It is Holy Week, a time devoted to prayer and reflection on the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. But there is a danger for Christians that, if we are not careful, we externalize the event too much. We watch the story from afar: We see Christ arrested by others, beaten by others, crucified by others. In so doing, we can fail to see our own place in the story.
That’s a point Martin Luther makes particularly well in his sermon “concerning meditation on the holy sufferings of Christ,” a 2004 translation of which has just been (partly) reprinted in The Canadian Lutheran. “You should believe, and never doubt,” writes Luther, “that you are in fact the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to Him. When you look at the nails being driven through His hands, firmly believe that it is your work. Do you see His crown of thorns? Those thorns are your wicked thoughts.”
Luther’s point is an important one: If we do not see ourselves as the persecutors of Christ in the passion narratives, then we read them wrongly. As the disciples failed to keep watch with the Lord in Gethsemane, we too in sloth ignore him. As Judas betrayed him with a kiss, so in our thoughts, words, and deeds we betray him daily. We reject him like Peter, wash our hands of him like Pilate, call for his death like the crowds, and lead him out to Golgotha. We crucify him and hurl insults at him as he hangs dying on the cross. We kill God.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” go the words of the old spiritual. “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?” And while there is a place for such songs, a steady diet on them is unwise: they externalize too much the story as something “they” did. We must never forget that we were there—that we crucified the Son of God.
This recognition should fill us with fear. As Luther writes, “When we meditate on the Passion of Christ the right way, we see Christ and are terrified at the sight. Our conscience sinks in despair.” For in the suffering of Christ, we see God’s great wrath at sin. Sin is not something God simply ignores; he does not “look the other way” from our failings, whether great or small. They are inexcusable and require judgment.
But while Christians should consider their sins during Passion Week, they ought not remain focused on sin alone. “When a person, whose conscience has been filled with terror, understands his sins in this light,” Luther writes, “he needs to watch out that his sins do not remain in his conscience, for then nothing but pure doubt will result. Just as our sins flowed out of Christ and we became aware of them, so we should pour them back on Him again and set our conscience free.”
Yes, God’s judgment on sin is severe. But in mercy, God has borne the punishment for sin himself. As Isaiah writes: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). We see in the cross not only God’s anger at sin, but also his immeasurable love for sinners. “Look how full of love God’s heart is for you,” Luther urges. “It was this love that moved Him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and sin.”
Passion Week must culminate in the darkness of Good Friday’s eclipse; in liturgical churches, we signify this through the gradual extinguishing of the candles in the tenebrae service. But at the end of the service—after the strepitus has sounded and the altar has been stripped—one candle is returned. Its small flame signifies hope in the midst of darkness. Easter will come.
We must let the Passion narratives of Scripture do their work and terrify us with the Law. But we must not remain in its darkness forever. We must turn at length to the light of the Gospel, to hear Christ calling, even as we crucify him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must, in the end, “see our sins laid on Christ and see Him triumph by His Resurrection,” Luther writes. “This is how we know God as He wants us to know Him. We know Him not by His power and wisdom, which terrify us, but by His goodness and love. There our faith and confidence stands unmovable.”