Why did Jesus die? That's a question that arises for us all today of all days. Often I think it gets its charge from a piece of mistaken thinking, as we'll see in a minute, but there's a good honest question at the heart of it which faces us with some uncomfortable but ultimately saving truths about ourselves, so let's see if we can find at least part of the answer.
First, the mistake. When we ask 'Why did Jesus die?', we might mean something like, 'Why did the Father punish his son in this terrible way?' There is a view that Jesus's death saves us because he is punished by God in our stead. The problem for this view is that it was not the Father who crucified Jesus, but human beings. The crucifixion is a human punishment, not a divine one.
But if we push aside this misleading way of asking our question, a much tougher, darker question remains: why did people hate Jesus enough to do this to him? This question is tough for a lot of reasons. One is that we find ourselves gripped by a temptation to distance ourselves from this kind of action. I don't just mean that we want to say we didn't do it and wouldn't do it, but we want to suggest that the people who do something like this are mad or utterly evil in a way that makes their actions just inexplicable. We want to throw up our hands and say of the crucifixion (or of an act of genocide, say) 'The people who did this were just pure evil.' It's a way of saying that there is, at the heart of it, no explanation at all that makes sense to decent people like you and me.
This way of explaining things becomes easier if we make the mad or evil ones a handful of people who duped everyone else into doing their will. The crowd who shout for the crucifixion of Jesus, then, are only being led astray by their leaders. Of course, that's not very plausible. People can't be stirred up to do things that are utterly against their wishes. The strange truth is that the very same people who flocked to Jesus for healing and who hailed him as a king saw him, deep down, as a threat.
What's more, it's very clear, if we refuse to be blinded by this kind of temptation, that the people involved in killing Jesus all acted for motives that were, as far as they went, not just neutral, but positively good. The scribes and pharisees acted out of a passion for God's law, the leaders of the Jews out of a desire to safeguard the people they led, the Romans out of a wish for order, stability and peace. They could all tell themselves that they were acting for the best of reasons.
That was, of course, less than half the truth. Things went wrong, not because they acted for good reasons, but because they lacked a whole lot of basically human attitudes that they should have had. Their motives were good, but they had a shadow side; the Romans wanted peace, but they were willing to torture people to death to get it. They lacked a basic human compassion that would have directed their search for peace in a wholly different direction. They were so focused on peace (important as that is) that they didn't think of all the other important human goods that they should be pursuing, and so they didn't even get the peace they sought.
But why Jesus? Why did Jesus become the one who bore the brunt of these misdirected motives? Why did they hate Jesus so? Well, things become a little easier if we follow St John in thinking that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. People feared Jesus because he didn't have a shadow side, and that meant he showed up the shadow side of those around him. This is not because Jesus was constantly pointing out people's faults but because a bright light always makes the shadows sharper and easier to see.
And that's the other reason it's hard to answer our question: most of us just avoid looking at our shadows. We know they're there but they're dark and unlovely and we know deep down that we can't personally get rid of them. That's makes them very frightening and so sometimes we are overwhelmed by our shadows and hate ourselves, and sometimes we just pretend they're not there and persuade ourselves (not very effectively) that we're good people who are acting for good reasons.
But Jesus loved people in spite of their shadows. He prayed for them even when they were killing him. And that's what makes venerating the Cross today so powerful. We get to love the whole of ourselves, knowing that we too have our shadow side, capable of dark self-deception, because our fear has a remedy. The love that Jesus shows on the Cross is to give us a chance to share in his light, so that instead of just bringing our shadows into sharp relief, it can banish them altogether.