Jon Sobrino, SJ, is one of the leading voices of liberation theology in Latin America. He has written numerous books, including Jesus the Liberator (1991), The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (1994), Christ the Liberator (1999), and No Salvation Outside the Poor (2008). He holds a doctorate in theology from Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt and has been awarded numerous honorary degrees.

Born in Spain, Fr. Sobrino has lived in El Salvador for most of his adult life, teaching theology at the Central American University, which he helped to found (Universidad Centroamericana). Passionate concern for the poor has been integral to his lifelong theological project. His writings reflect upon “the God of the poor and of the victims,” the God of Jesus of Nazareth.

Fr. Sobrino experienced firsthand the ravages of the bloody civil war that engulfed El Salvador from 1980 to 1992 and claimed the lives of some 75,000 Salvadorans. In 1989, members of the elite Atlacatl unit of the Salvadoran army burst into the Jesuit residence of the Universidad Centroamericana, and shot dead six Jesuit priests on the faculty, because of their “subversive” work on behalf of the poor. They also killed a housekeeper and her teenage daughter, as they had been ordered to “leave no witnesses.” Fr. Sobrino was the only survivor, as he happened to be in Thailand at the time, giving a talk.

This massacre was an act of such wanton brutality that it caused the light of international attention to shine on the conflict and hasten its resolution. The martyrs of El Salvador died in solidarity with many others who perished in that conflict. Their death drew attention to those whose lives have been destroyed through poverty, hunger, lack of basic human rights, violence, and war—lives deprived of hope and freedom.

It is perhaps inevitable for Christians to associate innocent suffering with the Cross. Yet the Cross is not the end of the story. In the midst of a world of injustice and death, what does it mean to believe in the Resurrection? In his writings Fr. Sobrino has said, “I am writing from a place of victims and I am trying to reflect from their situation on these texts [of Scripture] that speak about a crucified man who was raised.” We asked him to speak with us about resurrection.

Production Credits

Rita Ferrone, producer
Gene Palumbo, director

Sachin Ramabhadran, editor

Our sincere thanks to the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” in El Salvador, where this interview was filmed, and the audiovisual department staff who filmed it.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Sobrino, Jon. (2015) “Resurrection,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 11. Available at:

View article as a PDF: Resurrection

Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

An earlier version of this essay appeared as “He Who Hesitates is Human: Literary Portrayals of Gethsemane” in Perspectives on the Passion, ed. Christine Joynes. London: Continuum, 2008, 30–41; reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury-T&T Clark.

“Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels. They provide him with the various possibilities voiced on the street, but he is not interested in popular opinion. He wants to know where they stand. One way in which Christian tradition has responded is with creedal statements that aim to avoid error through clarity and definition. Take, for instance, the fifth-century Quicunque vult, the so-called Athanasian Creed. It wants to affirm at once that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is “Perfect God and Perfect Man”; he is “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.” By contrast, biblical approaches to the question of Jesus’s identity bring the messiness of human experience into play: the Gospel stories, like narrative in general, open up possibilities rather than closing them down, require interpretation rather than assent.

A case in point: who do the Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus is, based on his last words? We find one “equal to the Father” in Luke’s gracious savior, who is merciful to those who mock him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” 23:34) and who promises the “good thief” a reward for his faithfulness (“Today you will be with me in paradise,” 23:43). Likewise, the Gospel of John presents Christ in control of the horrible scene on Golgotha: he has the wherewithal to find his mother another son (19:26–27) and, before his final breath, to announce that enough is enough, “It is finished” (19:30). On the other hand, Matthew and Mark have Christ give up the ghost in a cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The dissonance between these “last words” is lost when the tradition of preaching the Seven Last Words, for instance, merges the six “comfortable” sayings found in Luke and John with the single cry of Matthew and Mark: “Elo-i, Elo-i, lema sabach-thani?” Numbers talk, at least if you can get the cry of dereliction out of your head.

But what about the Garden of Gethsemane? The Gospel of John has us barely enter it: John places Jesus in an olive grove across the Kidron Valley (18:1) for the merest moment, and then only as the backdrop for his arrest. In the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we find something quite different. Take Matthew’s account in chapter 26:36–46. In this dramatic scene, Matthew’s Jesus remains extraordinarily vulnerable until he sees that the end is nigh and takes charge, saying, “Get up, let us be going.” Underscoring his loneliness, Matthew puts only Peter, James, and John in the Garden with him. When this trio was last assembled by Jesus, they beheld the apotheosis of the Lord in a cloud of glory and heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17:5). But now we have a reversal of the Transfiguration. Instead of encountering the Father’s beloved Son in blinding glory, we find a Jesus in passionate turmoil, as described by the narrator (“He was grieved and agitated”) and confirmed by Jesus himself (“I am deeply grieved, even to death”).

Add to these words dramatic gesture. When Jesus advances into Gethsemane’s “oil press”—the etymology of the place name—he also moves more deeply into his grievance-unto-death: “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground.” Again, one recalls the Transfiguration account, when it was the disciples who fell to the ground “overcome by fear,” only to have Jesus comfort them: “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7). Here Jesus comes to the disciples, appealing to them three times to watch with him, only to find them fast asleep. “The spirit indeed is willing,” he says, “but the flesh is weak.”

It is not the disciples’ weakness that is at the center of the story, however; rather, it is Jesus’s humanity: his deep emotion, his need for creature comfort, and his dependence on the men who were his “little children.” Whereas Peter, James, and John cannot stay awake even one hour, Jesus cannot rest for a single minute. Instead, he throws himself repeatedly on the ground, praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” The Evangelist Mark further heightens the emotion by having Jesus call out not only to his Father but also (in a sudden move from Greek to Aramaic) to his Abba, his Papa—a one-word shift into an intimate mode of address. However, no loving paternal presence shows up in Matthew’s Gethsemane. Jesus is devastated and alone.

This vision of Jesus at such a loss is one the Evangelist Luke cannot abide. His Savior may be “inferior to the Father concerning his manhood”—he may (as in Matthew and Mark) pray that the cup be removed; he may even sweat “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground”—but he is not alone. Suddenly there is an angel on the scene, come to give him strength. Nor does Jesus thrash about on the ground—Luke says instead that he “kneels”—or keeps trying to wake his three closest disciples. There is neither fear nor anguish in this scene, only a hero fighting the good fight, about to earn his crown of glory.

There is very little glory in more contemporary literary renderings of Jesus in the Garden. Nor is there much of any Godhead in his Manhood. For instance, in Rainer-Maria Rilke’s “The Olive Garden” (1908), Jesus says, “’I am alone, I am alone with all of human grief.” Rilke does not allow any divine intervention: no angel enters the scene. Furthermore, he insists that Jesus’s aloneness in the Garden links him to everyone else’s plight: he is no different from anyone “born in the world.”

And then there is Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ (1955), which presents Christ’s whole life as a struggle between willing spirit and wavering flesh. Gethsemane is where “the longing to see men, to hear a human voice, to touch the hands he loved” overwhelms Jesus. Thought of heaven all but disappears as he longs “to find on earth the only paradise anyone could want.”

“Father,” Jesus murmurs, “the world you created is beautiful, and we see it; beautiful is the world which we do not see. I don’t know—forgive me—I don’t know, Father, which is the more beautiful.”

For José Luis Saramago, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Gethsemane turns into a temptation scene, in which God and the Devil are revealed to be two sides of the same divine coin. Together, they present Jesus with the “cup” of the future. They predict the deaths of the disciples, give a lengthy alphabetical procession of subsequent martyrs, and foretell the horrors of Crusades and Inquisition. This vision of continual suffering provokes a final confrontation between Son and Father. The scene ends with the Devil’s observation, “One has to be a God to countenance so much blood.” Saramago’s Jesus is a dupe, his Father a vampire. We have come a long way from the Gospels here, let alone from the both/and mystery of the eternal Word made mortal Flesh.

Where I want to conclude, however, is with a contemporary poet, Denise Levertov (1923–97), who attempts not only to affirm the two natures of Christ, following orthodox Christianity, but also describe a dynamic tension between them. She wants to convey the tightrope that Jesus walked, that Jesus was.

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis[1]

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of His depth,
like anyone who has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit,
nor the faithless weakness of friends (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

With the double title of her poem, Levertov places her text in the Latin world of the West, as well as (literally and figuratively) in Jerusalem. We are asked to behold the Savior of the World along the Holy City’s tortuous Way of the Cross, long memorialized on the walls of many a Catholic church and perhaps presented most horrifically in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. But “Salvator Mundi” also points to another Christological reality—to a traditional iconographic pose, in which Christ (holding an orb or some other accoutrement of authority) looks straight into the eyes of the viewer, as in the Albrecht Dürer painting of this name. This is John’s Christ, radiant with glory.

Levertov depends heavily on visual art, but it is no Christus Rex whom she actually conjures up; rather, she alludes explicitly to two very different portrayals of the human savior of the world, each of which offers us a “Maybe” (the poem’s opening word) of what Jesus was like. To begin, she names Rembrandt and refers to his portraits of unnamed Semitic-looking young men taken to be “a Christ head after life”; his models were, in fact, contemporary Amsterdam Jews. Levertov does not allude to Rembrandt’s Philosemitism or her own Jewish ancestry. Rather, she concentrates on the vivid, welcoming humanity of an un-haloed Christ—a thirty-something rabbi, an itinerant healer, or perhaps the word-playing stranger who engaged the much-married Samaritan woman at her village well.

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.

In contrast to this gentle, serene visage—this portrait of the Savior as a young Jew—she then conjures “that face, in extremis” and therefore moves us away from the day-to-day life of Christ’s ministry to the terrible end-game of his passion. But whereas Rembrandt could give a probable likeness of the young Jew, she says, none of the Old Masters (“even the greatest”) could convey in line or paint what the tortured man must have looked like in his agony. “That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth / in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.”

The rest of the poem takes us along the Via Crucis—the second part of the poem’s title—from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha, by means of an imaginative exploration of the Savior’s interior life. Levertov signals Christ’s divinity not only by referring to him as “He” and “Himself” in the reverential upper case, but also by the quasi-creedal language she uses in her God’s-eye view of the Incarnation. The descent into human vulnerability was “what He, Who was God, / had promised Himself, and had entered / time and flesh to enact.” Here we have one “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead.”

Most of the text, however, explores what Levertov refers to as Christ’s “burden of humanness,” that is, the sheer weight of his being human. This Jesus is “like any mortal hero out of his depth.” He tastes “the humiliation of dread”; he experiences “the cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go.” In a show of personal empathy and identification with the male Christ, the female poet likens him to “anyone who has taken a step too far / and wants herself back.” She also suggests what the final refusal of the cup would have meant:

Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.

“Maybe.” The poem begins in surmise, and uses the resources of art history, lectio divina, and the work of sympathetic imagination to give us a keener sense of the God-Man. It draws to a close, however, in a flourish of the indicative, with the repeated assertion of what is (or, rather, what is not) the case. We approach the mystery of Christ’s anguish by eliminating the likely possibilities of what he felt: we cannot know for sure. In her final lines, however, Levertov moves very subtly away from negative assertion and back into surmise. She won’t presume to fathom the Savior’s heart and mind any more than the “greatest painters” could capture his full likeness. All she has to go on is the fervor of her personal identification, her own conviction:

Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

In these, her poem’s “last words,” Levertov brings together the passion accounts of Matthew and Mark with those of Luke and John without erasing their differences. The “sublime acceptance” of the Passion we find in Luke and John had to have, could only have “welled up” from the depths we witness on the bare ground of Gethsemane. For the God-Man to have been human indeed, and not merely playing at humanity, he would have had to (repeatedly) throw himself on the earth, his soul “deeply grieved, even unto death.” Before the Manhood could be taken into God, it would have had to return to the dirt from which Adam was molded, dust thrown down into dust, ashes to ashes.

In “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis,” Levertov works valiantly to maintain the precarious balance of dogma but with an obvious tip of the scale in our human direction. She upholds the “purpose” of the Incarnation with orthodox conviction; she gives us a Savior of the World “Who was God.” Yet her poem both lingers and terminates where it must, in the drift of those very “mortal moments” that link us to the God-Man—the “maybe” moments that may be all that mortals ever know for sure.


Peter S. Hawkins is Professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. His work has long focused on Dante. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination; Dante, a Brief History; and Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come. With Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg he has published two collections of essays on biblical reception in literature, Scrolls of Love: Ruth and the Song of Songs and From the Margins I: Women in the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives. Currently they are collaborating on a Bloomsbury Press book on the Bible and the American short story.


[1] ”Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis” By Denise Levertov, from EVENING TRAIN, copyright ©1992 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Hawkins, Peter. (2015) “Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 6. Available at:

View article as a PDF: Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

What do we do with biblical texts that are both vital to the life of the church and harmful to another religious tradition? To put it another way, how do we unleash the power in the story of the Passion of Jesus while acknowledging that this story has also served as raw material for harsh depictions of Jews as enemies of Christ, and thus of Christianity?

How do we teach sacred texts that have been used sacrilegiously? How do we expose the shadow side without blocking the light?


The accusation that Jews are implicated in the death of Jesus suffuses the New Testament, most explicitly the Gospel of John, but also the other three canonical gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, of course, approaches the death of Jesus from many perspectives beyond who is responsible for the Crucifixion.

These texts, particularly the Passion narratives, are proclaimed in Christian worship; as scripture, they are sacred and normative writings. They cannot merely be set aside. Entire liturgical celebrations are built around the story in those Christian traditions that observe Holy Week.

Further, the fundamental plot line of these texts is widely known, even among those largely unschooled in the Christian tradition. Although its underlying argument is the more abstract claim that Jews “rejected” Jesus, this allegation comes alive through a drama of good versus evil, of innocent suffering and ultimate vindication. The characters are memorable, especially the villainous ones (e.g., Judas, Caiaphas, the chief priests and elders of the people, “the Jews”). Scenes from the various Passion narratives have dominated Christian art, been enacted in Passion plays and films, and been a staple of sacred music. One need never have picked up a New Testament to know the basic contours of the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the events leading to it. Or you could pick up Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus.

Yet, while familiar with the plot of the Passion story, relatively few Christians are cognizant of its consequences for Jews. In part, this stems from the demographic reality that most Christians in the world do not encounter Jews in their daily lives. As a result, the church’s relationship with Judaism seems tangential to their practice of Christianity. In some respects this is understandable, particularly in communities overwhelmed by poverty and violence; their degree of dislocation is already so severe that further immersion in the shadow side of the tradition could be paralyzing. Yet it is also likely that Christians in such communities, typically lacking the resources and opportunities for knowledge of the history, will therefore continue in the inadequate view of Judaism that has been part of the tradition. Still others prefer to look away from our tradition’s shadow side, lest it give credence to contemporary secular critics who revile theism, claiming that “religion poisons everything.”[1]

But whether or not Christians encounter Jews in their daily lives, we are obliged to honor the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16 and Deut. 5:20).

To put it plainly: Christians have used texts to bear false witness against Jews, albeit often because they assumed that the texts were factual. In this graced moment in history, however, we have both the resources to read ancient texts in new ways and the ethical obligation to do so. This is not a matter of rewriting but of rereading and reinterpreting them.


Thinking pedagogically about how to help Christians confront the shadow side of our tradition gave rise to a threefold heuristic of “tellings”: a trembling telling, a troubling telling, and a transformed telling. These three tellings structure the three major sections of my book, Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians. A word on each of them:

Trembling Tellings. Stories of Jesus’s death lie at the core of Christian identity. They offer an encounter with his experience of the human condition: betrayals by those closest to him, his own fear of death, uncertainty about God’s will, and the endurance of terrible suffering and an ignominious death. These stories cause us to “tremble, tremble, tremble,” as the great spiritual “Were You There?” expresses it. Moreover, the dying and rising of Jesus lies at the center of Christian liturgical life, spirituality, creeds, and doctrines. It has evoked centuries of reflection, given rise to meaningful rituals, inspired art and music, been the subject of theological exploration, motivated persons to sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves, and sustained persons through times of suffering. The stories of Jesus’s death lie at the heart of what is sacred in Christianity.

Precisely because of their sacredness and the manner in which many Christians hold them dear, one must first acknowledge the power that these stories hold in various communities: the Passion as a symbol of resistance to evil, including protest against violence, racism, torture, poverty, and militarism; the Passion as a mirror of people’s suffering; and the Passion and Resurrection as the Paschal Mystery at the heart of Christian life. There is even a crucifix scratched on the wall of cell #2 in the infamous “Death Block” of Auschwitz I, a place of torture and death primarily for non-Jewish political prisoners.[2]

These are stories “rightly told.” Redeeming Christianity’s sacred story first requires respect, even awe, for its power for good.

Troubling Tellings. Yet these “tellings” have also glorified suffering, condoned passivity in the face of violence, and constricted the meaning of Salvation by associating it only with Jesus’s death—as if his life and ministry held little meaning. These “troubling tellings” are the subject of considerable reappraisal today, particularly among feminist theologians. Yet insufficient attention has been paid to an even more troubling telling: misinterpretations of the Passion narratives that have rationalized hostility to and violence against Jews as “Christ killers.” This sacrilegious telling cries out for redemption—an unfinished task for Christians.

The key move here is to connect the texts, their interpretations and their effects—Wirkungsgeschichte, the history of a text’s influence over time. Dorothee Sölle terms this a “hermeneutics of consequences.”[3]

Those who become more aware of the power of the Passion story must then confront its deadly aspects by looking closely at the way in which it has functioned over the centuries. This critical assessment involves examining New Testament texts about the death of Jesus that provided raw materials for hostility towards Jews. It then follows the way in which Christians have interpreted those narratives in apocryphal texts, commentaries, sermons, formal teaching, and popular culture. It also involves probing the element of continuity between Christian teaching and preaching and the Holocaust.

Transformed Tellings. But respect and critique must be complemented by reconstruction. This reconstructive task is multifaceted. It involves drawing on contemporary modes of biblical scholarship that shed new light on the historical circumstances of the death of Jesus, especially the way in which crucifixion functioned in the Roman Empire as a mode of state terrorism to intimidate subject peoples and slaves into passivity. It requires exploring complicated matters of religious identity in the early centuries of the Common Era. It also entails formulating principles for interpreting New Testament texts in our time.

Moreover, we must make connections between Christian spirituality and a willingness to acknowledge the historical wounds that Christianity has inflicted. This requires a kind of vulnerability that refuses to be defensive in the face of disquieting truths. Facing our history—being responsive to it—involves dying to notions of Christianity that see it as only a force for good in the world.

Facing the tragic consequences of our troubling texts and seeking interpretations that are more just goes to the heart of the Passion. Michael Barnes, a scholar of the religions of India, suggests that the experience of Christians learning to relate to the religious Other mirrors Christ facing death.[4] In the language of Christian spirituality, interreligious encounter is an experience of the Paschal Mystery, a dying to the small, protected world of the self and a conversion to the “providential mystery of otherness.”

Writing Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians has given me greater appreciation for the depth of Christianity’s sacred story, and the obligation to live daily the process of redeeming it—and in that process, rediscovering the Cross of Jesus amid the crosses of history.




Mary Boys is the Dean of Academic Affairs and Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A Roman Catholic and a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names, she has a longstanding interest in liturgical and pastoral interpretations of Scripture.


[1] See Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009).

[2] See Teresa and Henryk Świebocki, Auschwitz: The Residence of Death, trans. William Brand (Kraków and Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Bialy Kruk, 2003).

[3] Cited in Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 91.

[4] Michael Barnes, Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 207.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Boys, Mary. (2015) “Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 4. Available at:

View article as a PDF: Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

 This sermon on John 18:1–19, 42 was delivered at St. Thomas More Chapel and Center at Yale University on Good Friday, March 29, 2013.

“And there they crucified him.” The lengthy Passion narrative with its betrayals, sufferings, and the host of people who crowd the narrative—disciples, Judas, soldiers, guards, a high priest’s slave named Malchus, Annas, Caiphas, the gatekeeper-maid, Peter, another slave of the High Priest, Pilate, the two who are crucified with Jesus—all of this turmoil comes to a halt in one short sentence: “And there they crucified him.”

It will not be long before another short sentence brings the whole of Jesus’s earthly life to its close: Jesus “hands over his spirit.” He tastes death. Jesus, the human face of God, who entered our human existence, experiences the end of that existence.

On one level, Jesus’s death is simply the other end of the arc that began with his birth: He truly became one with us, in being born. He truly now becomes one of us in dying. Granted, this death came at a relatively early point in life—but then, so do many deaths in our world. And yes, Jesus’s death did not only come early and was violently inflicted; it was also exceedingly painful, indeed torturous. Yet Jesus’s death was probably no more torturous than the dying of a young woman on a bus in India some months ago. The young woman had been abducted, repeatedly violated in the most brutal, dehumanizing ways imaginable, savagely beaten and then left to die.

Why, then, have people for close to two thousand years gathered around the story of Jesus’s Passion and death? And why do we continue to ask each other, in the words of the song we will soon sing: “Were you there?” “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The answer for all of us after all is: No. We were not there, two thousand years ago. Yet the liturgy of Good Friday labors, as no other liturgy in the year, to render present Jesus’s dying in our midst, to make it coterminous with our own lives. I suggest to you that in doing so, this liturgy is seeking to embody a particular truth: Good Friday is about being there, about being present, about com-passion, and suffering with. As it was on that Friday so long ago, so it is also today.

Some months ago I was struck by the report of a conference on palliative medicine. The conference focused on doctors caring for terminally ill patients. One of the presenters reported that many doctors feel compelled to “do something” in the face of death, often in the form of continuing aggressive treatments, although the doctors themselves know that those treatments are futile. The palliative care expert suggested that instead of “doing something,” one’s calling might rather be this: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

I myself by now am old enough (and have lived in this culture for long enough) to have heard many Good Friday sermons that preach the opposite, namely: “Don’t just stand there, do something: go, give, share, love!” No doubt those are crucial imperatives. Yet there is a danger if they become the only and the whole truth we embrace on Good Friday. Why? Because this message—“Do something!”—suggests that simply being there, standing at the foot of the cross, is an inadequate and poor response. We need to do something, so the thinking goes, for Jesus’s death to be meaningful—as if Jesus’s death on the cross were meaningless, unless we ourselves give it meaning.

In and for this liturgy on the Friday of the Passion of the Lord, I suggest to you that, on the contrary, it is not us and our doing that give meaning to Christ’s death. God has already done that, when God faced down dying and death on Good Friday and on Easter morning spoke a powerful “no” to the finality of the death of Jesus. That act, that doing of God—rather than our own—is the ultimate word on the meaning of Good Friday.

Our calling in this liturgy is to let Christ’s death give meaning to our lives. And, for that to take place, our presence, our “just standing there” is all the liturgy asks of us. Yet this is no easy task. “Just standing there” actually is a profound challenge, especially for people like us. We do not just want to stand there, and that with empty hands. We want to do something, and move into action. If nothing else, such action at least lessens and covers our own feelings of helplessness. Yet, “just standing there”—truly being present to the agony of the other and to our own helplessness in the face of it—is the calling of this liturgy. It is also what those few disciples did who did not flee: Mary the mother of Jesus, the beloved disciple, the other women at the foot of the cross. What, after all, can disciples do when the feet of the one they were following are nailed to a cross? These few disciples remained at the feet of Jesus and the foot of the cross, standing there in com-passion, in suffering with. Such presence, such real presence, is our calling too, in this liturgy. The doing will follow, and more deeply, the deeper we have been present to the agony of the cross.

Where is the Good News in this? The Good News, for our “being there,” is that Good Friday is not primarily about remembering as a form of thinking back. Rather, Christians believe that the One who was crucified and died is also the One who continues to live in our midst as the Risen One. The Friday of the Passion of the Lord, after all, is not really about remembering the death of a good, decent, wrongfully convicted human being; it is about so much more. Good Friday reveals God’s gift of God’s self unto death for the life of the world, a gift that gives meaning to our lives and redeems, not only us but the whole cosmos.

What would it mean, then, for you simply to practice presence in this Good Friday liturgy? To let the meaning of your life—its deepest mystery, its places of profound pain where quick fixes are impossible—reveal itself as you stand under the cross, as you venerate this cross as the place where the feet of Jesus, whom you seek to follow, were brought to a halt. Simply stand there for a moment, at the foot of the cross. And hear your name being called from this place of presence: Mary mother of mercy; John beloved disciple; Elisabeth my sister; Carolyn my friend; Father Eddie and Father Bob; Katie, Janet, Stefan, Teresa . . . Know that your very being is redeemed and made whole at the foot of the cross and in the presence of the Crucified One.


Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.  Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of theological and liturgical studies with gender theory. Her publications include Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History; Dissident Daughters: Feminist Liturgies in Global Context; and Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women.  She has also written on the hymns of Charles Wesley and on the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. She was editor of Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace, essays from the 2011 ISM Liturgy Conference.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Berger, Teresa. (2015) “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 3. Available at:

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