Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”—Luke 22:14-16
Our observance of Lent is drawing to a close. It is time to enter into the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Passion is the very heart of our liturgical year. In truth, it is the very heart of our Christian faith. The word “passion” is derived from the Greek word for “suffering,” “enduring.” During these days, we relive, reexperience the suffering of Christ.
Why do we do this? Why is it necessary for us to draw near to these particular events in the life of Christ? Wouldn’t we do just as well to focus on the life of Jesus; on his teachings, healings and miracles and to model our lives on these? To see Jesus as an exemplar of the moral life and to follow suit?
Well, there is some value in this kind of approach and surely this kind of thinking has a place in Christian faith formation. Still, it is not the heart of the matter. As St. Paul notes so pointedly, “We preach Christ crucified.” It is about the “suffering God.”
Few theologians have explored the idea of the suffering God in more depth than German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. As we look at a world filled with great suffering—the grief of two plus years of a global pandemic with millions of death; horrific images of war and violence in Ukraine and other part of the world; violence and bitter animosity caused by political divisions that too often lead to bloodshed; as we experience suffering in own lives—Moltmann’s insights can inform our observance of Christ’s passion this year and heighten our awareness of the power of God’s love to touch our lives and even to heal the world.
Moltmann writes, “Christian theology is…compelled to perceive God himself in Christ’s passion, and to discover Christ’s passion in God himself…Christian faith lives from the suffering of a divine passion, and is itself the passion for life which is prepared for suffering.”
The God who has become human has made our lives part of his life, and our sufferings his suffering. That is why when we feel pain, we participate in his pain, and when we grieve we share his grief.”
As we engage in the liturgies and events of Holy Week, we are invited to enter into Christ’s passion, Christ’s suffering, Christ’s death. In all of this, however, we are also inviting God into our own grief, suffering and pain, even into our own dying.
As a part of my Lenten discipline this year, I have been reading essays by Roman Catholic theologian, priest, and spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser. In his reflections on the suffering of Christ he writes:
It’s no accident…that Jesus died as he did on Good Friday. The cross reveals the power of God in this world, a power that is never the power of a muscle, a speed, a brilliance, a physical attractiveness, or a grace which simply leaves you no other choice but to acknowledge its superiority and bend you knee in obeisance. The world’s power works this way, movies end that way. God’s power is the power of…a baby that lies helpless, muted, patient, beckoning for someone to take care of it. It’s this power that lies at the deepest base of things and will, in the end, gently, have the final say. It’s also the only power upon which love and community can be created because it, and it alone, ultimately softens rather than breaks the heart. And it’s a power that invites us in.
The cross of Christ tells us, at those moments of painful helplessness, when we can’t impress or overpower anyone, we are acting in a divine way, non-violently, and in that vulnerability lies the secret to our coming to love and community.
And that’s why the cross, Christ’s passion, is the heart of the matter.
I pray you and those you love have a blessed Holy Week.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
 Moltmann, Jurgen Jesus Christ for Today’s World tr. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) Kindle location 466
 Ibid. Kindle location 491
 Rolheiser, Ronald Essential Spiritual Writings—Modern Spiritual Masters Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021
 Ibid p. 219
 Ibid. p, 220