Obviously this is the time of year when a priest’s thoughts turn to passion.
Not that sort.
I’ve been re-reading the gospel passion stories, of the last days of Jesus’ life, and I ended up reading almost all of each of the Gospels, something I’ve not done for a while in a condensed period of time.
One thing that really struck me, which I feel it’s important to pass on. Jesus’s passion, and in particular the weeks before the passion narrative really started, was practically a case study in mental ill health.
It’s good that we are no longer ashamed of our sexuality, our often complicated and messy lives, of the fact that we sometimes get things wrong. Shame doesn’t help any of those, it just makes us more wretched and defensive. But people still have a problem with the issue of mental ill health. Which is why I think it’s important to remember that Jesus suffered from it too.
We often think of mental ill health as the extreme manifestations – schizophrenia, delusion, extreme manic depression etc. People still picture the mentally ill as a category of people who live in unpleasant hospitals, either zoned out on drugs to control their condition, or frightening, exhibiting a loss of inhibition or social niceties.
Yet, we have all been mentally ill at points in our life. It’s very rare to find someone who hasn’t. We may not have been diagnosed as suffering stress, or depression, or anxiety etc, but it’s very likely that we recognise those things in ourselves when we think back.
In our passion narrative, we see some signs of Jesus exhibiting many of those symptoms.
Think of Luke 9:62 and before – just after the first prediction of his death – where Jesus says you cannot even look back to say goodbye to your family (and contrast that with what Elijah says to Elisha when he chooses him). Let the dead bury the dead, he says.
Or later in Mark,(Ch10,11) just before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he curses a fig tree. Mark even goes as far as telling us it was not the season for figs, yet he’s furious that it doesn’t give him figs. It almost reminds me of Basil Fawlty beating his car.
Or after the Transfiguration (Mk 8:32), Jesus calls his best friend “Satan”.
Jesus knows at these points that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. And he’s having a tough time handling that.
And so he behaves in the same way that many of us would do. He shouts at his friends. He finds no pleasure in things he used to enjoy. He dismisses everyone and rebukes his followers. And he becomes very busy, everything becomes urgent. This is what happens when we’re low, when we’re in poor mental and spiritual health.
I recognise those symptoms, both in other people and in myself. A lot of my pastoral dealings with people involve people in poor mental health. There is no cure I can give, of course, but what I can do is to show them that, like any ill health, it isn’t their fault, and it isn’t because they are weak. There is no shame in being mentally ill. Having extreme mental ill health makes it more tragic, it doesn’t make it more shameful.
And it’s only natural. Life affects health, we get colds, or hay fever or infections, or broken limbs depending on how life treats us, and similarly we suffer grief, or anxiety, or low spirits or bad moods. We get anxious and busy and grumpy and feel as though there is no joy in life anymore. Those are symptoms just as coughing or sneezing are symptoms.
I find it very helpful if we allow ourselves to see that Jesus suffers in this way too – not just in the clean martyrdom of physical pain, but in the dark muddiness of feeling low and unhappy – the man whose last words in Mark’s Gospel were “Why have you forsaken me”
It’s important that we can see that in Jesus. Because first of all it teaches us that us having really bad days is not because we’re not strong enough, or that we should just pull ourselves together. It’s because life can make us ill. It might make us go easier on ourselves.
It might help us to go easier on other people too. If someone is unreasonably angry with us, or short with us, or being joyless or single minded, or dismissive, or obsessive. These are the symptoms of someone in pain. The last thing people need is someone reacting badly to that. The worse they are, the kinder they need us to be.
But for me, as a person of faith, this matters, because it means that there is no part of us which is shameful, hidden, empty of God’s love. Jesus has been there and we are not alone in our pain.
When we are able to do those things, to be kind to those who are ill, to be gentle with ourselves, to be not ashamed of our ill health, then we build a community and a society based not on judgement but compassion.