St. John tells us that Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit with the words ‘It is finished.’ He gives himself up finally to the exhaustion and pain. The carpenter of Nazareth who fashioned wood and nails is killed as the result of another carpenter’s macabre work. Crucifixion is not a quick death. The punishment is in the prolonged public humiliation, the agony in the sweat and blood seeping from a naked body. Breathing becomes ever more difficult. Thirst is unquenched. It is hard work to die that way.

Dying is rarely looked upon as work, but when we refer to the work of Christ it is to his passion and death that we refer. It is the work in which God’s love, forgiveness and generosity is revealed. It is the work which convinces us that if we ever thought God did, or might, withhold forgiveness, we are wrong.

It is how people die that often crowns their work in this world. Some are remembered for their dying more than for their living. Just as friendship can be an art, so too can dying. It is never accomplished easily. It is a work of mind, soul and body. Sometimes when our body is dying, our minds refuse to admit it and the suffering is greater, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. But in some people mind, body and spirit come together in their dying in a way in which only the approach of death can reveal.

The most moving testimony about the whole business of dying that I know comes from the journals of Philip Toynbee, one of the most respected literary reviewers of his generation in the United Kingdom. Much influenced by a small Anglican contemplative community of nuns on the Welsh border, he felt his way towards faith at the end of his life. The spiritual journey of his final few years before his death from cancer is recorded in two books, ‘Part of a Journey’ and ‘End of a Journey’.

The most moving fragments of thought in those journals are found in his struggles with the knowledge of his approaching death. He feared that pain would render him querulous and miserable, yet he longed that his faith in the strength and love of God might allow the pain and the misery to be transcended. Toynbee’s experiences – like those of many other dying Christians – remind us that we often come closest to God when in pain, when enduring suffering, when coming to terms with the prospect of our own death.

One of the paradoxes of Christian experience is that the love and goodness of God is often discovered when life seems most negative. As he lay dying, Philip Toynbee thought about how his suffering was being used by God. He never found a satisfactory answer. He could not quite believe that God was responsible for his cancer. Equally, though, he was never really convinced by the emphatic way some of his friends, priests among them, declared that it was not and could not be sent by God. God could make too much good use of suffering, he thought, for it to be wholly unconnected with him. His most mature reflection on this was written just three weeks before he died.

‘I am as sure as ever that God does not send the savage and dehumanizing afflictions which crush so many millions – and will, of course, crush me. But I do find it hard not to feel that some hardships have a holy purpose, and not only a holy effect.’

The passion and the death of Jesus Christ is not significant only for its holy effect. It has a holy purpose. It is not that God visits all his wrath and anger against humanity upon his Son. God is not vindictive. Rather, in and through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, he bears all the suffering of the world.

No matter what sort of cross we create for him, nor how heavily we weigh it down, he will take it upon himself. The passion and the death of Jesus Christ is not merely an idea that has taken hold of the human imagination, a story that has had a holy effect. It is an event in which, mysteriously, we see the purpose and goodness of God moving in and through the world, changing it and redeeming us. Through Christ’s suffering and death we discover the greatness of God’s love.

The peculiar thing about love, though, is that once it is given and pledged, it will open us up to more suffering. When you love someone, you are especially vulnerable to being hurt by them. A thoughtless act or a cruel word can sear your soul. That sort of emotional pain can be physical in its intensity. So too can faithlessness. The cry goes up from the lover who is betrayed – ‘Take this cup from me; save me from this hour.’ Even in relationships that have been full of mutual joy, death brings pain through the sorrow of bereavement.

Few experiences of love are without their darker side. It’s no wonder, then, that we use the word ‘passion’ to describe Christ’s suffering and death. No other word really does to describe the depth of that mystery, nor its connection with God’s inexhaustible love. It is God’s passionate love for us that lies at the heart of Christ’s work on the cross.

The psychologist Carl Jung once said that ‘a person who has not passed through the inferno of their passions has not overcome them.’ The dying of Jesus was no easy accomplishment. It was God at work, at work in redemption. It was the exhaustion of Christ at the end of his work on the cross that caused him to give up his spirit. Though we glimpse God’s love in his creation, we finally see it fully revealed on the cross by the way in which Christ gives his own life away. There we see the limitless self-giving that is the mark of authentic love. There God in Jesus Christ offers himself so completely that he is utterly spent.

In his book Love’s Endeavour Love’s Expense, one of the Church of England’s finest theologians, Bill Vanstone, tells a story that illustrates the way in which self-giving, suffering and love are blended in the word passion. He told of a surgeon who was called upon to carry out an extremely complicated brain operation in a London hospital for the very first time. The operation was performed upon a young man of great promise for whom, after an accident, there seemed no other remedy. It was an operation of the greatest delicacy in which a small error would have had fatal consequences. In the outcome the operation was a triumph, but it involved seven hours of intense and uninterrupted concentration on the part of the surgeon. When it was over, a nurse had to take him by the hand and lead him from the operating theatre like a blind man or a little child. He was utterly spent, exhausted, emptied by his passionate self-giving.

That is what the passion of Christ is like, but it goes beyond the limits of the story of the surgeon, for Christ passes through the exhaustion and the barrier and darkness of death so that through him, who gave his own life away, we might all live forever.


The Rev. Canon Ralph Godsall