Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Holy Week’s murder mystery

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

From the very beginning of Holy Week on Palm Sunday, the drama of Jesus’ last days unfolds as a corporate conspiracy aimed at silencing and shaming him through a public execution. The Passion narrative is a story of great treachery.

There are behind-the-scenes plottings between Judas and the leaders who feel that their power is threatened. We hear of betrayal and money changing hands. False charges are part of the scheming, designed to enflame the lynch mob to demand the death penalty. Deliberate chaos rules the day, leading to disputes over who has authority to judge and sentence.

The only bright spot is that some consciences are rightly troubled by the manifest innocence of Jesus. Yet, the drumbeat to execute Jesus resounds in the city and in the hearts of the whipped-up crowd. The rush to Calvary is unstoppable. The decision has been made, no matter the evidence: “We are going to kill this man.” It is a corporate act of murder.

Remarkably, in the face of this irrational rage, Jesus, the innocent victim, remains calm and steady. It is as though he not only anticipated this day, but was made for it. The Gospels, especially John, depict his entire ministry as a march toward Jerusalem and the trial he will face. He freely faces death, giving his life, but for what?

At the heart of our Christian faith is the belief that Jesus died for our sins. But what does that mean? Some theologians and writers, over the centuries, have portrayed the death of Jesus as paying a ransom, making restitution to God for our sins. Yet, such explanations inevitably prompt a view of God as vengeful, exacting punishment to satisfy the debt created by human sinfulness.

A closer look at the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, provides greater insight. Jesus’ death is God’s judgment on the world’s system of justice, which has given death the power to define the meaning of our lives. It is a system as old as the first generation of humanity living in the fallen world outside of Eden.

Cain deals with the tension of his jealousy towards Abel over what he cannot have by killing his own lone brother. Therein begins a system by which the evil plaguing each person’s life is purged by identifying one, who serves as a scapegoat to load the sins of all on. The tension wrought in the awareness of our guilt is broken by the sacrifice of one, at least temporarily.

It is precisely this system that the death of Jesus destroys, for he freely takes on the role of the scapegoat. But he is a different scapegoat because he is totally innocent victim. He freely moves toward and embraces death, occupying the space of the victim as if death has no power. Is that not what we pray at Mass? “His death has destroyed our death; his rising has restored our life.”

Simply put, the death of Jesus subverts any human system of justice that calls for retribution, revenge and vengeance by killing, for the fake power of death over our lives is unmasked as the Father raises him from the dead. Death has lost its power over us. Death is not the last word to describe our lives.

During these sacred days, we are called to a deeper faith that rejects the world’s system of justice based on giving death power over us, as if it is the solution to all human challenges, tensions and problems. For a community to believe that Christ destroyed the power of death means rejecting vengeance, and all responses that use violence as a means of problem solving: war, street fighting, the death penalty, abortion, domestic violence and yes, the many ways the killing of another comes by denying another their rights and good name.

The only death we proclaim is the death of the Lord, which destroys all death.

Holy Week draws us into the drama of the Lord’s death, not as a viewing audience, but as those who take up our crosses and walk alongside the Lord in these days to Jerusalem. Like him, we walk toward death willingly and confidently, freed by the death of the Lord to renounce the power of death over us.

This is the mystery of faith we profess and deepen this week, and pledge to each other in that symbolic moment on Good Friday as we come forward to venerate the wood of the cross, for that is our salvation.


  • holy week