John 18:1 – 19:42
We have become so accustomed to them, we hardly notice them. There are plain ones and jeweled ones, simple ones and elaborate ones. Some have been passed down for generations. Others are given as gifts. They are ubiquitous, and yet, there are many who don’t know the whole story behind these little crosses we wear.
I remember hearing one preacher remark how odd it would seem for people from the time of Jesus to see us wearing them as jewelry, carrying them in procession, making them out of gold. It would be, he said, as if there were people in our culture today walking around with miniature electric chairs hanging around their necks, or carrying a hangman’s noose up the aisle in a wedding ceremony.
What a peculiar thing – the cross. What once was a symbol of torture and execution has become a beloved, revered symbol, one that identifies us as a people – Christians. Why do we, seemingly in an effort to memorialize Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, why do we revere the very instrument of his death?
I recall many years ago when my itchy spiritual feet were taking to me to unfamiliar churches and rituals looking for that thing I knew was missing I accompanied some friends to a service at Gethsemani Monastery near our college in Kentucky. The service was on Good Friday. It was called the Veneration of the Cross. I had never seen anything like it – people got in line to go to the front of the church, not to take communion, but to bend over and kiss a large crucifix that one of the monks was holding. Not wanting to miss out, I got in line and did as the Romans were doing. I’m not sure this young Methodist preacher’s son felt anything in particular at that moment, but I believe it was one of those moments, those thin places, when something inside me moved.
In my younger days, in my zeal as a “hot prot,” I had loudly condemned the Catholic Church for their idolatry and their superstitions. And yet, here I was touching my lips to this giant cross bearing the form of the suffering and dying Jesus. It was REAL. Somehow it spoke to me, and spoke to me on a very deep level.
It is an enigmatic symbol – we read into the cross things like victory and triumph, and yet for those gathered before it that first Good Friday standing in the sudden darkness on that hill outside Jerusalem, it meant nothing but defeat. There were holes in it and the dried blood of other criminals who had been crucified on it before. The Romans didn’t issue fresh ones.
There was no other death so cruel and humiliating. It took hours to die, bleeding to death in the scorching sun or the driving rain. The condemned had to fight for every breath, straining in what must have been excruciating agony against the nails that held him in place.
Indifferent soldiers and jeering crowds were usually the only company the condemned criminals had. But not this Jesus, this dying man who had the sign “King of the Jews” nailed above his head on the cross. There was a small crowd, mostly women, gathered at the foot of his cross.
He spoke words to them and to the soldiers attending his execution. “Abba, forgive them.” “Mother, behold your son.” “I thirst,” and finally, “It is finished,” what could also be translated, “It is accomplished.”
What has been accomplished, Jesus? You have been unjustly tried by corrupt and cowardly men. What does that accomplish? You have been whipped and beaten, mocked and berated. What did that accomplish? The questions must have weighed heavy on those gathered at the foot of the cross.
Jesus breathed his last and handed over his spirit. The spirit that came upon him at his baptism has now departed, not in glorious light, but in darkness. There was no voice from heaven, only silence. Creation groaned. The ground shook, the rocks split. There were rumors that the Veil in the Temple had been torn in two, top to bottom. Darkness, questions, fear, grief.
What was accomplished, Jesus?
If we freeze that moment and contemplate on that dark, dreadful, mysterious hour, we cannot help but wonder why? This is Mary’s son, the infant whom angels and kings came to worship. This is the man who healed the sick and raised the dead. This is the itinerant rabbi who embraced the unembraceable and dared to challenge the authorities.
What has he done to deserve this – to die a criminal, hung in shame for the world to see?
God, why have you forsaken him?
Ever since that dark day, people have looked upon this scene and tried to explain it. Vast libraries of books prove that the world has been talking about it ever since. And yet, how can we stand before this scene and not ask from our deepest soul, why?
The injustice of that moment mocks the life of the man who with his life taught his followers how to be just. The wounds and the blood scar the memory of the one who healed others. It was as if love itself was dying up there, gasping for breath, breathing his last.
Do not look for easy answers. And do your best not to look away. Do not look away from this terrible moment, this tragic scene. This great grief has caused the sky to darken and the earth itself to quake.
Gaze just for a moment longer on this poor, dying one, and with the centurion let our words be, “Truly this man was the son of God.” Amen.