The passion and crucifixion was the most meaningful event in human history. The basics of the event are well known in western civilization; the notion of propitiation or the sacrifice of another made on our behalf. The political events that led to the crucifixion of Jesus – the Messiah, the son of God, God incarnate on earth – are a bit more nuanced.
Jews of his day were not waiting for God incarnate, they were waiting for the Messiah. The notion that either would die at the hands of the Romans and Jewish religious authorities is ridiculous. The Messiah was a conquering king, clearly seen in many prophetic verses of scripture and prefigured by David’s conquest of the surrounding nations. The Messiah had to be in the mold of David and conquer much more than David did. The apostles were probably confused by the approach Jesus was taking – going around the country healing, teaching, focusing on moral and spiritual issues rather than issues of power, politics, and governance.
They were even more confused by his arrest and crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
While he was teaching, healing, and feeding people, many of them probably wanted a faster route to ousting the Romans and the corrupt sectors of the religious authorities. While not all of those divisions were corrupt, metapolitical dominance (meaning the ability to control whether an issue can even be challenged) among Jews was held by the Sadducee and Pharisaic wings that rejected Jesus and expected a different kind of Messiah (if they really expected one at all), and thus their cultural norms were enforced. Hence their disqualification of Jesus: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The religious authorities’ overall outlook was always in terms of joining with the powers that be to manifest the words of the prophets in the world by political efforts.
Some theorize that Judas might have been trying to force Jesus’ hand by accelerating the coming clash with Rome or the religious authorities. He saw Jesus’ miracles; he knew Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Although the scripture says Satan “entered him” when he took the bread Jesus had dipped in the wine (taking the body and bread unworthily), he had been looking for occasion to betray him and force a confrontation. He clearly wanted to take back the arrangement, which the religious leaders rejected: “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Judas threw the money at them and went and hanged himself.
Pharisee & Sadducee norms (despite their many disagreements) tend to imply that they are quite similar to the ranks of the Cardinals in the Roman Church today; a minority of whom are staunch defenders of true faith, even confronting the sitting Pope with the sharply worded “Dubia,” while many act as if they do not believe the supernatural claims of their own texts. All are enforcing the metapolitical norms of the Second Vatican Council, as they have since 1965. Pope Paul VI wrote Gaudium et Spes in the aftermath of the council:
Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man’s history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfillment.
It is interesting that the highest levels of the Roman Church at the time were desiring to work so closely with the political leaders of the day to “fashion the world anew.” Paul VI was an intelligent man, and knows the progression of an argument that would be made against him about entering political arenas outside the realm of teaching and moral declarations. He thus provides caveats to the solely religious nature of the mission given to the Apostles:
Christ, to be sure, gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one.(11) But out of this religious mission itself come a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law. As a matter of fact, when circumstances of time and place produce the need, she can and indeed should initiate activities on behalf of all men, especially those designed for the needy, such as the works of mercy and similar undertakings.
The Church recognizes that worthy elements are found in today’s social movements, especially an evolution toward unity, a process of wholesome socialization and of association in civic and economic realms. The promotion of unity belongs to the innermost nature of the Church, for she is, “thanks to her relationship with Christ, a sacramental sign and an instrument of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race.”(12) Thus she shows the world that an authentic union, social and external, results from a union of minds and hearts, namely from that faith and charity by which her own unity is unbreakably rooted in the Holy Spirit. For the force which the Church can inject into the modern society of man consists in that faith and charity put into vital practice, not in any external dominion exercised by merely human means.
Note that the above reference, the (11) after the second sentence, is a reference to a much clearer address given by Pius XII:
“Its divine Founder, Jesus Christ, has not given it any mandate or fixed any end of the cultural order. The goal which Christ assigns to it is strictly religious. . . The Church must lead men to God, in order that they may be given over to him without reserve…. The Church can never lose sight of the strictly religious, supernatural goal. The meaning of all its activities, down to the last canon of its Code, can only cooperate directly or indirectly in this goal.” (Cf. Pius XII, Address to the International Union of Institutes of Archeology, History and History of Art, March 9, 1956: AAS 48 (1965), p. 212)
Paul VI obviously believes that what he is saying is not contradictory to what Pius XII espoused. I cannot help but disagree, even if only with the reality of what happens when what Paul VI abstractly espouses is attempted in reality; in blending the religious mission of the church with political and social aims, there necessarily will enter a bending to political power and to political realities, which is why Pius XII was so adamant and explicit. To “Recognize worthy elements in social movements” can be innocent enough, but it will eventually be used to distract from the ultimate goals of God.
One cannot preach “Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God: repent or be damned,” as well as “it is the role of the church to build an equitable habitat for man.” They will eventually clash, and at that point, a decision must be made. Similarly, the “seamless garment” paradigm is usually an excuse for not committing to clearly held church teachings or equating all the related issues in a topic in an effort to obfuscate basic morality. It is to remove the hierarchy of importance – the sanctity of life vs whether or not someone is poor or lower middle class – and make the two equal.
It is the perennial modernist methodology to destroy proper ideological hierarchies to prevent the most important principles from taking their proper place.
Some of Jesus’ apostles probably didn’t think he was God at the time of the crucifixion – that took time, and somehow many believe that we can go on to fix social ills and be liked by political decision-makers who reject Christ without sacrificing doctrine and purpose.
Peter, James, and John were the only ones to see the transfiguration and were told not to tell anyone. Peter and John seemed to have recognized something deeper than merely being the Messiah. The fact that Jesus was the Christ was a red pill of sorts – a gateway to a world one could not unsee. An even bigger red pill was that he was the son of God. The biggest was that his status as son of God and other components of his constitution implied his full Godhead, trinitarian status. Blending social movements with the purpose of the Roman Church will always reduce the efficacy of a Christian to provide all three of those difficult pills to the world.
Nicodemus and “Do Nothing” Religious Rulers
Nicodemus is an interesting study of a type of conservative religious ruler. The secretive nature of Nicodemus’ nighttime Q&A with Jesus is interesting – even meeting with him would likely have gotten him removed from his position. He is like a Catholic Cardinal who wouldn’t put his name on the Dubia – the questions posed to Pope Francis by four Cardinals – and at bottom feels the same way. Their silence is an implication that they are afraid of schism, or also want to please the other Cardinals who trust the Pope or are true believers in his vision, and thus obfuscate the plain implications of the document. His first encounter is full of dumbstruck questioning, almost to the point of denying basic realities because he was trying to give too much place for the frame of reference of his contemporaries:
[Jhn 3:2-4 ESV] 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Even a child could have thought of this in spiritual or psychological terms. Children can draw parallels just fine. Adults who are protecting a worldview rather than honestly questioning limits real understanding. Nicodemus did well to talk to Jesus directly, but it seems like he is still asking the questions in hopes of pleasing two different parties – unbelieving Pharisees of his own ranks, and Jesus himself. Jesus tells him to see these things in their proper contexts:
[Jhn 3:5-9 ESV] 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus is still trying to blend natural and spiritual concepts to please his current arrangement in the hierarchy of Israel, and is utterly failing. He meant well. But he needed to step outside his frame and question some of the assumptions underneath it. Jesus shocks him with what could have been interpreted as an insult:
[Jhn 3:10-12 ESV] 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Jesus points out how little Nicodemus could really understand – and Jesus links that lack of understanding to the function of his position, which is extraordinarily clever. Nicodemus truly was a teacher of Israel, as he had to have been educated in the best of the day in Jewish terms to rise to the position he was in. Yet, really basic truths that were coming that flowed from the Old Testament were confusing him. The political ramifications of hearing Jesus’ words and the groupthink that emerges from many such religious arrangements as the Pharisees were crushing his ability to step outside himself for a moment.
Illustrating this groupthink, Nicodemus emerges in a later interaction with his fellow Pharisees, in which he again tries to build a bridge for the Pharisees to at least give Jesus a hearing, which they refuse:
[Jhn 7:47-52 ESV] 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
Nicodemus pops up in the gospel narratives a final time, assisting Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus after his passion:
[Jhn 19:38-40 ESV] 38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
Nicodemus probably wondered for the rest of his life if he could have done more to press Jesus’ case. Perhaps he could have. However, he apparently judged that the cost was too high to become Jesus’ disciple.
Society has evolved such that even the concept of self-sacrifice has had its imitation surface, creating abuses and corruptions, as all things do. The counterfeit version of self-sacrifice is where a person is enjoined to deny some fundamental political right or be called “selfish,” “bigoted,” etc. It is common to see the story of the “rich young ruler” in the gospels generalized and abused to mean that unless you sell all that you have and give it to the poor, you’re not really a Christian, or unless you give up all political power to some group, you’re not really a Christian, or if you say “hate speech,” you’re not really a Christian. Again, this is the “seamless garment” nonsense applied to the Love of God. It is to make all things in a category equal, rather than recognizing obvious rank in importance. The Love of God is exemplified in “Repent or be damned” as well as it is in “Jesus died for you,” as both are expressions of love.
Christ’s sacrifice was something only he could do, and while we are called to take up our cross daily, we are called to see what our cross is. It is confession of sin; it is the destruction of evil impulses that dwell in our natural person; it is the rebirth in spiritual terms with our eyes set on spiritual things. And it is to be unflinchingly committed to the truth as it has always been; not to the political distractions of the modern world, and not to visions of utopia and of tilting the windmills of social ills rather than faithfulness to Christ.