In preparation for our entry into the season of Lent, here are a few words from Moltmann’s The Way of Jesus Christ in an introductory section of the chapter, “The apocalyptic sufferings of Christ”:
At the center of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the center of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross. We have to take the word ‘passion’ seriously in both its senses here, if we are to understand the mystery of Christ. For the history of Christ is the history of a great passion, a passionate surrender to God and his kingdom. And at the same time and for that very reason it became the history of an unprecedented suffering, a deadly agony. At the center of Christian faith is the passion of the passionate Christ. The history of his life and the history of his suffering belong together. They show the active and the passive side of his passion.
In earlier times, the active passion of Christ which led him into those sufferings was often overlooked. ‘The Man of Sorrows’ became the prototype of dumb submission to an unhappy fate. Today people prefer rather to overlook the suffering which is part of every great passion. To be painlessly happy, and to conquer every form of suffering, is part of the dream of modern society. But since the dream is unattainable, people anaesthetize pain, and suppress suffering, and by so doing rob themselves of the passion for life. But life without passion is poverty- stricken. Life without the preparedness for suffering is superficial. The fear of passion has to be surmounted just as much as the fear of suffering if life is to be really lived and affirmed to the point of death.
Lent is about active passion. Let me be the first to admit that intentionally seeking active passion, active suffering, is one of the many things that makes Christians strange. It’s also potentially and explosively misunderstood. Active passion is not passive passion- the kind of suffering that happens to someone in a broken world, filled with injustice. Jesus worked strongly against those forces in the world, and calls us to do the same. There is a suffering that comes from life itself, and we cannot avoid it, but we shouldn’t go running toward it like crazy masochists either. (Of course, usually, bumping up against the powers of the world lands us right in the lap of passive passion, as it did Jesus, and this is to be expected and even accepted in some cases. I think this is what Moltmann means by “preparedness for suffering.”)
Avoiding any kind of suffering on purpose is another kind of strange, and it’s not one I want to have anything to do with, either. I agree that conquering every form of suffering is “part of the dream of modern society.” We have come to believe that we don’t have to suffer our own housework or yard work, any physical ailments we experience for over ten minutes, a love interest or co-worker or friend or family member that is proving difficult, or something even as trivial as laugh lines that show our age. We are expert escape artists, and proud of it. We feel above it all, and in so feeling, we become like people hovering, ghost-like, through our days. Indeed, “life without passion is poverty-stricken.” And so in Lent, we seek richness of life through active suffering, through considering a discipline, practice, or effort that will hone us even as it stretches us in ways that make us uncomfortable and even pained. As the body needs stress in order to change and become more fit, so our spiritual lives need the stress of intentioned passion. It isn’t for show, nor is it for piety. It’s for strength, for groundedness, and for a real desire to work toward being not the person we are, but the person we are trying to become, God-willing.
If you are a person who follows the season of Lent, I wish you strength and resolve in your practice beginning Wednesday. I wish you an escape from your desire to be painlessly happy. I pray that through all of our disciplines, we may become in some small way more like Christians, “little Christs,” and less like the old self we are trying to live beyond. We are strange people, but it just may be that we are becoming wise people with a passion for the good of the world. Our discipline is a small price to pay for that, right?!