So it is with a mix of skepticism and heartfelt curiosity that I approach the topic of Jesus now. It happens to be Lent. Before this, what I knew of Lent came from my elementary and middle school years, when a classmate would proudly exclaim that they were “giving something up for Lent.” It might be chocolate or video games or, if she was super hardcore, television. I thought this was a fascinating and impressive endeavor, especially as it seemed to come out of nowhere, like a little personal challenge of willpower. My secret feelings about my own worthiness lent a certain logic to the notion that a person might deny themselves something they loved: a self-inflicted punishment for whatever deep badness lay hidden inside each of us. What any of this had to do with Jesus, I remained blissfully unaware of until recently.
I’m learning that Lent is the time of year when Christians are meant to reflect on the last chapter in Jesus’ life. Sometimes called the “Season of Grief,” it stretches from late winter leading into spring and is recognized over several Sundays that culminate with Easter. Catholic clergy are more likely to formally integrate its commemoration into their services, but it seems Protestants are coming around to honoring Lent with more than a just passing mention. The sequence of events at the heart of the season is so ubiquitous that one need never step foot in church to know the basic facts: Jesus is condemned to death and nailed to a cross. So pervasive is the associated imagery, that it’s hard to actually feel anything in response. (A bloody young man hanging from planks of wood? Just Jesus.) The purpose of Lent is to move past the desensitization, to go deeper into the painful aspects of this story, to at least reach for understanding. In fact, in some cultures a decadent party is thrown before Lent to help sweeten the bitterness of what is sure to be a difficult time of sadness and sacrifice. Carnival in Brazil is an example, as is Mardi Gras in New Orleans—just think of all those partying Nones participating in the preparations for an ancient Christian ritual without even knowing it.
Last week, when I was at an Episcopalian service, the female priest acknowledged how difficult Lent is, explaining that she understood why people would rather leap frog over it and land on the happy Easter part. Today, the Methodist minister, an absent-minded professor-type with a beard and a wall-eye, leads us into the eye of the storm. He explains that when Jesus was summoned to stand trial for his crime, which was claiming to be God’s child, he was greeted by the people as a hero. They knew Jesus had never been anything but exceptionally kind to everyone he encountered, had gone around practicing the love that he preached. The people lined the streets and cheered and spread palm fronds on the ground so that the hooves of the donkey he was riding wouldn’t touch the dirt. After his conviction, the people turned on Jesus, spitting on him, kicking him, ripping at his clothes. They clapped as he was lashed and then cheered as the spikes were driven through his palms and feet.
I’m thinking about how I would have reacted if it were me that was unjustly sentenced to death. I would have been both terrified and pissed, I would have hated all those people, I would have gone down with the bitterest anger in my heart and the worst expletives spewing from my mouth. But Jesus goes willingly, with nothing but pure love for every one of those jerks. Then I think, ‘what if I were one of the crowd?’ Would I have stood up for Jesus? Doubtful. All my information would have been through the grapevine: this man claims to be divine. I wouldn’t buy such a claim now, what makes me think I would have bought it then? Even some of his most loyal followers turned their backs on him. The people who lashed out physically were caught up in a frenzy, they were not any more “bad” or “good” than any of us. We fool ourselves if we don’t recognize that in each of us exists this same capacity for cruelty. Even Jesus knew it, but loved them anyway. I think about the many public examples of greed in our culture, the CEOs who take million dollar bonuses when their businesses have just been bailed out by taxpayers struggling to make ends meet, and all the smaller versions of selfishness we perpetrate throughout any given day, and how Jesus’ actions and message were the antithesis of this kind of behavior.
I glance up at the whirring fans, hoping to blink away whatever this is I feel rising in my heart. Then it happens: tears well up in my eyes. My reaction is about more than just Jesus, I realize. It’s the bubbling up of emotions I’ve kept tamped down throughout my church visits so far. These designated places where life’s most profound subjects take center stage, all the devotion that pours out, all the people who show up on Sundays to search in their hearts, even if not everyone comes for this reason or the “right” reason, I still think most people are sincere when they walk through those doors. They want to remember the importance of love, forgiveness, kindness. If nothing else, they will lend their voices to those of their neighbors. They will hear the words expressed on these topics by wise people who have lived and died, and maybe they will be touched by their meaning. It’s such a beautiful attempt at something good.
This moment feels like a small victory, a step toward some greater wisdom I’m in desperate need of—a small step, but a step nonetheless. I can’t possibly understand the essence of Christianity unless I get Jesus. I have yet to tackle the biggest challenge: how to wrap my mind around God. But Jesus is a start.