Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

Lent and Easter

He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross

dali cross.jpg

It is spring time in the year 30 AD. Jerusalem prepares for the celebration of Passover. Pilgrims are arriving in great numbers from Galilee and Judea and beyond. Because of the crowds both Roman and Jewish authorities are tense and alert for any disturbance.

Jesus has come down from Galilee for Passover. He is well aware that his teachings and his deeds have aroused strong opposition, but that does not deter him. Steadfastly he heads for Jerusalem, for there he will be able to reach great numbers of people with the Good News. Many of the pilgrims will have heard of him and will be looking out for the chance of seeing him. The Temple authorities will certainly have heard of him and will be looking out for the chance of silencing him.

He knows his mission is to proclaim and inaugurate God's Reign of love here on earth. He has been doing this, living the love of his Father in all he does; telling of the Father's love for all, especially for the weakest and poorest; demonstrating the power of the Father's love and compassion through healings and forgiveness; expressing the Father's hatred of injustice and oppression. Everything he says and does is inspired by love; everyone he meets is met with the invitation and the challenge of love. This is the life that has antagonised and threatened the religious authorities, especially when the people question if he might indeed be the awaited Messiah.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, to the acclaim of the crowds, riding on a donkey, a symbolic act signifying the arrival of the Messiah. He moves on to the Temple where he casts out the stall holders and the money-changers, like a prophet of old, demanding respect for God's house, and challenging the authority of the Temple Priests. He does not give himself an easy passage! Given the opposition that has gone ahead of him already, these two incidents probably seal his fate. A conspiracy is born, involving Priests and Pharisees, and later extended to include Romans.

It leads to the events which follow the Last Supper. At the end of the supper, Jesus and his disciples go down to the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is filled with a sense of foreboding. His mission is being totally rejected by those in positions of power. His work is collapsing around him as the people are being turned against him. His life is in danger and even his closest friends are about to desert him. It all seems too much to bear. And Jesus prays, ... and he prays, ... and he prays: "Abba, My Father, if this cup cannot pass by without my drinking it, your will be done". He will not surrender his trust in the Father's love. He will not compromise. Even in this darkest moment he remains committed to the way of love.

For a while join Jesus in his prayer in the garden. Take in the whole situation: what has led to this moment; all that Jesus has done; what is going on behind the scenes; his prayer that, if possible, the cup of suffering may pass him by, ending "but let your will be done, not mine". Sometimes this has been interpreted as indicating that God the Father sent his Son specifically to die the ugly death on the cross, to pay back the full price of our sins, to shed the last drop of his blood so as to settle God's vengeful sense of justice. What sort of God would that be? Could that possibly be a true picture of the One whom Jesus calles "Abba, My Father"? Where, then, is the Father in all of this? What is a true picture of the God of Jesus Christ? What do we see of God in Christ?

His prayer is interrupted as Judas leads a group of armed men to arrest him. For the rest of Thursday night and into Friday morning Jesus is dragged before the Sanhedrin, then on to Herod, and back to the home of the High Priest. They bring all manner of charges against him, especially that of blasphemy, but on one thing they are agreed, he must be silenced. And so on to Pilate, who alone has authority to condemn to death. The charge is changed, from religious - 'blasphemy', to political - 'he claims to be king of the Jews'. The political pressure is too much for Pilate and Jesus is condemned.

But the charge no longer really matters. Something much deeper is going on, something beyond the actors in this scene. Jesus stands condemned for who he is and for what he does. He is the Son of God made man, and he conducts his human life in perfect, faithful obedience to his Father's Way of Love, a life of grace. Against that stand not so much Jews and Romans as the very powers of evil and sin. In the person of Jesus Christ human sin and divine grace are met for the final combat. The fury of sin is hurled at the very goodness of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

After being scourged to within a whisper of death, Jesus is then made the victim of a Game of Kings played by the Roman soldiers. They crown him, dress him up in a cloak, and come to "pay homage" to the new "king", with insults, fists and sticks. The game over, they drag him out to begin the way to calvary. The crossbeam is tied across his shoulders. He is too weak to carry it, however, and so a foreigner, Simon from Cyrene, is forced to help him. And so the gruesome procession makes its way beyond the city gate to the hill of calvary.

Of all the instruments of execution, crucifixion is one of the most cruel. It is designed to induce a lingering and increasingly painful struggle between seeking to breathe and seeking to relieve the pain of nailed hands and feet. It assures a slow, tortured form of dying, a worthy spectacle to frighten off other potential miscreants. And thus Jesus hangs upon the cross, breathing words of forgiveness for his executioners "for they do not know what they are doing"; promising the repentant thief "today you will be with me in paradise"; committing his mother to the care of his beloved disciple; and finally giving up his spirit into the hands of his Father. All is accomplished.

He is hurriedly laid to rest in a nearby tomb. His followers leave. Sabbath is about to begin. It would appear that sin and evil have won the day. We wait for another day.

 

 

For a further reflection on the death of Jesus