During this Holy Week, we have the privilege of reflecting upon the passion of our Lord Jesus. Such reflection draws our hearts into the drama of history with wonder and leads us into worship. The following extract from Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) illuminates an important part of the darkness of this day.
Sayers was an essayist of profound insight. Like C. S. Lewis, she saw that the world was divided, not into many Christian communities, each professing more or less the same thing, but into two camps, the believers and the non-believers. In 1938 she contributed an article for Passion Sunday. She wrote “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged is the Official Creed of Christendom.”1 In elegant prose from her essay, Sayers points out how the Christian story is both foolish to those who deny it and potent to those who embrace its lead character.
The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.” His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”—he was God.
Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he had kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.
Christianity is, of course, not the only religion that has found the best explanation of human life in the idea of an incarnate and suffering god. The Egyptian Osiris died and rose again; Aeschylus in his play, The Euminides, reconciled man to God by the theory of a suffering Zeus. But in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period in prehistory. The Christian story, on the other hand, starts off briskly in St. Matthew’s account with a place and a date: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King.” St. Luke, still more practically and prosaically, pins the thing down by a reference to a piece of government finance. God, he says, was made man in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census in connection with a scheme of taxation. Similarly, we might date an event by saying that it took place in the year that Great Britain went off the gold standard. About thirty-three years later (we are informed), God was executed, for being a political nuisance, “under Pontius Pilate”—much as we might say, “when Mr. Johnson-Hicks [sic] was Home Secretary.” It is as definite and concrete as all that.
Possibly we might prefer not to take this tale too seriously—there are disquieting points about it. Here we had a man of divine character walking and talking among us—and what did we find to do with him? The common people, indeed, “heard him gladly”; but our leading authorities in Church and State considered that he talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we bribed one of his friends to hand him over quietly to the police, and we tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, and had him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows, “thanking God we were rid of a knave.” All this was not very creditable to us, even if he was (as many people thought and think) only a harmless, crazy preacher. But if the Church is right about him, it was more discreditable still, for the man we hanged was God Almighty.2
1 Barbra Reynolds, interview by Chris Armstrong, “Dorothy Sayers, ‘The Dogma Is the Drama,’”Christianity Today, December 12, 2005,
2 Dorothy Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in The Whimsical Christian (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. 1978), 12-13.