The crucifixion of Jesus likely caused a great amount of grief and trauma for the disciples - especially the ones who knew Jesus personally. According to Keshgegian: “The cross was a crisis for Jesus’ followers and those who came after…the crucifixion of Jesus was a traumatic event” (166). It must have been a tremendous loss when the person who had helped the disciples experience God, communal solidarity, radical inclusiveness, mutual care, etc., was killed by a brutal empire in an atrocious way – the cross. Keshgegian goes on to say:
“The biblical narratives make it clear that the crucifixion was experienced as a major crisis for the Jesus movement that caused Jesus’ followers to flee and go into hiding. They even disrupted their community life and the mission they shared. It challenged their fundamental experience of safety. Jesus’ followers were afraid for their lives. The crucifixion, even though it was not directed at them, threatened them. It also disturbed their sense of meaning. Jesus was the one whom they had followed as their leader. They were expecting a new reign of God. What they seemed to get was defeat. Their leader was killed, ignobly killed. What hope or promise could there be in this? The crucifixion terrified and confused them. It left them bereft and even seemingly abandoned. They did not know how to respond to this loss and trauma” (qtd. Grundy, 155, unpublished).The loss and accompanying grief must have been exceedingly intense. This would likely have been an “ambiguous grief” filled with uncertainties, questions, and conflicting emotions. How could the “Son of God” die? Did he actually die? Is there any hope? Is this somehow a source of hope? Was the Empire of God defeated? Can it continue in some way? Why didn’t God stop this from happening? Could God stop it? The list of such questions would have been endless. As Boss says, “the greater the ambiguity surrounding one’s loss, the more difficult it is to master it and the greater one’s depression, anxiety, and [interpersonal] conflict” (7). Boss goes on to point out the following aspects of ambiguous loss: (1) “because the loss is confusing, people are baffled and immobilized,” (2) “the uncertainty prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationship…so that the [interpersonal] relationship freezes in place,” (3) “people are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss,” (4) “the absurdity of ambiguous loss reminds people that life is not always rational and just,” (5) “because ambiguous loss goes on and on…they become emotionally exhausted from the relentless uncertainty” (7-8). All of these aspects could have been part of the experience of those early disciples – and those who came after. They were close to the murderous execution of the person they knew as rabbi, liberator, friend, son, brother, “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Immanuel,” etc. As Boss notes: “Ambiguous loss is the most stressful loss people can face…They hunger for clarity” (20). It would have been very difficult for the disciples to live in the immobilizing bog of endless questions, which in turn probably had endless possible answers. They had to find and create meaning out of this event in order to come to some level of emotional, psychological, and spiritual resolution. Humans are meaning-making creatures. In fact, Greenspan suggests that “making meaning of out suffering is the basis of the human capacity to survive evil and transcend it” (45). The disciples needed to find some meaning out of this situation because “existing without meaning…is like existing without air” (Greenspan, 132). How did some of them make meaning out of it?
Some of the disciples attempted to make meaning out of the trauma and grief caused by Jesus’ unjust death but without fully working through the difficult emotions. As Grundy notes:
“Rather than being able to live with that event as traumatic…those around Jesus and those who came after looked for ways to justify what happened, to make it a good thing as well as a bad thing, to make it necessary, beneficial, even ordained. Because this traumatic injury was never faced as trauma…‘the crucifixion remains an unexamined trauma at the core of Christian faith and theology’” (156).Because, as Keshgegian argues, trauma “results in a lack of safety and triggers an internal need to try to reestablish some kind of control,” if that trauma is not addressed as such, this need can be “expressed in distorted ways” (qtd. Grundy, 156). For example, Grundy argues that the practice of breaking a symbolic body and pouring its blood in Communion is a form of “repetition compulsion” (Grundy, 154), whereby “the repetitive reliving of the traumatic experience must represent a spontaneous, unsuccessful attempt at healing” and “is an attempt to integrate the traumatic event” (Herman, 41). Therefore, instead of Communion being an extension of the meal ministry of Jesus, it became a “repetition compulsion” where the disciples reenacted the unjust violence done to Jesus by the Roman Empire as an attempt to deal with their grief and trauma. The prevalence of the cross in Christian piety and architecture is another example of their unresolved grief and trauma. Keshgegian explains this further: “The fixation of the Christian tradition on the cross provides centuries of evidence of what happens when one tries to make something good and meaningful out of what is not good…The memory of the cross must be preserved precisely as tragic. It is a death and loss that needs to be mourned” (174). Therefore, instead of the cross being a symbol of state-sponsored terrorism, it has become a symbol of the saving work God has done for us. As Keshgegian argues, “Trauma that is not remembered and dealt with appropriately finds expression in distorted relationally and arrested living. So too with the cross” (173). In order to deal with the grief and trauma of Jesus’ execution effectively, perhaps we could re-define the meaning of Communion and the cross so that we do not pass on these distorted expressions and unresolved grief on to future generations. This is not to suggest that the disciples were bad people who passed on a bad tradition. Instead, it is to suggest that the disciples were dealing with a natural part of life – grief. And their grief was likely intensified by the fact that they were mourning the crucifixion and subsequent loss of a transformative, highly meaningful religious figure in their lives. Thus, they passed this grief on through their stories, traditions, and testimonies. As Grundy argues, “we must consider the possibility that at least some of early Christian story and memory, if not a good deal of it, are being structured by traumatic violence that is contemporaneous with the production of the texts, as well as the crucifixion itself” (157-158). Therefore, until the modern Church addresses the unresolved grief and trauma caused by Jesus’ crucifixion, we will continue to pass on the disciples’ unresolved “stuff” (Grundy, 159; Keshgegian, 196-197). Perhaps we need to mindfully heal this pain in the memory and tradition of the Church.
Click here to read part 3 in the series.