
I guess what many people like best about him is that he suffered and died, and redemptive suffering looms large in their spirituality. I would not be one of those people. There's an interesting post at The Open Tabernacle about suffering and holiness, and within that is a bit on Jesus and the significance of the cross. Here's that part of the post ....
Bearing the Cross and Christian Discipleship
One of the primary effects of Vatican II’s return to the sources was to restore to Catholic spirituality—to place front and center for Catholic spirituality once again—the centrality of the gospel story, of the way in which the gospel narratives recount and reflect theologically on the life of Jesus. When the gospels are read with careful attention to the cultural and historical context in which they were produced, it is clear that Jesus was not a world-denying ascetic who viewed the flesh as the enemy of the soul.
He was, instead, a peripatetic Jewish rabbi who proclaimed that in his life and ministry, the promised reign of God was breaking forth in the world. He both preached about what that inbreaking of the reign of God meant, and enacted the message of the inbreaking of the reign of God through symbolic actions. His preaching and his symbolic enactment of his message were an invitation to those who heard his message of good news to respond by joining him as he wandered about teaching, and by emulating his behavior.
And that behavior had a strongly earthy, visceral, embodied component that is central to the message he proclaimed. Jesus touched those he healed. He took their wounded, disfigured bodies into his hands as he worked healing for them.
He invited himself to eat and drink with public sinners, with social outcasts who, in the culture of his day, brought uncleanness on anyone who touched or ate with them. Jesus broke bread with them, and with his apostles, to demonstrate that the good news of God’s imminent presence in the world through the inbreaking reign of God was good news for everyone—for both souls and bodies, for the rich as well as the poor. For the poor, the outcast, the despised and discarded first and foremost.
Because he ate and drank with sinners, Jesus was regarded by his detractors as anything but an ascetic. He was charged with being someone who loved to eat and drink with a profligacy unbecoming a man of God. His movement also included women, who traditionally did not consort with a wandering rabbi since their menstrual cycles made them unclean, a source of uncleanness for any man who touched them.
And because his behavior, which eradicated lines between the rich and the poor, the clean and the unclean, the righteous and the damned, turned upside down the world of those who needed these lines in place in order to consolidate their power at the top of the social hierarchy of his culture, he was crucified. He was put to death on the cross, an instrument of capital punishment reserved for the lowliest of criminals in his society, a punishment designed to demonstrate to other refractory disturbers of the social order the fate they might expect, if they challenged the powers that be.
So there’s the cross in Jesus’s life, the cross, which is central to the gospel narrative, and anyone reflecting on the significance of the path Jesus walked, anyone who seeks to walk on that path, must take the cross into account. Here, too, the attempt (abetted by tools of historical-critical research that became available to theologians in the late 19th and 20th century), to read the gospels in the cultural and historical context in which they were written casts significant new light that has shifted, for many believers, the meaning of carrying one’s cross in emulation of Jesus.
For the medieval piety that cherished practices such as self-flagellation or sleeping on the floor with one’s arms outstretched, self-mortification provides a privileged way of sharing with Jesus in his passion on the cross. Punishing the flesh becomes an important way, for those who share the presuppositions of such piety, of carrying one’s cross in imitation of Christ.
But note that this piety depends on a worldview foreign to the gospels and the Jewish cultural milieu in which they were produced. It depends on a body-soul dualism characteristic of Greek philosophy rather than of Jewish belief—a dualism that the Christian outlook began to incorporate as Christianity spread from its original Jewish cultural base into Graeco-Roman culture. This dualism, which has been deeply influential in Christian thought and spirituality, views the body as an obstacle to the spirit, something to be beaten into submission by those who wish to live authentically spiritual lives.
This dualistic notion of body and soul, with its disdain for the material world, with its exaltation of suffering that beats the flesh into submission so that the spirit may thrive, is far removed from the Jewish cultural milieu in which Christianity was born, and which Jesus reflected as a wandering rabbi whose life became foundational for Christianity. Nor does this body-soul dualism have anything to do with the theology of the cross in the gospels—with the call of Jesus, in the gospel narrative, for his followers to take up their cross and walk with him.
As Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder noted in his ground-breaking 1972 study The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), the gospels do not view the cross as any and every kind of suffering a follower of Jesus may endure. Instead,
[t]he believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost (p. 96).
The gospel narratives’ meditation on the cross and its significance for the Christian life relates bearing the cross to discipleship—to taking up one’s cross and walking after Jesus as a disciple doing what Jesus did, as one who lived within the present world a vision of the world’s possibility never completely incarnated in its current political, cultural, religious, or economic structures:
The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice. . . . The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the politically, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society (p. 129).
Not just any suffering, then, and certainly not physical punishment inflicted on oneself in isolation from the struggle one encounters as a disciple of Jesus to live the values of the gospel in a resistant world: the cross is about discipleship, in the gospels’ telling of Jesus’s life story and their reflection on the significance of that story.
Retrievals of the profound meaning of the story of Jesus’s cross-bearing in recent scripture scholarship such as Yoder’s challenge us to think very differently about the role of suffering in the Christian life, and about the connection of suffering to Christian discipleship. They challenge us to think very differently than our medieval forebears did about practices such as self-flagellation and sleeping on the floor with our arms outstretched.
From the standpoint of the gospels, there is an inbuilt cost, an inbuilt and predictable suffering, when we choose to walk the way that Jesus walked. That suffering arises from our attempt to incarnate the values of the gospel in the world in which we live—through our life in communities of faith and of practice remembering Jesus, and through the ministry of those communities to the larger world.
There is inbuilt asceticism in the Christian life, insofar as we live, hope, work, and put up with one another (and with ourselves) in the communitarian context. With its communal context—its re-membering of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in a communal context, over and over throughout history—there is a world of inbuilt asceticism designed to temper our tendency to selfishness, pride, despair, and other besetting sins.
There is about ascetical practices like self-flagellation, indeed, an extrinsicism that is perhaps easier than the constant hair-shirt quality of seeking to live according to the gospel in a communitarian context with others hearing and responding to the gospel along with oneself. In the struggle to hear and live the gospel communally (and, in the life of discipleship, there is a constant communal context to this struggle), there is a never-ending process of whittling away one’s rough edges, tempering one’s expectations, chastening one’s certainties about what one knows with absolute conviction to be true and right.
And that asceticism—that cross—is even more apparent when members of the faith community seek to embody the values of the gospel in the world through active discipleship: through ministry. Particularly when we choose to place ourselves in solidarity with those for whom daily existence is a constant struggle for survival—when we stand with the millions of the world’s citizens who struggle to find enough to eat each day, to obtain shelter, medicine, education, freedom from oppression—we will find the cross. We will find the cross among the millions of the world’s citizens who would not dream of needing to punish their bodies through self-flagellation as clerics and religious have often done, because merely living in this world and trying to hang onto existence are, in their own way, punishment enough for those citizens.