Here is an extended meditation/talk I gave a couple of days ago for Holy Week.
I want to take as a theme this year the sayings of Jesus on the Cross. I shall offer some brief thoughts on each of them, because between them they give us a picture of the Gospel message.
Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do
Who killed Jesus? I worked with a Jewish woman who told me how she grew up facing taunts of ‘Christ killer’. I said that was unfair, as the Romans as well as the Jewish authorities were implicated in the death of Jesus. Here, as Jesus pronounces these amazing words, he has Roman soldiers at his feet.
In showing that both Jews and Gentiles were co-conspirators in the execution of Jesus, the Gospel writers tell us that the whole world is guilty of causing this, the greatest injustice of history.
However, in Jesus offering forgiveness to his tormentors, it equally means that his Good News is open and available to all. All have sinned – no exception – but also, the Gospel is for all – no exception.
There is no-one here who is beyond the forgiving love of God. It doesn’t matter what you are ashamed of, it doesn’t matter what you can’t forgive yourself for, Jesus offers you forgiveness from the Cross.
For there is no-one in the world who is potentially beyond the reach of God’s love in Christ. People we like, and people we despise. People we think are deserving, and people we consider unworthy – because all of us are unworthy, not only those who have done what is socially unacceptable, as opposed to those of us who – in our eyes – are basically good, but have only committed minor foibles. All of us are sinners in the sight of God, all of us are in need of forgiveness, and that forgiveness is open to all of us. He died for our friends and our enemies. Housewife and paedophile, businessman and war criminal, Jesus offers forgiveness.
Is that scandalous? Yes, to some. But this is love. This is mercy. This is grace. And without it we’re all dead.
With this, we remember our humble status, yet our loved status. As the forgiveness of God on Christ lifts us from our knees to our feet, so we also recognise his love for others and treat friend and foe alike with dignity.
Today you will be with me in paradise
In this second saying, we see the grace and mercy of God in Christ exemplified. You remember the story. Jesus is crucified in the middle of two criminals. As in life, so in death, he is in the midst of the world of human sin. And just as in the world, the responses to Jesus are mixed. One is mocking, the other is longing.
Mockery gets you nowhere – a sobering thought for our culture today. But to the plaintive, desperate cry, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the heart of Jesus responds in love: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief knows no Scripture, he hasn’t taken confirmation classes, and he has no chance to avail himself of the sacraments, but the cry for mercy is enough.
But what and where is Paradise? I grew up opposite a park, and within the park was a walled-off rose garden, with a separate door for entry. In a similar way, the biblical scholar Paula Gooder points out that ‘paradise’ is not in the Jewish usage some luxury beach with white sand. Rather, it is a Greek word, derived from a Persian once, referring to an enclosed garden. It therefore does not strictly equate to ‘heaven’, but Gooder suggests an enclosed garden within Heaven. Many Jews believed that after Adam and Eve’s sin, the Garden of Eden had been sealed up from humankind until the end of time, when it would be opened to humanity again. So when Jesus promises paradise now to the penitent thief, he is promising a return to Eden within Heaven, and thus a sign that the kingdom of God is coming. The thief had asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, and thus Jesus indicates that his kingdom is closer at hand than might have been expected.
So this mercy is more than forgiveness: it is the promise of being part of God’s kingdom, his new creation, his restoration of the universe to the way it was meant to be. It is more than wiping the moral slate clean, it is invitation into the intimate presence of God.
Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother
I guess we all know those people who remarkably think of others in the middle of their own suffering. Jesus was all that and more. Even before the Cross, during Holy Week, he gave words of comfort and hope to his disciples, knowing they were going to face terrible grief. He promised that he was going to prepare a place for them, that he would come back for them and that he was the way to that place.
Now, here he is, hanging on the Cross, and there is Mary his mother. Joseph is certainly dead, otherwise there is no need for him to think, as the eldest child, about arrangements for his mother’s care. But this is especially awful. Surely no parent should have to watch their own child die.
Some of the most heart-rending funerals I have taken over the years have been precisely such deaths. I remember a dear friend who died at the age of 41 from breast cancer. Not only do I recall the grief of her husband and that of her two children who were primary age at the time, also fixed in my mind is the pain of her elderly parents. She died in November. She had already bought and wrapped Christmas presents for her children, gifts she would not see them open. But she planned for them.
Jesus plans for his mother in the midst of suffering for the sins of the world. He matches her up with ‘the disciple [he] loved’ – whom I take to be John.
And how much more moving that he does this, given that during his public ministry he had been ambivalent about biological family. He had said that his true family were those who did the will of God.
Perhaps this points up the theme of the Cross. It exemplifies the fact that what Jesus is doing here, he is doing not for himself but for others. It makes me ask myself how much I am willing to go through suffering for others, and to remain focussed n others while I do so.
Furthermore, perhaps we can take this as indicating how through his death Jesus would create a new family of God, one that gathers around the Cross. That is what makes us God’s family today: nothing less than Christ’s atoning death for us. Nothing else gives use Christian unity within a church or with other churches: only the Cross does that. It is what we need to emphasise time and time again.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Is the hardest of all the words from the Cross? It appears in Matthew and Mark. To draw out some meaning, I want to concentrate on its setting in Mark. I believe these words fit a wider pattern that you see in the second half of Mark’s Gospel, as the shadow of the Cross becomes ever darker.
Three times Jesus predicts the Easter events – in chapters 8, 9 and 10. On each occasion he goes into great length about how he is going to be betrayed, suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and be killed. Then he adds a brief statement that he will rise again. The events of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death are then told in some considerable detail by Mark, but he has only eight verses about the Resurrection.
In other words, we have a pattern that gives great attention to unjust suffering but then just has a small note of hope with the Resurrection. Could the words, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ fit this scheme? I think so, and here is why.
The words are not original to Jesus. They are the opening words of Psalm 22, where David is struggling with unjust suffering. For twenty-one verses he emphasises this. But the final seven – the last quarter of the psalm – look forward with hope. When Jews quoted the first line of a Psalm, they usually had in mind the whole Psalm. It was rather like the way we quote a song title – we have the whole song in mind. So we should take seriously Jesus’ expression of desolation from God, it isn’t simply that he felt abandoned. However, he knows there is hope. There is much darkness, but there is a little light.
This would have made sense for Mark’s first readers, who were almost certainly Christians in Rome suffering under Nero’s persecution. Their pain needed to be taken seriously, and they needed a little glimmer of hope, without it going over the top into a cheap triumphalism.
Can this help us and those we love when we are struggling? I believe it can. When we face pain and agony, when perhaps this also has an effect upon our spiritual lives, we need people alongside us who can take the reality of that dark experience seriously, and not belittle it. Yet we also need a word of hope. Not someone who comes alongside with such a relentless cheerfulness that they are plain annoying, nor someone who is a Job’s comforter, explaining how it is all doubtless caused by our sin. We need the quiet, gentle promise that light is coming. All this is in a suffering Jesus who rose, and who spoke of his own God-forsakenness on the Cross.
This is a poignant, if not ironic, saying, coming as it does in John’s Gospel. Back in chapter 4, John records Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He promises her that she will never thirst again – he means in a spiritual sense.
Here, though, the One who made that promise is himself thirsty. Crucifixion has dehydrated him. Someone offers him a sponge dipped in sour wine, on a hyssop branch.
The detail of the hyssop branch is unlikely to be accidental, especially for a writer like John, who loves imagery and symbolism. The hyssop was used in the Passover … and John records Jesus’ death as synchronising with the Passover. A branch of the hyssop herb was dipped in the blood of the lamb and daubed on Israelite door posts to indicate to the Angel of Death that he must not inflict his terrible plague of slaughter there. So, for the Christian, hyssop is used to strengthen Jesus as he offers his blood as the Lamb of God, saving his people from death.
Not only that, I wonder whether another meaning might have any significance here? Jews believed the bitter and sweet aroma of the hyssop plant could repel evil spirits. I’m not suggesting, obviously, that such a claim is true, but could it be that we have a symbol here of Jesus’ conquest of evil forces on the Cross? Some New Testament passages speak of the Cross as a victory over the forces of evil, for example: Colossians 2 arguably contains such an image. Forces and spirits that work by fear are conquered by love. Those that work by brute force are defeated by apparent powerlessness.
Certainly, Jesus thirsts. Not only does he thirst physically, he thirsts for righteousness and the victory of redeeming love.
Now if ‘I thirst’ indicates some kind of victory at the Cross, then we might ask whether there are any other signs of triumph at Calvary. I believe there are, and they become apparent in the final two sayings of Jesus as he hung, dying.
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
Jesus may have been forsaken by God, but in these words from Psalm 31, he expresses a word of trust as he anticipates reunion with his Father. He will be vindicated – we shall see that in the Resurrection. He models for us the trust we may have when we draw near to death. Even Christians sometimes feel fear as death approaches, or even as ageing takes its course. It is said that William Williams, the author of ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’, feared death and was unsure of God’s love for him. The theory goes that this explains the final verse of that hymn:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and Hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Perhaps we sing, with Paulus Gerhardt in ‘O sacred head, sore wounded’,
Be near me Lord when dying,
O show thy Cross to me.
For when we see the Cross and hear Jesus committing his spirit into the Father’s hands, we know we are in a safe place.
A further thought here: Jesus is in control of his own destiny here. He chooses this moment to give up his spirit into the Father’s safe keeping. Others may have thought they were in charge of events, but they weren’t.
More than that, this is not a request on Jesus’ part, it is an announcement. He has decided to do this. Strangely, somehow, he is still running the show. This is another reason to place our trust in him, even at the bleakest of times.
It is finished
Saying that something is finished may not sound like a word of triumph. It’s over. It’s the end. All gone. Nothing left. It might in those terms be what you expect from someone whose life is about to end in an unjust way. It’s all gone pear-shaped. Down the pan. Finito.
But what Jesus says here is far from despairing. It’s a word of victory. ‘Finished’ here more means ‘accomplished’. It’s about the fulfilment of purpose. I have achieved what I set out to do. Strange as it may sound, it is as if Jesus has a sense of satisfaction as he dies. Mission accomplished! He has drunk the cup of suffering. He has absorbed the sins of the world. He has conquered the powers of darkness, taking all they could throw at him and turning it back on them, much like in a judo contest, where you take what your opponent throws at you and you use it against him. The cry from the Cross is a shout of triumph; the cry from Hell is a howl of anguish.
Darkness may cover the land on Good Friday, and the disciples may disperse in despair. But what they do not see at the time is Jesus turning in his report to Heaven, and the Father saying, “Well done!”
There is a saying you may know that originated in black majority churches: ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.’ We can leave Good Friday in doom and gloom, and there is a place for that. Yet even in the bleakness of Jesus’ death, the ear of faith hears words of victory that give hope: it is finished. All is accomplished. The work of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant is done, and in a couple of days God will confirm it. He will pit a great big tick by the work of Christ in the form of the Resurrection.
This Easter, do not be afraid to walk into the darkness. Because we are walking towards the light.