The first spiritual awakening I can remember experiencing occurred when I was eleven years old. It happened on Easter Sunday, somewhere in the course of the school term, some time after the morning’s worship service. It was a boarding school and I was on the second floor corridor of my dormitory, Block Five, on my way to do something I no longer recall, when the details of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, humiliation, torture, and crucifixion that lingered in my memory year after year suddenly saturated the air around me.
“Barabbas!” Shouts of “Barabbas!” clanged strident in the astringent air thick with the acrid stink of sulfurous breath and the pungent miasma of a thousand armpits waving beneath raised fists. “Give us Barabbas!” A woman quickened by despair was anxiously trying to quiet each mouth that shouted. “No! No, no, no, no, please don’t!” The same woman, in that same saturated air, was also in a quiet, festive place. Quiet? Relatively. A small tambourine gently danced out the rhythm of a harp that was playing in a room nearby. In this place, the woman’s face was illuminated with intentional attention. A convoy of servants carrying stone pots were gliding in and out of the room at her direction, removing the empty vessels and bringing them back filled with water. They all seemed to move to the rhythm of the tambourine and the melody of the harp, but I was sure that was just coincidence. The screaming crowd had somewhat faded, although not entirely ceded completely to this festive peace, and I thought I saw the woman direct one of the servants to take one of the filled pots into the banquet… Then she was rushing through the court of the Temple, spurred by that hopeful relief that overtakes fear. She seemed to run up the stone stairs towards a cluster of berobed men of learning, her eyes searching expectantly. When she finally caught a glimpse of her small, bright-eyed, twelve year-old boy, all the tension that had propelled her flight dissipated. “My son!” Her voice was sharp with renewed solace, and clear, yet somehow quiet. She said something to the boy, worry brushing across her face as she spoke. His eyes shone when he replied, his voice ringing past the cluster of berobed elders. How many times had I seen the same woman holding her infant son close as her husband led them to refuge in Egypt, her body still wracked from the ordeal of birth, her joy complete, the smell of his newness filling her every breath. Suddenly the woman was tense again, looking up at the haggard, agonizing eyes of her son, now grown, now worn and pained, now dying. “Here is your son.” His voice. I couldn’t be sure that I heard him say those words, but I knew that he had. I had heard the story so many times. I knew that he had entrusted his friends to his mother, and his mother to his friends.
I was weeping and the tide of grief had so swollen that I could no longer breathe without impediment. I needed to find air that could penetrate my inundated lungs. I somehow made my way outside to the second floor balcony of my dormitory building, although it was more a tarred roof than a balcony. I closed the door behind me and retreated to the most secluded place I could find — a corner where the eaves of the tiled roof hung low over the tarred balcony. And there I wept openly. I remember thinking for a moment how much I had folded into myself while still in the corridor, a public throughway where someone might have seen me. And I did not want to be seen. Had anyone finding me in distress asked me what was wrong, I would not have been able to use words. Outside, in the privacy of solitude broken only by the looming eucalyptus trees that shaded Block Five, I was safely alone. And so I wept openly. I even allowed myself to wail in heaving gulps as the tide of grief pulled me into its undertow.
Why couldn’t I have stopped the crowd? Why couldn’t I have been there to make them listen to his mother. To tell them that the man they were condemning was the son of God and Mary? What could I have said to convince them to stop? To move them to stop? The crowd… No. I had to try earlier. Defend him when Herod questioned him… Tell Pilate to not wash his hands of the matter and instead have the courage to choose Justice… Persuade Judas not to deliver that fatal kiss… Feed the armed mob that came for him a soporific meal to make them fall asleep before heading to Gethsemane… But I know that none of that would have worked anyway. They would not believe an eleven year-old, even if she explained that she was from the future and that they were making a mistake of the gravest injustice. So I wept and wailed and mourned, until all my tears were spent and my face, my throat, and my lungs were sticky and saturated with grief’s exhaustion. We could not hope to understand the ways of God, my Christian teachers had taught me then, and would continue to admonish me for years.
I don’t remember how long I stayed on that balcony. The fatigue that followed the storm of mourning was leaden: listless and heavy and torpid. I was only eleven and there was nothing I could do for… the son of God who gave his life to redeem humanity and reconcile it with God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…”
And that is when the spiritual awakening occurred. It took the form of puzzlement: how could the torture, ignominy and death of Jesus signify the salvation of humanity and reconciliation with God? That made no sense at all. The priests and Sunday school teachers all said that spilling the blood of his only Begotten Son was the price God paid to liberate humanity from the clutches of Sin. The Cross, they explained, now bridged the chasm that had separated us from God since the fall of Adam and Eve. Divine Wisdom and the Grace of God, they explained, were inscrutable and could not be expected to make sense to our modest mortal souls.
But that did not console me. The puzzlement became perplexity, and then bewilderment, and then confusion, as the inscrutable mysteries regarding Jesus accumulated. Everywhere I turned, faithful ministers of these mysteries revealed new and ingenious ways to not live by the examples of Grace that Jesus offered. “Conventional wisdom” of the status quo was that ordinary people have no control over how they choose to live their lives and are at the mercy of inscrutable supernatural forces. The pastors of the masses seemed to have agreed not to teach their flock just how radical a challenge to the status quo living by the examples Jesus set would entail. I was told, time and again, that only through the Divine Gift of Grace could I hope to learn to receive these supernatural mysteries. I was offered classes and invited to services and encouraged to accept Jesus Christ into my heart. I could frequent the classes and attend the services without any impediment. But I sincerely did not understand what it meant to “accept Jesus Christ into my heart” in the mystical way I was told needed to happen. It was reassuring to meet many people, young and old, who had done so, because it meant that it was possible. Believers assured me that I didn’t have to understand. All I had to do was give myself to Christ. For a time I would have happily done so, had I known how. Yet I could not even see where or how to begin doing something that I could not understand.
Many seasons came and went and with them the will to understand the inscrutable myth I was taught that the torture, ignominy and death of Jesus signified the salvation of humanity and reconciliation with God. The weight of that first tide of mourning slowly dissipated over the years, leaving behind an actively vestigial awareness that Jesus had done something profoundly meaningful throughout the Passion and the Crucifixion, something that did not just make us the passive beneficiaries of a mystical sacrifice, but rather something that called upon us to cultivate agency in the fate of our souls, individually and collectively.
Over the years I found myself wondering why the Death of Jesus gets so much more attention than his Life. I wondered why it seemed more popular to sing about being “washed in the blood” of the sacrificial lamb than it was to simply share meals, shelter, and other quotidian kindnesses. I could understand the appeal of stories about supernatural and unexplained miracles, but I could not understand why people seemed more willing to loudly profess their belief in the fantastical than they were willing to do the ordinary.
For while he lived and walked among men and women and children, Jesus humbled himself to show by example what he meant when he spoke of Love. He consistently welcomed the reviled, the marginalized, and the vulnerable into this Love, often regardless of social scandal or taboo. He explicitly invited his followers to love by his example:
- “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34, 15:12)
- “Greater Love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12)
I wondered why the pontiffs and ministers and pastors and preachers never considered that the practical reason Jesus surrenders to all the torture, ignominy and death was because he sincerely believed the truth and value of his own ethical teachings. Why did they not connect the dots between the ordeal of the Crucifixion and an ethos of unmitigated humility devoid of retribution?
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:38–40)
Why did the ministers of Christ not read the Passion as an object lesson, for his contemporaries and for posterity, showing in practice that Jesus truly meant what he said when he urged his followers to forgive, no matter how outrageous the injury?
Jesus was, by all accounts, an intellectually brilliant child (Luke 2:41–52) and man, a loyal and dedicated son and friend, and a profoundly compassionate, empathic, generous, and faithful Teacher. He abhorred institutional corruption and abuse, speaking against them without any apparent reservation. Yet where interpersonal relations were concerned, he repudiated the principles of retribution, consistently advocating an ethics of Grace and surrender rather than retaliatory aggression.
Imagine making such a choice everyday of your life… not just as a Christian, or because you were forced to concede, but rather as a way of life. Imagine if everyone chose Grace over war?
Many years after my childhood spiritual upheaval, I finally discerned something curious in the stories of Easter. When, on Sunday, the crucified son of God and Mary rose again, he revealed that Death is only death. Betrayal, torture, humiliation and death were, in the end, but a small price to pay to uncompromisingly choose Grace. Imagine how the world would be if everyone believed that and chose Grace over conflict in every decision, great and small. Imagine if Easter lessons in Sunday school revisited the Life of Jesus, his teachings and his examples even half as much as they revisited his death. Imagine how God so loved the world that he gave his Son so that we might see more clearly that Death is only death, and Grace is always Life.
Illustration: “Children of War”, Adoyo. Charcoal on paper.