A favorite scene from the story of Jesus's birth is of the far-seeing elderly Simeon reaching for the child in the young Mary's arms, content now to die for having seen the Messiah with his own eyes. His words to Mary, more eerie than most mothers could graciously accept, always seemed a cryptic little note from a strange and saintly old man. Simeon walks up to Mary and says to the infant as much to the mother:
"This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed."(1)
I have long tried to imagine how I might hear his words as a mother. I have tried to imagine what Mary might possibly have said in response to those words, her newborn's fingers wrapped around her own. Surely, the elderly Simeon's reaction must have taken her breath away.
So I had spent much time considering this exchange. But the prophetic words of the old man never struck me as the very pivotal introduction to the gospel writer's story itself. Is Simeon the prophetic voice that initiates Luke's overarching motif of suffering throughout his telling of the story of Christ?
Starting with Simeon, theologian Roy Harrisville draws out this side of Luke that surprised my reading of his Gospel and passion narrative—if only the surprise of seeing plainly something I'd never noticed.(2) Again and again Luke points out the necessity of Jesus's suffering, long before Jesus is approaching the cross. Nonetheless, I was left with a plaguing question perhaps less for Harrisville than for God—or Jesus along the road to Emmaus: Why was it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory, as he tells the men as they walk toward Emmaus? Why was Christ's suffering a matter of "divine necessity"? Why did he need to suffer?
Luke has long struck me as one of the more fascinating narrators of the life and death of Jesus, including details at a story level that make for more nuanced intrigue. "Day after day I was with you in the temple and you did not seize me," says Jesus at his trial. "But all this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." Let the scriptures be fulfilled, he seems to explain repeatedly in Matthew and similarly in Mark. Yet, Luke's recollection of the scene is much less formulaic. Jesus replies with a far more layered vision of all that is at work. "But this is your hour, and the power of darkness," hinting that there is another hour and the power of something else at hand.(3) Luke repeatedly includes hints of these disparate visions at work, blind and brute ignorance beside cryptic insight like Simeon's, a contrast seen quite literally in the very criminals on either side of Jesus on the cross.
All of this I have cherished in the evangelist's telling. And I can now see, as Harrisville notes, that Luke's relentless pointing to the necessity of Christ's suffering lies at the heart of this dramatic narration. I can see that Luke describes the very life of Jesus as the way of the suffering Christ, and the passion of the cross as the necessary event which indeed marks the approaching kingdom. But why? Beyond the need to encourage suffering readers, beyond the musts of scripture, why was it necessary that the Messiah should suffer all these things? If Luke's telling is indeed a motif of human unawareness alongside that of the divine vision, I am thankful for the grace that is shown on this side of unknowing. I am thankful that Jesus went willingly toward suffering for our own sake even though we might not fully grasp it. I am thankful for the divine mystery that is revealed, even as it continues to be revealing:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Luke 2:34-35.
(2) Roy Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006).
(3) Parallel texts found in Matthew 26:56, Mark 14:49b, and Luke 22:53b.