The blunt truth is that the death of Tori Stafford shocked us more than anything we are likely to hear in church in the next two weeks. Tomorrow, Passion Sunday in the old tradition, was the occasion when we thought about the agony of Jesus on the cross (passion meaning suffering, not sexual ecstasy).
“Jesu, Lord Jesu, bowed in bitter anguish,” sings the chorus in Stainer’s “Crucifixion,” but as anguish goes, the trial account of Tori’s last moments caused us considerably more. Should that worry Christians?
The cross has undergone one of the most amazing rebrandings in history. It once symbolized brutal Roman oppression. Then Emperor Constantine transformed this ghastly form of torture into the badge of his new Christian Roman Empire. The very image of anti-imperialism became the cool logo of that same empire and is now worn as dinky costume jewelry.
Even Mel Gibson’s brutal film “The Passion of the Christ,” meant to bring Good Friday back into focus, was quickly dubbed “Jesus porn,” rather than something to make us think afresh about the great redeeming act. Gibson’s use of five porn actresses in the film rather gave the game away.
It’s not that the old, old story has passed its “best by” date. It still has immense power, if only for the simple reason that we need to hear tragic stories now and again to remind us of our own good fortune and our lack of concern for those worse off.
The Passion story is deeper than that, of course, and is re-enacted annually with sincerity and devotion. Is it lack of imagination, perhaps, that gives it that déjà vu, déjà entendu feel?
It’s only children who want the same bedtime stories read again and again, without any deviation. Adults, who have “put away childish things,” need fresh insights. The crucifixion story needs a dramatic reading at least, or poetry, or an acted-out drama in modern dress. It needn’t be as professional as Oberammergau. Music can pack immense power, not just Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Comparing the old masters with modern paintings of the crucifixion is illuminating. In my last parish, there was an actress who featured regularly in TV dramas. When she read all 54 verses of the St. Matthew passion story one Good Friday, you could hear a pin drop.
Repeating the words only, though, without fresh insights, is like a card player who always leads with his ace of trumps and wonders why he never ends up winning the game.
It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that the Passion story can fall flat by being too Jesus-heavy, too unimaginative. If so, think of that other wise saying, “Start where people are.”
Where people are now is trying to digest Tori’s murder, having just gotten over atrocities in Afghanistan committed by a highly disciplined NCO. Not far behind are the Shafia family’s “honour killings.” All that is set against an ongoing backdrop of brutality in Syria and growing evidence of rape being a systemic method worldwide for keeping people docile.
These images are all in painfully sharp focus. Let’s pursue that thought. We’ve all got digital cameras today. We’re all used to having lots of images on screen while we edit them — the most recent ones in front, the older ones peeping out from behind.
In the background is Calvary, in fuzzy sepia because it happened a long time ago. What the churches often do in Holy Week is click on that, as it were, and select “Bring to Front,” so that it fills the screen, masking the others. Thus Holy Week addresses often do little more than retell the narrative, which we already know by heart, with just an occasional nod to the troubles in today’s world.
Why not leave the image of the crucifixion in background, which is where it belongs, then click on today’s images in foreground and render them “Transparent,” like those old 35mm transparencies. Then we can see through and past present-day events to the cross. That is how to read the Bible correctly, for it records timeless truths. Simply trying to flog the past back into life never works. We need the present to understand the past.
Looking past the staff sergeant’s act of mayhem, we see the headstrong Judas impulsively trying to force events his way, with that most common of all self-delusions: “I’m sure everyone thinks the same way as I do.” The Russian refusal to interfere in Syria, dressed up as respect for a sovereign state, is seen as two-faced as the chief priests handing over Jesus for threatening to overthrow the Roman Empire. Bashir el-Assad’s seeming detachment from the carnage going on around him makes him look awfully similar to the indifferent Pontius Pilate. His wife Asma, busy doing Internet shopping for a chocolate fondue set while her own people were being tortured and killed, reminds us of those soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ cloak while he was being strung up. And so on.
Every year, alas, produces its own horror stories. Through them, though, we understand better the crucifixion.
True, nothing in the Good Friday story arouses as much bitter anguish as Tori Stafford’s murder. Having heard an outline on CBC News the previous evening, I couldn’t bear to read the Globe and Mail account. The following day, four letters protested that it was too explicit, though two grudgingly admitted we probably needed to know.
It recalls Hannah Arendt’s term “banality of evil,” the phrase she coined while covering the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who set out to exterminate Europe’s Jews. It was precisely his ordinariness that terrified her. He could have been anyone. I have heard many men say “she’s a bit too old for my liking” when arrogantly sizing up a new prospect, but when Michael Rafferty said it of an eight-year-old he was about to rape and murder, the banal expression became terrifying.
Difficult to see past that to Calvary, but we must. Just attending mass and learning Bible texts isn’t enough.
» Rev. Michael Skliros is a retired Anglican priest in Brandon.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 24, 2012