As we trudge through the Lenten season, heading towards Good Friday, the cross casts a long shadow over us. And perhaps during these penitential days, or on Good Friday itself, you will hear something like this coming from a preacher (or from a blog post): “The cross was the most horrific, most painful death possible.” Your homilist may even go on to describe the extreme suffering of Roman crucifixion, the death by asphyxiation, the agony of enduring the elements, and so on and so forth. And, at first glance, this may appear to be a persuasive piece of rhetoric, because it turns us towards the horrible reality of the cross and it humbles us before the tremendous suffering of the Lord. Only, this claim – that the Roman crucifixion suffered by Jesus is the most painful death possible – is false.
Now, the point I am trying to make is not that the Lord could have suffered more than he did or that he should have suffered in a different way, nor is it to downplay the horror of crucifixion. Rather, I believe that if we make the erroneous claim that Christ suffered the worst death conceivable in some kind of objective or abstract sense, we will fail to understand the true perfection that was Christ’s suffering. God is not a film director in the sky who had planned to direct a comedy, but due to a catastrophic series of events, had to direct a horror film instead. Christ did not come to earth saying, “well if I am going to suffer, it might as well be the most violent death ever conceived!” And, if one reflects on the claim for a moment, one will at once realize its shortcomings. If Christ had hung on the cross for thirty seconds longer, would his pain not have been greater? If he had hung on the cross while being burned with scalding water (as the Japanese martyrs of the seventeenth century were), would that pain not have been greater?
Let there be no mistake: Christ’s suffering was perfect, and it was the greatest suffering ever endured – but Christ’s pain was of the worst sort in a subjective sense (because of the subject of that suffering), we might say, not an objective one. Understanding this point helps us to see that Christ did not suffer for his own sake, as a kind of suffering achievement, but for our sake. Christ did not suffer the worst death that he could possibly have come up with from all eternity, but he suffered the worst death that we could come up with in the time and place when Christ walked the earth. Athanasius in his famous work On the Incarnation makes a similar point. Against Christian detractors who would argue that if Christ was God then he should have arranged for a more honorable death, Athanasius responds:
“even this [an honorable death] would have given ground for suspicion that his power over death was limited to the particular kind of death that he chose for himself; and that again would furnish excuse for disbelieving the resurrection. Death came to his body, therefore, not from himself but from enemy action, in order that the Savior might utterly abolish death in whatever form they offered it to him. A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength” (DI 24).
Christ not only suffered death, but, as Paul says, he “was obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). If it was Adam’s chief sin to desire to be master of his own fate, Christ reverses this sin by handing his fate over into the hands of others, even though as God he rules the universe. Christ’s suffering is perfect because only he is able to suffer perfectly, having no fault of his own for which he ought to suffer. He suffers perfectly because he accepts suffering perfectly, he understands his suffering perfectly and sees the horror of sin perfectly (see Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologia 3.46.6). However, by his obedience and submission in a marvelous turn of events, as Athanasius points out, Christ wins an even greater victory, because he conquers by means of his enemy’s own malicious plans. The cross, which was meant for Christ’s humiliation and defeat, has become the universal sign of Christian salvation.
The lesson for us in this time of turmoil is profound. We would often like to invent a more heroic form of suffering for ourselves, or we would like to pick a kind of suffering other than the one we are undergoing. But following Christ’s humility, we must be obedient unto death, whatever death the Lord has called us to die. We must pick up our cross and follow him, as the Lord himself demands. This call means that we must now give up things that we never even dreamed of having to give up, and suffer in ways that might be humiliating, or worse yet, hidden and seemingly without meaning. Suffering is not an achievement, but the cure for our pride and the means of unity with God. If we, like Christ, suffer whatever we are given, our victory will likewise be all the more glorious, because it will be to share in the resurrection.