Back in the 70s, I think it was, when my job was the development and support of religious education programs throughout my diocese, I used in my presentations from parish to parish a great film made by the Protestant Council of Churches; it was called The Parable, an extraordinarily insightful interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every once in a while I take it out and see it again (maybe 100 times to date?).
The setting is pure creative genius: a circus troupe on the move, travelling from town to town in a long caravan of horse-pulled, colorfully decorated wagons. Lagging far behind is a pure white donkey, atop of which rides a thin man in a white poncho, his hands and face completely covered with white paste. (I believe I’ve been correct all these years in understanding that his nondescript clothing and his cosmetic covering, making him look like an innocent clown, were meant to identify him as representing both the entire human race and Jesus.)
The troupe arrives at its new location, and the back-breaking work of setting up the circus begins. We see the mysterious clown peering through a bush, his eyes fixed on a laborer who is fetching water for the elephants and trudging painfully up the hill from the stream, a heavy pail in each hand. He stops to rest for just a few seconds, during which time the clown quietly approaches from in back of him, gently grasps the pails and carries them to the animals.
The circus begins soon after and the tents fill with excited, eager children and adults. The clown stays with it and with them, mostly unseen but observing all along the fraud and dishonesty, the discrimination and humiliation that lay behind money-making schemes. A game of chance in which a black man was made a fool; the swordsman who appears to be thrusting the weapon through a woman’s body, to name but two.
The clown deeply feels the pain of each victim and takes their places, one by one, until he so arouses the resentment and the hatred of the show’s owners and operators that they beat him to death as he is suspended above them, looking as though he were being crucified. The only sound heard in the entire movie is his agonizing death cry that echoes out and far beyond the place of his murder. (I hear that scream as I am writing these words.)
The clown is a totally compassionate man, who puts himself in the place of those who suffered at the hands of others.
The movie ends in an artistic portrayal of Resurrection and a pastoral suggestion of the life that may lie ahead beyond death.
There are countless Christians, among us Catholics too, who think of Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrificial offering that makes peace with an offended God.
I know I’ll never win over great numbers of persons who remain mired in this old way of thinking, but I do entertain the possibility that some who are on the fence can be persuaded to jump over to a different way of thinking.
We can discover that there is another way of understanding and interpreting the death of Jesus. In essence it is that his death was not the price of our redemption demanded by God but rather the most compelling and unmistakable proof of his love for us and for God, whom he called Father. Jesus could have avoided that indescribably painful ordeal and lived to old age and died in peace and comfort. On the other hand, he knew that, if he continued his revolutionary preaching and teaching and healing and confronting, he would pay with his life. This was so, not because God wanted his death, but because evil persons and institutions who viewed him as a threat to their empires desperately wanted him out of the way. We see with hindsight how easily they succeeded.
Lent is about love and life. It is not a time for us to be scolded and humiliated. We are being reminded that, shabby as our lives may be at times, our Creator loves us passionately and unconditionally – even when we do not love others or even ourselves.
Lent is about leading and luring! We are being led into the desert of contemplation and prayer and fasting, as Jesus was, only to appreciate more how much we are loved, and to be lured into making our own lives more loving and compassionate. Our personal crosses and how we carry them are, like his, the sign of how much we are willing to do … for the sake of love.