The term “shock and awe” entered our lexicon in connection with the 1990-1991 Gulf War when the American-led coalition sought to eject Iraq after the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. “Shock and awe” referred to the coalition’s aerial bombardment prior to a tank and infantry assault. It was meant to demoralize the Iraqi defenders.
The shock and awe I address today is that related to what is called “the Passion,” that is, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Actually, we may view these events not as shock-and-awe but as a cycle of awe, shock, and then awe.
The contemporary witnesses – those who had followed Jesus, those who had been cured by Him (and their relatives, friends and neighbors), those who had been taught by Him, those who loved Him, and those who had applauded His entry into Jerusalem and had laid palm fronds before Him (hence, the term “Palm Sunday” for the Sunday before Easter) were in awe of Him.
His miracles included the curing of the mentally and physically ill, such as the crippled man whose friends tore a hole in the roof of a house where Jesus was speaking to lower him down in front of Jesus (Luke 6:17-25); the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage (Matt. 9:20-22); the man who had waited 38 years for someone to help him down to the curative pool (John 5:1-16). Friends and neighbors had laid their sick before Him and He laid His hands on every one of them. (Luke 4:40). “Wherever He went, to village, or town or farm, they laid down the sick in the open spaces begging Him to let them touch even the fringe of His cloak. And all those who touched Him were cured.” (Mark 6:56).
"They were all astounded and praised God, and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.” (Luke 5:26)
Miracles took forms other than healing. For example, His disciples had seen Him calm the seas and waves. (Matt. 8:27; Mark 4:39; Luke 8:25) Seeing this, experiencing this, “They were awestruck and astonished… ‘Who can this be, who gives orders to winds and waves, and even these obey Him?’” (Luke 8:25). As Jesus told a wider audience one day, “The Father loves His Son and shows Him everything that He Himself does, and He will show Him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed.” (John 5:21)
In addition to miracles, there was His teaching, the teaching that drew crowds to isolated places without a thought to what they would do for food. Jesus made a “deep impression” on them because He spoke with authority. (Mark 1:22). Temple guards, tasked with arresting Him, returned without Him, explaining, “We have never heard anyone speak like this!” (John 7:46)
After miraculously feeding a crowd who had come to hear Him, some wanted to make Him king. (John 6:15) And this was the same mood of the people upon His entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday:
• “The whole city was in turmoil,” asking, “Who is this?” (Matt. 21:11)• “The whole group of disciples joyfully began to praise God at the top of their voices for the miracles they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!’” This was too much for the Pharisees who asked Him to tone down His disciples. Jesus replied, “If they were silent, the stones would cry out!” (Luke 19:37-40)• The Pharisees said the whole world was running after Him! (John 12:19)
On the Friday five days after this entry, now known as “Good Friday,” these same people:
• heard folks standing next to them scream “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21; John 19:15);• saw Him standing before Pilate with a “crown” of thorns implanted in His skull (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2, 5) with blood and sweat and spittle streaming down His face;• saw Him clothed in a robe, not His own, hiding the fact that skin that had been scourged off His back and legs (Mark 15:15; John 19:1; see 1 Peter 2:24). It was a purple robe (Mark 15:17) mocking Him as a king of this world;• heard people demand that the true criminal Barabbas be released (Matt. 27:17);• watched as the Roman Pontius Pilate conversed with the prisoner/detainee, presented Him to the crowd, spoke with Him again (Matt. 27; Mark 15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:28-19:16) and then literally washed his hands of Him (Matt 27:24).
They were shocked, distraught, beside themselves, helpless to alter the course of events, what words can describe it?, as He walked step-by-deliberate-step on their streets uphill to Calvary. While He carried His cross to the site of His crucifixion, there were large numbers of people, including women, following Him, weeping. (Luke 23:27)
Without sleep, without food, without water, losing blood, the Romans feared He would die of shock before they could crucify Him. They conscripted Simon of Cyrene to help Him carry His cross. (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21-22; Luke 23:26) Offered a liquid that would help numb His pain, and His senses, Jesus refused. (Matt. 27:33-34; Mark 15:23)
The Face of the Man, Scourged and Crucified, of the Shroud of Turin
The events in Jerusalem of Thursday night and Friday were so tumultuous, so heart-rending, that, on Sunday, two men were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus when a stranger approached them. They were astounded when the stranger asked what matters the two had been discussing. How could he not know! How could they have been talking about anything else! They answered, “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.” (Luke 24:13-18)
It is possible that, after two thousand years, the shock effect of the execution of Jesus, execution by crucifixion,is not what it once was. We are like soldiers in combat who have continually seen death up close, and for days at a time. This is so even for those Christians who do not have bare crosses, but exhibit crucifixes – showing the corpus – the body of Christ in three dimensions. These three-dimensional images are on Catholic processional crosses, on the churches above the doors, on church altars, above altars, behind altars, on coffins, on every Rosary, often hung around the neck, and, for some religious, worn in the belt. Below is a picture of members of the Passionist religious order (Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ (C.P.)) who take a special vow to remember the Passion.
We need to be reminded that Jesus’ death by crucifixion, a death meted out to criminals, was, as St. Paul wrote, a “scandal.” (1 Cor. 1:23) The Greek word is skandalon, an offense. It was deeply offensive to suggest that such a man was holy, much less the son of God. Something a good Jew simply could not abide.
Undated. These young Passionist priests with crucifixes in their belts are natives of Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and China.
We need, at least on occasion, especially appropriate on every Good Friday, to go into shock again, to recover our sense of how offensive it was. How?
First, the Catholic Church, the one with which I am familiar, and other Christian churches bring to collective remembrance the Passion narratives found in the four Gospels. The Catholics proclaim the entirety of each of the four during Holy Week – always John’s on Good Friday, and rotating the other three on Palm Sunday.
Second, there is the “Way of the Cross” which, in the Catholic tradition, uses 14 “Stations of the Cross” to walk the Way. These episodes are depicted in scenes found on the walls of its churches. The traditional set of meditations is that of St. Alphonse de Ligouri (1696-1787) and can be found here in English: ecatholic2000.com
St. John Paul II adopted a more Scriptural-based Way of the Cross and it can be found here: USCCB.org
It is customary, during the meditation on this reenactment, to sing an English version, by Edward Casswall in 1849, of the Latin hymn Stabat Mater (literally, “Mother Was Standing”). The first stanza is:
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
This Good Friday, Pope Francis has invited a lay woman for the first time to compose meditations for the Way of the Cross in Rome as the Pope walks the perimeter of the Colosseum. They will be appearing in the Vatican website in multiple languages. Anne Marie Pelletier is 70, a scholar, a wife and mother.
The Catholic liturgy for Good Friday begins with the priest, dressed in the color of red symbolizing martyrdom, lying prostrate before the altar. He represents the entire people in their sorrow and penitence. And the people recite the Improperia (Latin for “the Reproaches”) with the haunting, tearful, refrain: "My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me." (Micah 6:3) During the services, all present are invited to venerate (a/k/a reverence) a crucifix by kissing it.
Pope Francis at St. Peter’s, Good Friday, 2013
Cardinal Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) presenting the elderly Pope John Paul II (1920-2005, pope 1978-2005) with a crucifix for his veneration in the form of a kiss.
There is more we can do to bring into our consciousness the pain and suffering of Jesus:
1) We can read Dr. Pierre Barbet’s detailed description, followed by a meditation, in his A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon (1953).
2) We can gaze on crucifixes painted in the Spanish style, like that found in the crypt of the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio. Upon seeing this, I first thought of the word “torture” to describe it. I wonder sometimes whether we should use “torture” to describe Jesus’ crucifixion. We know the details of torture. We know what it means. We know its impact on the victims on their friends and family and neighbors. We read of torture in Syria (Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria, “A Journey into Syria’s Torture Wards,” Washington Post, April 3, 2017, p.A1) and see torture discussed on stage (Geoffrey Himes, “Can Atrocities of Apartheid Be Reconciled,” Washington Post, April 7, 2017, Weekend Section, p. 24 (regarding “A Human Being Died That Night”).
3) We can consider other crucifixions, like those committed by ISIS in 2014 and 2016, or Blessed Zynoviy Kovalyk (1903-ca 1941), a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest who was crucified on a corridor wall of his prison and disemboweled.
4) We can meditate on the following:
The Blessed Passion by Anglican Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1622)
Blessed art Thou, O Lord,
For the holy sufferings of this day.
By Thy saving sufferings on this day save us, O Lord.
By the sweat bloody, in clots,
The soul in agony,
The head wreathed with thorns driven in with the rods,
The eyes filled with tears,
The ears full of opprobries,
The mouth given to drink of vinegar and gall,
The face shamefully befouled with spitting,
The neck loaded with the burden of the cross,
The back ploughed with the weals and gashes of whips,
The hands and fee digged through,
The strong crying, “Eli, Eli,”
The heart pierced with a spear,
The water and blood forth flowing,
The body broken,
The blood outpoured.
5) We can view Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. Still images from the movie can be found online.
6) We might consider our response to learning, as I learned for the first time a few years ago, that Jesus was likely completely naked during His crucifixion. For example, Thomas á Kempis (c. 1380-1471), the author of the famous Imitation of Christ, wrote a meditation on the death of Christ that included the following opening to a chapter: “Of the Crucifixion, naked, of the Lord Jesus; and of His hanging for many long hours aloft upon the Cross.” Prayers & Meditations on the Life of Christ, Part II, Ch. 18, p. 106 (1908). Yes, He was naked, although His mother, His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene, were “near the cross” (John 19:25), and many other women were nearby (Mark 15:40-41). They were close enough to hear Jesus, struggling to breathe, give them, and us, what we now call His “Seven Last Words.” (These are easy to find online, and there’s this source by the 1950’s television “star”: Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), The Seven Last Words (75 pages, 1952, republished 2016).)
7) The following painting is “Christ Crucified” (c. 1632) by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). It is printed in the Roman Missal (3d typical ed. 2011) used daily by Catholic priests throughout the United States. It appears opposite the page that commences Eucharistic Prayer I (The Roman Canon).
The emotional turn to awe of Jesus came immediately upon Jesus’ death -- and to people whom we might not have expected. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the centurion in charge of the Roman military guard who had escorted Jesus to Calvary, stripped Him of His garments (Matt:27:35-36; Mark 15:24; John 19:23), nailed Him to the cross, and maintained watch until His death, exclaimed “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47). In Matthew’s Gospel, it was the centurion and the entire guard who declared this belief:
"When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, 'Surely he was the Son of God!'” (Matt. 27:54)
Another expression of awe occurred a week after the Resurrection when Jesus appeared in a locked room to His apostles. Thomas had not been in this room when Jesus appeared the evening of the Resurrection, and Thomas had gone the entire week refusing to believe his fellows. This time, however, Thomas was there and, invited by Jesus to inspect His wounds, and doing so, declared his belief, his awe: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
“The Increduilty of Thomas” (1601/02) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (“Caravaggio”) (1571-1610)
And, as before the Crucifixion, it was not only Jesus’ miracles, like that of the Resurrection or appearing within locked doors, that prompted faith and awe. It was also Jesus’ authoritative teaching: The two disciples with whom Jesus conversed on the way to Emmaus and with whom He dined as evening fell, rushed excitedly back to Jerusalem, saying that Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.” They told the others what they told each other, namely, that “our hearts [were] burning within us!” (Luke 24:27, 32)
This Holy Week we commemorate the passion of Jesus Christ. On Palm Sunday we are in awe. On Good Friday, we are in shock. On Holy Saturday, we are lost, disheartened beyond words, grieving. But on Easter, we will again be in awe, with delirious delight, giving glory and thanks to God.
Spero News columnist James M. Thunder is an attorney who practices in the Washington DC metropolitan area.