A Faith That Does Justice engages The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola[1]  (Exercises) to discern God’s will and live faith in action on behalf of all God’s people. When appropriately adapted they offer a way for all people of good will to do the same.

The contemplations of the Third Week invite us to enter into the paschal mystery (the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) with Jesus. We walk with him from the Last Supper[2] to his agony in the garden,[3] to his arrest and trial,[4]  and finally to his crucifixion and death,[5] in “sorrow, compassion and shame,”[6] as human sinfulness rises up against Jesus and seeks to destroy him. Here, we contemplate Jesus’ Crucifixion and Death.

They led (Jesus) out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.[7] Then they brought Jesus to the place they called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it.[8] And they crucified him,[9] and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.[10]

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.[11] And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.”[12] Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads saying, “Aha, you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.[13]

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[14] When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ’Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’[15] Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’”[16] (Mk 15:20-39)

Roman crucifixion was a torturous and humiliating form of death meant to deter others from behavior that could pose a threat to the Roman Empire. Jesus was brutally beaten before being led to Golgotha, the site of his execution. Because of his weakened state, a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, was compelled by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ crossbar. The sign reading “King of the Jews”, written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek either preceded him in procession, or was placed around his neck as he followed those in front of him.

Upon his arrival at Golgotha, Jesus was nailed to the crossbar and raised upon a post that had been previously lodged in the rocky ground. Dying but still conscious, Jesus now had to face the reality that his life was seemingly ending in failure. He had been rejected by his own people, God did not come to his assistance and his disciples had abandoned him. His only hope was to trust that God would vindicate him for his fidelity to God’s will and the kingdom of God he preached.

Any words Jesus uttered as he died upon the cross are unknown. However, those attributed to him by Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15: 34) are likely to be true. They were offered in Jesus’ native Aramaic tongue (Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?) and are potentially scandalous enough to the early Christian community that it is unlikely they would have been included if they had not occurred.

Ironically, the gospel accounts reveal that no one accepted responsibility for Jesus’ death. The chief priests and Sadducees justified and plotted it as being necessary for the very survival of the temple (Jn 11:50). Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, then repented and brought them back to the chief priests and the elders (Mt 26:15; 27:3). Peter professed his unconditional love for Jesus at the Last Supper and then denied him three times during his trial before the chief priests and elders (Mk 14:66-72). Pilot recognized Jesus’ innocence and wanted to set him free. He sent Jesus to Herod, who mocked him but then returned him to Pilate (Lk 23: 6-12). Pilate eventually handed Jesus over to be crucified, but only after washing his own hands of any responsibility for his death (Mt 27:24). Meanwhile, as Jesus’ passion and death unfolded, his disciples had fled to the upper room for fear of their own lives. It was only several women who followed him to the cross, but even they, for the most part, did so from a distance (Mk 15:40).

Jesus died as he had lived, loving to the end, even forgiving his executioners (Lk 23:34). He had proclaimed the good news of God’s offer of salvation to a world enveloped in sin. While Mark believed Jesus’ suffering and death had salvific significance, he offered no theory of atonement for human sinfulness.[17] Rather, Jesus’ suffering and death was historically grounded, an idea that has profound implications for following Jesus today.

“Jesus did not take on suffering primarily so that he might shoulder the human condition with its metaphysical limitations. That is not why he ended up on the cross. Jesus took upon himself a conflict-ridden historical situation in which love succumbed to the onslaught of oppressive power. That is why and how he suffered and died on the cross. If we link (Ignatius) Loyola’s three ways of humility with his two standards, then we see that the ‘imitation of Christ’ is not the mere repetition of Jesus’ own traits. Rather, it means situating one-self in a concrete situation, even as Jesus did, that gives rise to suffering, poverty, opprobrium, and the reputation of being a fool. By virtue of its own situational dynamism, discipleship will cause one to imitate many of the traits, risks, and dangers that appeared in Jesus’ life.”[18]

Discipleship with Jesus requires the grace and courage to follow Jesus in good times and in bad, and a willingness to accept the animosity and pushback of society for doing so. It also offers the promise of eternal life in the fullness of God’s love.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, spoke of Christians in that country as having purchased a “cheap grace” that allowed them to claim intellectual ascent to Christian discipleship without accepting the responsibilities and consequences of authentic discipleship. What was needed, he claimed, was a “costly grace”.

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a (person) her/his life, and it is grace because it gives a (person) the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of God’s Son: ‘you were bought at a price.’ And what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon God’s Son too dear a price to pay for our life but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”[19]

More recently, Ignacio Ellacuria, a Jesuit theologian in El Salvador, claimed that Jesus’ passion and death should not be understood as a one-time event in history, but as ongoing in the lives of the of the poor, oppressed and marginalized of this world. Ellacuría called them the “crucified people” of history. They are the “Suffering Servants” of our time, who like Jesus are unjustly condemned to death by society who rejects and discards them. Ironically, it is through their suffering witness to Jesus’ self-offering on behalf of human sinfulness that humanity is able to experience God’s infinite love and continued offer of salvation to a world still so in need of redemption some two thousand years later.[20]

In truth, the call to discipleship with Jesus cannot be sustained in history without a fundamental commitment by each succeeding generation of Christians to take seriously the gospel stories of Jesus’ life that tell us something profound about who the unseen God we seek really is. Moreover, if the poor, oppressed, and marginalized among us teach us anything, they reveal that Jesus lived as he did because it was what God asked of him. For this reason, the focus of discipleship today should not be on Jesus’ death, but rather on his life and absolute fidelity to God, knowing that in following him our own suffering and death will serve as prelude to eternal life in the fullness of God’s love.

Let us pray for the courage of a costly grace, one that leads to action in Jesus’ name on behalf of all God’s people, especially the crucified people of history. In doing so, let us also ask for the inner freedom so necessary to allow the Spirit to lead us to where God will have us go, offering the gifts of our lives on behalf of the unfinished work of the kingdom of God.

[1] The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are a series of Christian contemplations and meditations written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th‑century Spanish priest and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic “weeks” of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of approximately 30 days. They were composed to help participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God and commit to following Jesus in this world whatever the cost. When appropriately adapted, they can also help people of other faith traditions discern God’s will and engage problems facing society in the 21st century.[2] L. Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), Sections 190-98.

[3] Ibid., 200-03.

[4] Ibid., 208, 291-95.

[5] Ibid., 296-97.

[6] Ibid., 193.

[7] M.E. Boring, Mark: A Commentary, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John knox Press, 2006), 426-27. Simon of Cyrene may be included in this scene, not only because his sons, Alexander and Rufus, were known to Mark’s readers, perhaps even members of his Christian community, but also as counterpart to 8:34 when Simon Peter misunderstood the meaning of “take up your cross” and later denied and abandoned Jesus. See also, F. J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 318-19.

[8] Ibid., 427-28. The offer of wine and myrrh was likely a compassionate offer that seems to indicate the entire Jewish population was not against Jesus. His refusal to drink it may also indicate a desire to remain conscious throughout his suffering in order to be completely faithful to God’s will. See also, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 319.

[9] Ibid., 426. Mark offers no details of Jesus’ crucifixion. He simply states, “they crucified him.”

[10] Ibid., 428. Victims were normally crucified naked to add to their humiliation. Dividing up the crucified person’s clothing was apparently customary by the execution squad. See also, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 320.

[11] Ibid., 427-28. The sign, “King of the Jews”, while laced with sarcasm, is likely historical and confirms that Jesus was executed ostensibly as a Roman rebel. See also, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 321.

[12] Ibid., 428. The term “bandits” was often associated with religious zealots and patriotic freedom fighters who had been convicted of a charge that was in opposition to Roman rule.

[13] Ibid., 429. The charges of blasphemy from Jesus’ two trials: 1) that he would destroy and rebuild the temple, and 2) his claim to be the Messiah, King, Son of God, resurface while he is on the cross. Mark depicts passersby mocking him for these claims. In truth, it is unlikely passersby would have been aware of the charges against Jesus. However, the reader would have recognized the manipulation of Jesus’ previous teaching and its ironic truth. The reader would also have known that the unfolding narrative negates the faith claim of the chief priests and scribes who demand a sign from Jesus in order to believe. In truth, one can “see” and still not believe (4:12). Their call to “come down from the cross” is in opposition to Jesus’ call to take up the cross (8:34), just as their cry to “save yourself” is in opposition to Jesus’ teaching that the one who seeks to save one’s own life will lose  it (8:34-35). Finally, even the two men crucified with Jesus denounce him, making it clear he is alone before God and humanity. See also, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 321-25.

[14] Ibid., 430. Mark’s use of darkness around the time of Jesus’ death is meant as a cosmic sign that a great ruler is dying. Jesus’ dying words are a citation from Ps 22:1, a complaint to God that expresses “the human experience of sickness, suffering, rejection by others, and the sense of abandonment by God.” Mark’s readers were presumably aware that the psalm concluded on note of great trust in God. However, Boring claims that to interpret Jesus’ final words in this larger sense violates Mark’s intent to portray them as an expression of ultimate abandonment (see on 14:50-51). See also, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary. 325-28; Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, 369-84.

[15] Ibid., 431. Jewish folk-religion tradition held out hope that Elijah might come in answer to the prayers of pious Jews to deliver them in time of crisis. Ironically, Jesus had referred to Elijah as having already come in the life of John the Baptist (9:11-13).

[16] Ibid., 431-32. Mark describes the temple’s torn curtain and the centurion’s confession of faith as acts of God. Boring offers three symbolic meanings to the torn temple curtain: 1) it speaks to the destruction of the temple, which had already occurred by the time of Mark’s gospel and symbolizes not only God’s judgment on the temple, but the vindication of Jesus; 2) it removes a barrier between God and humanity and provides an opening to God’s presence for Jew and Gentile alike; 3) it demonstrates the divine presence is no longer localized to an earthly place or the heavens. Also, Boring sees the centurion’s confession as a proleptic realization of the faith of some Gentiles who see and respond to the gospel message, in contrast to Jesus’ disciples who still have failed to recognized Jesus as the Son of God. See also, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary. 328-31.

[17] Ibid., 426, 430. Mark does not depict the suffering of Jesus in terms of a theory of atonement. For Mark, it is Jesus’ suffering and death that is revelatory and saving, not a theory about it. Ultimately, Mark’s intent is to narrate Jesus’ crucifixion as the truly human death of the Son of God, not a detailed explanation of how it occurred.

[18] J. Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,1985), 412. See also, Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Sections 165-68. Briefly stated, Ignatius’ three ways of humility include: 1) Those who live with a juridical commitment to God’s will by observing the 10 commandments; 2) those who, in addition to the first way, live with an indifference to created things that allows them to truly discern God’s will; 3) those who, in addition to the first two ways, desire to imitate Christ by choosing poverty with Christ poor instead of riches, insults with Christ rather than honors, and to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world.

[19] D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 45. Cheap grace allows one to claim an intellectual ascent to Christian faith, wrapping oneself around dogma and liturgical worship, without any commitment to faith lived in action. It is the costly grace that allows one to move beyond intellectual ascent to also include faith lived in action on behalf of the kingdom of God.

[20] I. Ellacuria, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, ed. I. Ellacuria and J. Sobrino, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 580-603. Ellacuría likens Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) not only to Jesus, who Christian theology sees as the Servant’s fulfillment, but also to the poor, oppressed and marginalized of this world who witness to the salvific offer of both each and every day of history.