Good Friday's Psychological Meaning

By Henaut, Barry | Anglican Journal, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Good Friday's Psychological Meaning


Henaut, Barry, Anglican Journal


There can be no doubt that Mark's passion narrative would make for a wonderfully vivid -- albeit, terrifying -- dream. Betrayal, abandonment, slander, judgement, psychological abuse, intense physical suffering and finally death itself all play their part. These are some of our deepest fears and they find their natural expression in the world's most powerful literature and our dreams.

What would it mean if we approached the Gospels' account of Easter from the perspective of dream analysis? For Carl G. Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, the key to interpreting dreams often lay in viewing all of the actors in the drama as aspects of the dreamer. When we approach Mark's passion narrative from this perspective the story takes on added psychological depth.

Central to Mark's account are the trial scenes before the Sanhedrin and Pilate. When we consider the continuing popularity of trials including Perry Mason, Matlock, the movie A Few Good Men, and the fascination with the Simpson case, we recognize our instinctive fear of judgment. But unlike the usual happy ending to these scenes in television and movies (wherein the client is invariably proven innocent by the wonderfully gifted attorney), the Gospel presents a harsh and cruel outcome. Jesus has no advocate to defend him; indeed, he even refuses to defend himself. And despite his innocence, he is found guilty and sentenced to death.

While popular culture offers us an optimistic reassurance in the face of our fear of rejection and judgment, the Gospel, in contrast, forces us to face this catastrophe vicariously in Jesus. Only after we face this squarely does it go on to resurrect new life on Resurrection Sunday.

Two agents are central in this judgment, the chief priest and Pilate. Psychologically, they represent aspects of what Jung termed the shadow since they are both the same sex as Jesus. Particularly with respect to the Sanhedrin, historically this has caused great misunderstanding and occasioned deep-rooted anti-Semitism. Since the shadow touches upon those repressed and deeply hated aspects of oneself, the temptation to project these attributes onto an external other is strong. This provides a useful warning against "externalizing" these Gospel characters and thereby avoiding the painful implications of their narrative actions for oneself.

Historically, it is difficult to reconstruct exactly what, if any, role the Sanhedrin had in Jesus' execution. Scholars now recognize that Mark's narrative cannot be used to reconstruct the actions and motives of the real human beings who were members of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus' crucifixion (the Gospels tell us that all the disciples fled at Gethsemane, for example). But since a dream often chooses a famous historical figure as a symbol to reveal something about the dreamer, perhaps Mark has included the Sanhedrin in his narrative in order to lead the reader into deeper self-awareness.

As the ruling religious elite within Judaism, the Sanhedrin is a perfect symbol for those conservative and ruling elements of the age. The council was dominated by the Sadducees, a branch of Judaism with a more conservative political and religious stance than the more popular and liberal Pharisees. They also held to a more literal interpretation of God's revelation to Israel, which they limited to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) in contrast to the Pharisees who also accepted the Prophets and Writings.

In Mark, the council instinctively acts out of self-preservation by opposing the advent of the new. This theme is also known in the stories of Sargon, Moses, and Ramses III in the myth of the miraculous child who is not killed, despite the hostile intent of the father/King, but is saved when someone places him in a vessel on a river. In Matthew's nativity, the Moses form of this story is front-and-centre showing how Jesus' birth and death are one theological unity. …

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