What is there to say in the aftermath of a tragedy? What can one do? In the past year, we have read the news, so much bad news, about shootings at schools and churches, about terrorist attacks, starvation and wars raging in various parts of the globe. This constant stream of bad news can make us feel numb. We can grow jaded, throwing up our hands and saying, “Well, I guess it happened again.”
What must the crowds of Jesus’ followers have thought, looking upon the scandalous tragedy of his crucifixion? They had seen Messiah-like figures come and go, hoping that one of them would finally free them from their political oppressors. Five days ago, this one seemed like he might finally be the one, the true Messiah. But now, in the shadow of the cross, they grumble and mutter, “Well, I guess it happened again.” And slowly they walk away.
But the crowd’s response to the crucifixion is not the only response we witness as we enter into the Passion narrative of John. There are others present, like the soldiers and the two crucified men. There are Mary his mother, the other Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. John himself.Then, hiding somewhere in the background, there are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. How does each one react in the face of this tragedy, and what does it mean for us Christians today?
First, the soldiers, who demonstrate indifference. They are just there to do their job. They have performed countless crucifixions, and they have grown numb to death and suffering. They are loyal to the powers of this world—the state, their jobs, and their own selfish desires. They jeer at Jesus, and they care not that he is naked and humiliated as they gamble with each other for his clothing. This is one response to tragedy—indifference and uncaring. Did they even realize that the man hanging on that cross was dying for them too? Did they hear him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”?
Second, there are criminals on the cross, who demonstrate the choice of repentance. While John mentions the criminals in his gospel, it is in Luke’s gospel that we hear them speak. Both are guilty of the same sin, yet only one appeals to the mercy of Jesus Christ. The other chooses to die in his sin, unrepentant and filled with contempt. In the face of tragedy, we recognize that our own sins contribute to suffering in this world. What will be our response? Will it be contrition and penance, or hardness of heart?
Third, there is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who demonstrate both cowardice and solicitude at the same time. Joseph and Nicodemus are secret disciples of Jesus out of fear of those in power. They hide their faith and are afraid to stand up for Jesus when he is being mocked and tried. For this, they are a cowardly sort of disciple. Yet, they do the right thing in the end, and use their wealth to do an act of mercy. They did not speak out against the injustice being done, but now that Jesus has died, they summon the courage to give Jesus a dignified burial. In their daily lives, they are reluctant to act, but in the face of tragedy, they are spurred into action.
Fourth, there are the women, who demonstrate grieving. The women were powerless to stop the carnage of Jesus’ crucifixion. All they could do was to follow Jesus faithfully, weeping, crying out, even wiping the bloody face of our Lord. Now, beneath the cross, they grieve and wait. They know their duty is to prepare the body for burial, and for six agonizing hours they wait and weep. They wait, long after the tears have stopped flowing. They wait, grieve, and pray. This is their response in the face of tragedy.
Lastly, there is the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus, and St. John, who demonstrate faithfulness and resolve. These two have followed Jesus from the very beginning—one from the moment of his conception and the other from the start of his ministry. They have stuck it out to the bitter end, even when the other eleven Apostles are nowhere to be found. What goes thru their minds? They knew this day was coming. Mary has known since the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, when Simeon foretold that a sword would pierce her Immaculate Heart. John has known since Jesus began to predict his own suffering and execution. These two figures of John and Mary knew that this horror was coming, and yet, they are faithful. They are resolved to stay with Jesus in his dying hour and to minister to him, even as he dies on the cross. They do not fully understand what will soon happen on the third day. All they know is that this man was truly the Son of God, and now, he has died.
What is the Christian response to tragedy? It is not indifference, jadedness, contempt, or hardness of heart. Rather, it is sorrow and repentance, like the criminal on the cross. It is mourning and grief, like the weeping women. It is prayer and faithfulness, like John and Mary. It is doing acts of mercy, and overcoming our fears to fight against injustice, like Joseph of Arimathea.
The Christian response to tragedy is different from the world’s response to tragedy. Where the world sees darkness and despair, the Christian sees light and hope. Where the world sees only the absurdity of suffering, the Christian sees the way of the cross. While the world brings bad news, it is Christ who brings the Good News. Today we grieve and mourn, but we do so as only Christians can—with hearts full of faith and hope.