A week from now, we are about to embark on the celebration of the Holy Week. In earlier times, our grandmothers forbid us to play during this week. Some do not even want us to take showers or swim in the nearby shore. We need to be sober and not shout that much. Instead, huddled around those little transistor radios in our barrios (long before the times of the internet), they wanted us to listen to radio dramas on the life, death and crucifixion of Jesus. Theology calls this the Paschal Mystery. Let me offer this reflection on the meaning of the Paschal Mystery in our times.
Of Sineguelas Leaves and Wheat Grains
During one of those hot summer months, a co-seminarian who lives in the city asked if he could accompany me to my rural hometown for a few weeks of vacation. It was the time when sineguelas trees shed their leaves before the small fruits appear on their fragile branches. The city boy commented to the farmer whose field we visited: “Oh, it must really be hot here. Everything is dry. Even the sineguelas are dying.” The farmer was so polite; he did not reply. But when my seminarian-classmate had walked a bit farther, the farmer whispered to me: “I pity these city boys. They do not know that the sineguelas have to shed all their leaves before they bear fruit. Boys like him need to stay here a bit longer to understand.” What the farmer said is but a parallel metaphor of what the gospel has long proclaimed: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a simple grain but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest” (John 12:24). And only those who have been in the farm for quite some time know that this is the natural rhythm of life itself – of sineguelas trees, of wheat grains and of human lives. There is a difficult word that preachers, catechists, theologians talk about but do not explain quite successfully: “paschal mystery”. The jargon has become so difficult that one parishioner asked me: “Ano ngang apelyido noong sinabi mong Pascal, Padre?” I answered her: “Mystery” :). But the simple farmer in our village explained it to me quite clearly that day.
Living the Paschal Mystery starts with one’s encounter with Jesus. In the event of his resurrection, the disciples began reflecting on the significance of his passion, death and resurrection. Why did he have to suffer and die in the first place? How were they to make sense of his otherwise senseless death? How shall they understand the news that some women and men disciples talked and ate with him after his death? What meaning and consequences do all these events have for their lives, they asked. The same questions continue to be asked today.
I would like to outline some major frameworks with which Christian theology has tried to answer the same question throughout the centuries. I will mention three major directions in the history of theology: the satisfaction model, solidarity model and socio-political model.
Paschal Mystery as Sacrifice and Atonement: Satisfaction Model
The most popular framework of thinking about Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection is St. Anselm’s “theory of satisfaction”. Satisfaction does not mean ‘indulgence’ and ‘gratification’ as present meanings suggest. In theology, it means reparation, compensation, making amends with a broken relationship, paying back a debt. When Adam and Eve sinned, they not only wronged God, they also destroyed God’s order and marred his glory. Jesus, who is both God and human, is the right being to pay ransom for us in order to restore the order. Since the offender is a human being, only a human being can make amends. But since it was God who was offended, it is only a divine being who can restore the honor which is due God. “The honor must be repaid,” St. Anselm says, “or punishment must follow.” Thus, when Anselm asks Cur Deus Homo (why did God become human?), theology’s answer is clear and certain: to make us humans ‘right with God’. These are the answers we have learned from our catechism classes: Jesus was a sacrificial victim offered to God for the remission of our sins. Within this framework, if Adam and Eve did not sin, the incarnation could not have happened.
Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin developed this doctrine in both Catholic and Protestant traditions so much so that it has become very popular from the medieval ages up to our times. You can hear this in Lenten recollections and Siete Palabras: Jesus has taken and carried the burden of all our sins on his shoulders. As our ancestors had long sung in the Pasyon: “Krus, na yao’y mabigat, labis na nagkakaapat lumulubog sa balikat, at lalo pang nakaragdag ang sala ng taong lahat… Ikaw rin at hindi iba, totoong lunas sa sala, ang lasap mo’t ibubunga, siyang makagiginhawa sa tanang anak ni Eba.” If we ever go through some suffering in our lives, it is but a meager sharing in the One who has already paid our debts for us. This way of thinking about Christ’s paschal mystery also has its roots in Scriptures. St. Paul says: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). “You are not your own; you are bought with a great price” (1 Cor. 6:20). In the Book of Revelation, one reads: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5: 9).
However, in contemporary times, we do not quite understand the quite juridical and commercial language with which this model expresses the divine-human relationship: atonement, ransom, substitution, repayment, reparation, etc. Some people in fact ask these difficult questions which this model fails to answer: “How can a God be so cruel to allow his Son to be crucified just to restore the honor due Him?” “I thought God is loving and forgiving? Why does he care about repayment at all? What happens with the Parable of the Prodigal Son?” Consequently, to drum up the violent language of ransom, sacrifice and victimhood on people who are already beaten, trampled upon and abused by the dominant powers does not at all announce the good news of liberation that the paschal mystery is supposed to bring.
Paschal Mystery as God’s Solidarity: Solidarity Model
One Christmas eve, when celebrating Mass in Payatas, I began my homily with a question: “If our first parents had not sinned, would Jesus have come? ” Most of those who grabbed the microphone said no: Jesus is supposed to save us from our sins. There is no need for him if we did not sin. But one young lady stood up and said: “Para sa akin, nagkasala man tayo o hindi, nadarating po siya. Mahal niya tayo eh.” This God of love intends so much to identify with us that he became human no matter what it took. God’s gesture of solidarity is not only shown in the incarnation of Jesus but all the way to his passion and death. Thus, when Jesus cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:2), he really felt forsaken by God not only emotionally, but also to the depths of his very being – in solidarity with our deepest pain. In short, God has become so human so as to suffer our deepest pain. This is extensively argued by one Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, who wrote the now classic book, The Crucified God. Influenced by Greek thinking, Christian theology has taught for a long time that God could not possibly suffer. He is impassable, apathetic. He has no passion. Divine apathos then became a Christian ideal which has led many to insensitive indifference. But in the eyes of Moltmann, “a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being.” Theology’s hesitation in accepting a crucified and suffering God stems from the fear that once captured by suffering, one will be totally subjected to it. We would like to shun masochism, so we become apathetic by keeping suffering at a distance. However, we have forgotten another form of suffering: “the voluntary laying down of oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love.” This solidarity Christology also finds its source from the Scriptures which says: Jesus humbled himself, “became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Phil. 2:8). Of course, death does not have the last word, otherwise suffering becomes totally senseless and eternally tragic. His resurrection heals our deepest pain, transforms the face of suffering, conquers our godforsakenness. But before his rising from the dead, Jesus has to be godforsaken himself to be in solidarity with us in those times when we also cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” As one writer says: “only a suffering God can help.”
Another Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, expresses the same reality with another powerful image: Jesus’ “descent to hell” – an important phrase in the Apostles’ Creed which all of us recite each Sunday of our lives. In his book, Mysterium Paschale, Balthasar tells us that God is in deep solidarity with us so much so that he went all the way to “hell” for us. In traditional theology, we are told that Jesus descended unto the place of the dead (also called “Sheol” for the Hebrews) in order to bring the glad tidings of salvation for the ‘just’ awaiting for the fruits of his redemption (like Moses, the prophets, those who came ahead of him, etc.). But in his theology of Black Saturday, Balthasar tells us that, in reality, Jesus’ descent to hell expresses a double solidarity. First, solidarity with the dead. “In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.” When one is dead, one is totally alone, in utmost solitude. Jesus was really dead because he totally shared in our human condition. Thus, he did not spend those three days doing ‘all kinds of activities’ in the world beyond. He was really dead, like all dead people. There was no triumphal procession of the Risen Christ in the place of the dead – or else “that would have abolished the law of solidarity.” For Jesus in solidarity with the dead, he was really “solitary like, and with, others.”
The second implication of his descent to hell is that God refuses to abandon those who have abandoned him. If God’s love is universal, it extends all the way to hell. By being in solidarity with the dead, God “disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner who wants to be ‘damned’ apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness.” Here, even in the ultimate place of desolation called “hell” where God is supposed to have no place, the dead Son’s presence becomes an expression of the same God continually extending his hand to those who chose to be there in the first place.
Paschal Mystery as Commitment to the Kingdom: Socio-Political Model
A young mother who was quite disturbed by the seemingly weird ‘theological’ questions of her 7-year old son once told me this story. It was Holy Week and they were making the stations of the cross in the church. On their way home, he asked his Mom why Jesus died. The devout mother replied with the classic answer from our catechism: to save us from our sins. The son replied: “I don’t believe you. I think he has really done something wrong. Otherwise, they would not have killed him.” The mother was so bothered that she wrote me. I told her that his son’s objection was the deepest theological insight I have heard from a 7-year old. He is referring to the socio-political model I am trying to elaborate on here. In short, this framework says that Jesus really did something “wrong” in the eyes of the powers that be. That is why they crucified him. His commitment to the kingdom of equality, freedom and justice made him say and do things that put into question the social, political and religious structures of his society. His crucifixion was the necessary consequence of such a commitment.
The famous Lutheran theologian, Dorothee Sölle, reminds us that the crucifixion is a political act. In contemporary times, there is a temptation to look at the ‘cross’ in Madonna-like fashion, that is, as some sort of decoration items on walls, as pendants or as structures on church steeples. Or, we are also told by some preachers that our little toothache, a nagging mother-in-law or heavy traffic are our “crosses” that we need to bear. All these have de-historicized and trivialized in some way the experience of Jesus who suffered a violent death as a criminal under the Roman law. We have to remember that crucifixion was a political punishment of rebels against a powerful state, the Roman Empire. What led Jesus to the cross was his option for justice and freedom in defense of the marginalized of that society.
According to Sölle, there are three moments to our understanding the cross. First, Jesus totally and freely accepted the will of the Father for him. It was not imposed on him. He could have said no, he bargained maybe, but in the end he said “yes”. Second, there are inevitable consequences of this option. He very well knew that confrontation, struggle, harassment and finally death will follow. Third, in the absurdity of the cross itself, one can already glean the glory of the resurrection – not quite different from what the Roman centurion said in front of a man breathing his last: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15: 39). What Söelle reminds us is that Jesus’ resurrection is only possible in the light of the violence on the cross which in turn is a consequence of one’s commitment to work for the fullness of life in the Kingdom. What she wants to us to avoid is a cheap Christianity that takes the cross as mere magical symbol and “not as the sign of the poor man who was tortured to death as a political criminal, like thousands today who stand up for his truth in El Salvador.” Such a religion, and there are many around, believes in a “God without justice, a Jesus without a cross, an Easter without a cross — what remains is a metaphysical Easter Bunny in front of the beautiful blue light of the television screen, a betrayal of the disappointed, a miracle weapon in service of the mighty.”
A controversial Catholic liberation theologian follows up the idea of Dorothee Söelle. In a work which won the Catholic Book Award in 1987, Leonardo Boff outlines his understanding of the paschal mystery and its relevance for our difficult times. He analyzed the whole life of Jesus as a “historical project”, that is, as a fundamental option, a basic decision marking the orientation of his life. Such an orientation determines his choices of action, frames of analysis, values leading to a direction in one’s future. Boff started analyzing the socio-political context of Jesus’ times and lay bare the political-cultural dependency between the powerful Roman Empire and small province of Palestine, the socio-economic oppression in such an arrangement and the religious exclusion that goes within the context of the dominant Jewish religion. Thus, it was understandable that the Jews were longing for a political messiah. But, surprisingly enough, Jesus resisted being identified as one. His response was not to become a “revolutionary” like many zealot rebels; nor did he just preach the conversion of hearts and consciences like John the Baptist, his cousin. His project was to place into question all existing paradigms around him as he advocated the upturning of all systems, values and hearts in his preaching of the Kingdom of God. Of course, this total reversal was seen as a threat to all the dominant systems (religious, political and economic). In the end, his was tried, sentenced, and led to the cross. In the words of Boff, his death was a “crime”; he died a criminal. And that small group that followed (him?) considered that such death was almost the logical end of the life of any prophet.
But the historical project gave way to the total in-breaking of God into the history of Jesus: he is risen from the dead. This event was not only a vindication of Jesus and the values he stood for. Resurrection is also the manifestation of the Kingdom of God that he preached about, a demonstration of what men and women can hope for and become. The victim, the marginalized, the accused, the poor man Jesus that rose up on Easter day became a symbol of the poor everywhere announcing to them that the “messiah is in fact one of themselves.”  It was not only his ‘incarnation’ (emphasis on Christmas), nor only his passion and death (emphasis on the Holy Week), but the whole life of Jesus, his total commitment to the Kingdom, his preaching, table-fellowship, all activities leading up to his passion, death and resurrection – his whole “historical project”, to use the words of Boff – that becomes salvific and liberating.Living the Paschal Mystery TodayNot one model can by itself totally exhaust this rich reality called the Paschal Mystery. Each model has its dangers when absolutized, but also its own potentials and possibilities when taken with other frameworks. For example, we have seen the limits of the satisfaction and atonement model which has created quite a havoc in contemporary spirituality. Despite that, however, contemporary philosophers and theologians are trying to recover the idea of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘victimhood’ not in its vertical relations but in its horizontal dimensions. What is emphasized here is not so much the offering of one’s blood in the altar of the Father’s glory as ransom for a disturbed cosmic order (vertical sacrifice), but as voluntary giving up of one’s life for the service of others and the transformation of the world. Such an importance is in consonance with the stress on solidarity and commitment present in other models.
Whichever way one views this mystery, what is actually crucial is the following of Jesus. His life, passion, death and resurrection challenge each one who encounters him to take a hard look at one’s options, evaluate one’s direction, affirm one’s commitments and values in the act of living the paschal mystery ourselves. What we learn from these frames of Christian reflection are simple facts already found in the life of Jesus – a deep relationship with “Abba”, willingness to do God’s will, solidarity with the victims and the powerless, and the profound commitment to the Kingdom regardless of the price. If this commitment leads one to the death, then so be it.
Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.
St. Vincent School of Theology
 Pasyong Mahal ni Hesukristong Panginoon Natin [Pasiong Henesis] (Manila: Ignacio Luna and Sons, 1949). 139-139.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
 Moltmann, The Crucified God, 122.
 Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 23.
 Richard Baucham, “Only the Suffering God can Help: Divine Passability in Modern Theology,” Themelios 9, No. 3 (1984): 6-12.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990).
 Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 148-49.
 Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 165,
 Von Balthasar, Pneuma und Institution (Einsiedeln: Johannes-Verlag, 1974), 408.
 Dorothee Söelle, Thinking About God; An Introduction to Theology (London: SCM Press, 1990), 120-135.
 Sölle, “Christofascism,” in The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 138.
 Leonardo Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World: The Facts, Their Interpretation and their Meaning Yesterday and Today (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987).
 Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World 11.
 Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World, 67-68.
 See, for instance, the works of René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977); The Scapegoat (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986); Job, the Victim of His People (London: Athlone Press, 1987). See my use of Girard in Eucharistic spirituality in “Ars Moriendi: Consecrated Life as Eucahristic Body, Broken and Given,” Religious Life Asia 8, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 2006): 92-108.
 Despite their seeming attractiveness to contemporary sensibilities, the solidarity and socio-political models also have their limitations. See, for instance, Sölle and Boff’s critique of Moltmann and Von Balthasar in Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World, 111-114.