On the desk in my office sits a small replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture the “Pieta.” You may know the “Pieta” as a work of art in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, holds the corpse of her son across her lap.
Several years ago, my older daughter, perhaps four years old, was wandering around my office. Taking note of various photographs, books, plants, she then stopped at the “Pieta.” She began to rub a hand across it; to ask questions about it.
“Is this Mary?” she asked about the seated, grieving woman.
“Yes,” I replied, “that’s Mary.”
“Is this Jesus?” she asked of the young, dead man stretched across the lap of his mother.
“Yes,” I told my daughter, “that’s Jesus.” “
“Is he dead?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I told her, “he’s dead.”
My daughter then asked me, “Why did he die?”
To be honest, I do not remember how I responded at this time to this question of my young daughter. I do know there are many answers I could have offered her; answers that come to your mind; answers you may have heard before: “He died for our sins. He died to make us right with God.”
As response to this question of my daughter, I could have spoken some fancy, high-priced, academic words voiced in certain circles of the church, words such as: expiation; propitiation.
Again, I am not sure how I responded to this question of my young daughter regarding the death of Jesus.
Even now, I find myself slow to answer questions regarding “Why did Jesus die?” I say I am slow to answer such questions because I’m not convinced the “why” regarding the death of Jesus is the most important question.
I think a more important question is, “What happened when Jesus died?”
I say this because at the death of Jesus, Jesus fully embraces the entirety of our lives. This assures us that at the time of our death, we know the presence of a God who is no stranger to death. This is a God who is able to say to us at life’s end, “I am with you. You are not alone. I do not at any time abandon you. I am with you fully: in life, and in death.”
You see, if “the word becomes flesh and dwells among us,” yet stops short of death, this means there comes that time when we are separated from God. This means there comes a time when we are alone; that time when God says to us, “I do not know what this is like; I am not with you here.” Yet such separation from God; such alienation from God, is not of the nature of God.
This season we call Lent assures us the witness of Christmas: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” — is a witness enduring through all seasons of life and death.
The witness of Christmas that tells us the Son of God is to be called “Emmanuel” because in him, “God is with us” is a message affirmed in this season as well, for we see God embracing the fullness of our life and death.
The witness of the writer of Psalm 23 is fully realized in this season, which takes us to the cross of Jesus, for this witness tells us, “I will fear no evil — for you are with me,” even in death.
This question of my young daughter, “Why did Jesus die?”, remains an important question. It is a question we do well to answer.
Still, regardless of how we may answer the “why” of Jesus’ death, I believe we find greater significance in knowing that God awaits us, even in death, and thereby overcomes death, awaiting us with life that shall not end.