In the Western Christian calendar today marks the beginning of Holy Week. Today is Palm Sunday, a remembrance of the day that Jesus came into Jerusalem. The liturgy also prepares for Jesus' coming death.
The liturgy beings with this context-setter (please note: as it's a church service, it clearly invokes a Christian perspective but I think it points to universal themes):
Dear friends in Christ, during Lent we have been preparing for the celebration of our Lord's paschal mystery. On this day our Lord Jesus Christ entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph. The people welcomed him with palms and shouts of praise, but the path before him led to self-giving, suffering, and death. Today we greet him as our King, although we know his crown is thorns and his throne a cross. We follow him this week from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection by way of the dark road of suffering and death. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life.
Christianity is often charged with a deep life-denying morbidity--a peverse and strange obsession with death, torture, and suffering. And certainly this can be the case.
At its best however it speaks to me of a deep truth that all life involves suffering--in Buddhism this is the first noble truth. That is not to say of course that there is not also joy, hope, beauty, and love in the world. There is much of that and certainly we need so much more of those.
The Christian story of Holy Week in particular asks each of us to inquire into what we believe to be the nature of true power and glory. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as King but reveal a monarch unlike any we are used to. This king is beaten, betrayed, and abandoned by (some of) his friends. He ia also anointed by a woman to prepare for his coming death and his body cared for after death. He is publicly humiliated and executed by the state. After he preached and enacted a vision of a kingdom (namely of God), the rule of Caesar (who also called himself Son of God) annihilates him. As the Apostles Creed states, he descended into hell. The 20th century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Balthasar felt that hell was the reality of total abandonment and isolation from God and Jesus too experienced this reality. He descended into the incoherence of hell.
It reminds me of something I heard once from a Zen teacher: "Delusion is Enlightenment, Enlightenment is Delusion."
According to the Christian tradition, it is only after that complete descent in love, that utter sacrificial act, that Love oercomes death in the resurrection. But even the resurrected Jesus, in the stories, carries the wounds of his crucifixion. The pain and suffering is not erased--it leaves it physical marks. But all of that reality can be transformed.
We know that positive thinking won't save us and neither will spiritual bypassing. So while on the surface the Christian story might seem morose and morbid, it's my sense that is speaks more directly to the true nature of life and offers hope out of that reality.