by Fr Terry Tastard
In the two weeks leading up to Easter we try to enter more deeply into what Jesus is doing as he walks the way to the cross. I offer these brief meditations in that spirit, each day using one of the objects that appears in the gospels.
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb (Matthew 28.1).
Two objections. The Passion is over, and light is not an object. Well, we are seeing the Passion story through to the end. And if you think light does not have physicality, ask any physicist and you will get a complicated answer.
Generally though it is true, we do not think of light as an object. Instead, light is what enables us to see objects. How significant then that these courageous, capable women are there at first light. What they find is a shock. Not just an empty tomb – that could have been explained away – but a meeting with their beloved Lord. Jesus has only to say Mary of Magdala’s name, and hearing that voice call her is enough. She knows straight away who it is that meets her there. That dawn is a new dawn, and that light heralds a light that will never fade.
And yet, when the risen Christ meets them, there is an inner struggle. He is both familiar and unfamiliar, known and yet different. There is continuity and change. From now on the disciples, and all believers, as they claim his resurrection have to develop their understanding of Christ. As Richard Rohr puts it, we must move from what we always knew to what we now fully recognise (The Universal Christ, 40). We have always known Jesus, but now in the light of the resurrection we have to fully recognise him in the world around us. In our homes, our workplaces, our laboratories, our schools, our retirement homes, our hospitals. Christ is already there ahead of us, meeting us in the faces of others and in the needs of the moment.
There is something more that we have to believe: that we also carry Christ with us wherever we go. Our self-doubt makes us question whether this can be so, and it sounds impossibly arrogant. But it is true. Wherever we go, not only do we meet the risen Christ there, but we already carry him with us. St Paul challenges us here: ‘Do you not realise that Jesus Christ is in you?’ (2 Cor. 13.5). Or, as Jesus himself reminds us repeatedly in the gospel according to John, we are in him, and he is in the Father. In our humdrum daily lives we touch, through Christ, the immensity of God. That immensity can sound overwhelming until we realise that it is the immensity of love, compassion, mercy. What is more, this immensity of God is also the one who through the wonder of the incarnation comes to us in a human face. Mary of Magdala turned round when she heard her name. It was enough for her to know that this was Jesus she knew and loved. God, too, know us and calls to us by name.
The light of the world shows us the world in a new light. Yes, there is darkness in the world but the darkness has never overcome the light. Where light is brought to bear, the shadows disappear. Christ steps forth from the tomb, light shines on the world, and he invites us to look at it again and see it with his eyes. The same eyes that looking at us, recognise us and love us into eternity.
you call us friends because you made known to us
all that was necessary.
Fear holds us back, doubt erodes our confidence.
Take us by the hand as you step out of the tomb,
take us into the world that you make new,
so that we may see where you are to be found.
May we live for ever in the city of God.
Joseph of Arimathea bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb (Mark 15.46).
Stone. And for that matter, rock. We are meant to understand that Jesus is laid to rest and nothing can change the situation. He is surrounded by hardness, by surfaces that will not yield, a rock tomb surrounding him and a boulder sealing the entrance.
Even now, we can see how he was loved and respected. Joseph of Arimathea makes sure that Jesus, dishonoured in the manner of his death, will be honoured in the manner of his burial. The tomb is bought, the linen shroud observes tradition, and the stone across the entrance guards the body from jackals or other wild animals. Women make note of the location so that they can return and pack ointments around the body in a final mark of respect. These seem to be the women we hear about in Luke 8.2, women of resourcefulness who accompany Jesus and the twelve. They seem to be disciples in all but name, and these courageous women have persevered to the bitter end.
This tender care for their loved one cannot disguise the cold hardness of that stone. Hopes have been extinguished. Hope itself has been snuffed out. Nothing can change now.
Jesus told us to feed the hungry. We send charity abroad to feed people who are literally starving. We have food banks closer to home, to help others through a period of emergency. These initiatives fulfil the will of the Lord. But there is another kind of lack that can kill, namely the absence of hope. This kills the spirit. That stone rolled across the entrance to the tomb symbolises the death of hope. Jesus had preached the kingdom of God – the people of the world living in such a way that the earth itself reflected the love, mercy and joy of heaven. A vision that seemed to be extinguished when the stone rumbled into place.
Holy Saturday is a strange time. We know what the disciples did not know at this point, namely how the story will end. The stone is not immoveable. Love will prevail. Life will defeat death. And yet, this is an uneasy interval for us who believe. Deep down we imagine a world without Christ, and it is a world without hope. We think of Proverbs 29:18 ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. More recent and accurate translations make this a proverb about lack of restraint. The message is that where there is no vision, the people throw off any restraint, lose control and the result is deadly. A world where Jesus the Christ is sealed in the tomb is a world like that, where we are left to our own devices.
For the moment, though, let us return to that little group lingering by the tomb. We see grief mingled with affection, despair tempered with thanksgiving. Above all what we see here is personal. This group had walked together, laughed together, feared together, shared meals together. Many years later John will write, still amazed, that they had heard with their ears, seen with their eyes, looked at and touched with their hands the one who was the Word of life (1 John 1:1). Because they knew him and he knew them, soon there will be a shock of recognition when the stone is rolled away. The vision he gave them of the kingdom of God will live once more. When the stone is rolled away we will know that this same Christ speaks to us, and tells us not to linger any more by the tomb but to bring life wherever he sends us.
Jesus you are our present and our future.
Roll away whatever oppresses us,
so that we can be free to give
and able to receive.
Open our eyes to see,
our hands to heal,
our hearts to love.
Where we are hurt
may others bring us your healing.
Where we are in need,
give us your grace.
Join us to others across the face of the earth,
a joyful company of those who know and love you
and who carry this knowledge with us wherever we go.
One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (John 19.34).
Jesus has breathed his last, and the blood witnesses to the trauma endured by his poor tired body. There were earlier bloodsheddings too. During the scourging. When the crown of thorns was rammed on his head. Perhaps blood drops marking his footsteps on the way to Golgotha. And of course, from the wounds on his limbs after the nails were driven in. One theory about crucifixion is that breathing becomes very difficult because of the body’s posture on the cross, which might explain the accumulated fluid that gushed out with the blood. To the Church this has always symbolised the water of baptism and the cup of the eucharist.
A few hours previously Jesus had shocked his circle of close friends when he lifted a cup of wine and proclaimed to be his blood. Shocked, because in Jewish tradition blood is drained from an animal in ritual slaughter. Jewish practice respects blood and does not touch it without good reason. There is a depth of meaning here. Blood represents life. The Old Testament animal sacrifices which are so baffling and even repugnant to us are a way of offering to God that which is dearest: life itself.
You might wish that sometimes you had a front seat as history was made, but there was one front seat that you would have wanted to avoid. I refer to Mount Sinai, something like 1200 or even 1400 years before Jesus. There at the foot of the mountain the people who have fled slavery in Egypt are assembled. An altar is erected and oxen are slaughtered. Moses reads the Law to the people and asks, will you live by this code, which is a covenant, a solemn agreement between you and God? They reply that they will. Moses then takes basins of oxen blood and throws it over the people (Exodus 24:3-7). This blood offering is an indication that the covenant is sacred, solemn and binding. It commits the People, Israel, to God, and it binds them to one another at the same time.
The blood that trickles or from the cross brings another covenant. It opens to way for many more to be the People of God, countless numbers, a vast stream of people across time right down to you and me. We are now the people of Christ. The sign, the seal, is once more blood. The incarnate God on the cross yields life to promise life. There are several ways to explain this, for example sins are forgiven, or evil is defeated, and certainly it is a wonderful demonstration of the power of God to bring life through death. Each of these explanations takes its rightful place in Christian teaching, but surely it all begins with us being moved by what we see on the cross. This is the self-emptying of God. God breaks down every barrier to be among us and to be for us. The hymns of Good Friday are often powerful in emotion, and no wonder. Good Friday liturgies are usually packed, with men and women from every walk of life. There is an atmosphere of dignified sorrow. It says to me that through the cross and the blood of Christ ordinary people have grasped in their hearts the deepest truths about God.
Saviour on the cross,
we watch at a distance,
unable to touch you,
like visitors in Covid wards
forbidden to touch their loved ones.
But we know that your death struggle
is our birth pangs.
May your blood on the ground
hallow it to be a sanctuary for us,
where we meet to tell once more
how God reached across space and time
to break down every barrier, now and for ever.
11. WINE – SWEET and BITTER
They came to a place named Golgotha (which means Place of a skull). They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall. But when he tasted it, he would not drink it (Matthew 27:33-34)
It is a moment of utter dread. Jesus now sees before him the place of his execution. We might expect him to falter. At this very moment he is offered wine mixed with a drug that would stupefy him. This cup was meant kindly, a rare gesture of kindness in the brutal world of Roman punishment. Nothing could remove the pain of crucifixion, but this sedative might take the edge off some of the agony. Jesus, tasting the potion, refuses it.
It is a moment of courage. But it is also a statement of who he is and why he is here. He has come to be among us as one of us in all things but sin. To be human is to be vulnerable. We know physical pain, emotional pain and social pain. All three are now part of the path that he is walking.
Physical pain: be has been whipped and punched, with the worst still to come.
There is emotional pain – we think of him looking at his mother, aware of her suffering too, or of the cry of desolation when he quotes Psalm 22.
There is social pain, the feeling of having been rejected and paraded through the streets as an outcast. Ending up outside the city, expelled from the community, a placard proclaiming his offences for all the world to see.
Jesus the Messiah will not evade any of the suffering which can afflict ordinary men and women. His identification with us is total.
It is a moment of great courage and great love. It shows us the divine longing that pain should stop here. God does not glory in suffering. You could say that God on the cross dramatizes the power of human sin, in order to show God’s even greater power to love and to forgive.
If we are deeply moved by the sight of the Saviour on the cross we must also be deeply moved by the suffering of our brothers and sisters. In the parable of the great trial, Jesus tells us that he will be found among hungry, naked, thirsty and imprisoned people (Matthew 25:31-46). The personal and the social always go together in Christian discipleship. We will struggle with our endless self-centredness, but we also try to look on the world around us with the eyes of Christ. His suffering on the cross, unabated by any soothing drug, makes us take more seriously the suffering of the world.
Perhaps the church talks too much about sin, but so much suffering in our world is caused by sin. We are learning more and more how even natural disasters, that seemed in the past to be random events, are often linked to our lifestyles. The cross challenges us to live responsibly. Repentance is personal – we feel sorrow for our failings, no one else can do this for us – but the outcome of our repentance is change, with effects that can ripple out far beyond us.
Turning from sin, repenting, changing the world – this is an ideal, of course. But the point of ideals is to lift our aspirations, enlarge our horizons, inspire our imaginations. This is why there was another cup, this time inaugurated by Jesus, only hours before. At a seder table in an upper room he lifted bread, blessed it and proclaimed it to be his body. He took the cup of wine, blessed it and proclaimed it to be his blood. Ever since then, in every eucharist Christians have found his presence in their midst, and have gone out to seek his presence in the world as they stand alongside others in their hour of need. This cup of sweetness binds us to both the joy of heaven and the sorrow of the earth, reminding us that Christ, the host at the table, shared these with us.
Jesus our Saviour, you know how we distract ourselves
from the distress and hurt of the world,
how we resent our own pain.
Yet you endured pain so that we might be healed,
you drank to the dregs the cup of suffering.
We stretch out our hands to the cup of the eucharist,
asking that this may be to us sweetness and love,
and that it may send us out refreshed
to be that people that you call into being
each new day.
10. THE CROSS
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross. It was Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15: 21a).
Was Simon of Cyrene plucked at random from the crowd, or had he made some sign of his sympathy with Jesus? It might be the latter, and a soldier, seeing this, lights on him: ‘You agree with this man? Very well. Take a turn in carrying the cross then.’ Not only is this incident commemorated in all three synoptic gospels, but the verse quoted above goes on to name his children as Alexander and Rufus, suggesting that Simon was well known to the fledgling Christian community. So there is a strong possibility that Simon had links with the followers of Jesus, and they remembered him afterwards.
Jesus, already weakened from the scourging, is staggering under the weight of the cross. Then, suddenly, a command is snapped, and Simon is grabbed from the crowd and forced to take the cross-beam from the condemned man. It’s always the same with the cross. There is an element of compulsion. Sometimes we quote a little glibly the words of Jesus about taking up our cross and following him, but it’s not usually something that we take up, more something that we accept after it has been thrust on us. On that day, Simon of Cyrene was abruptly told to do it. And in any real cross in life, we too have no choice.
You can’t wriggle free from the cross. Disabled people coping with their disability. People caring for a partner with dementia. A marriage that is somehow going sour. A boss who treats you shabbily in a job that is financially essential for you. Being bullied at school or in social media. An autistic child. Addictions. Bereavement. Sometimes we can come to terms with our cross. But for a time, or even for a lifetime, it is there on our shoulders. Others like Simon of Cyrene can come to our aid, but essentially the burden is ours
Carrying our cross – and helping others with theirs – is often a case of doing our duty. This doesn’t mean that love is not present. Love takes many forms. It can be honouring a commitment. Or making a fresh start. Love can require stoicism or courage. Love can co-exist with exhaustion, irritation or even anger. Dorothy Day, the American writer, pacifist, rebel and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, liked to quote some startling words from Dostoevsky: ‘Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams’. She lived with the poor. She opened her doors to the homeless. She campaigned against war and on behalf of exploited workers. Her diaries show that she found it hard and had to struggle with depression at times. On some occasions she wanted to run away and live alone. She persevered. Love and determination are often partners in carrying the cross, or helping others to carry theirs.
A final thought. Cyrene is in north Africa, in what today would be Libya, so the only one to help Jesus carry the cross was a son of Africa. This should be a source of pride for the people of Africa. They may also feel that it has often been their lot to help others carry their burden. Step into any care home in Britain today and you will find that many of the carers come from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe. And, we ought to add, from the Philippines. This ministry of caring for our elderly is carried out without heroics and is often underestimated in importance, just as we underestimate the cost to those who cross oceans to help feed their families.
Jesus, you called us friends,
and friends are there for one another.
Looking on you walking that path,
we yearn to help you,
but wonder if we have the strength, the courage.
You turn to us and remind us
that you will be found among the struggling people of the world,
who long for someone to help them with their cross.
And you tell us also that when we carry our own,
your shoulder will be there to help us too.
Give us this sense of your presence, this blessing, we pray.
9. CROWN of THORNS
The soldiers, after twisting some thorns into a crown, put it on his head (Matthew 27:29)
I remember being on holiday in Greece with a priest friend. He insisted that we visit a church supplies shop. There his eye fell on a crown of thorns, presumably used during Orthodox Good Friday liturgy, or something similar. This crown was a woven circle of long, fierce spikes from some tree or shrub. He insisted on buying it. To take it back to the UK he put bubble wrap round it (it filled his carry-on case) and despite being careful, stabbed himself several times in the process.
A crown of thorns like that was rammed on Jesus’s head. Paintings of the Man of Sorrows often show trickles of blood down his forehead from the crown. This was a preliminary piercing that foreshadowed the cross. Now, think about it for a moment: to make a crown of thorns cannot be easy. It requires strength to bend those branches, and, as you weave the thorns in a circle, they will be pricking you. Who, you might imagine, would think of such a thing in the first place, let alone be determined enough to do it? I think we can surmise that what was at work here was the energy that comes from delight in doing harm.
Evil takes many forms, from low-level nastiness to deeds so awful that they seem suck the oxygen out of the air as we hear about them on the news. Whoever planned and carried out that crown of thorns was motivated by this strange inner desire to hurt. Here is one story to illustrate the point. On the night of 22nd March someone entered an ambulance station in Thanet, Kent, and used a drill to puncture the tyres of six ambulances. And this, of course, just as the coronavirus epidemic was starting to hit. Vicious, yes, but also pointless, as evil often is.
The crown of thorns is part of the humiliation of Jesus. It hoots at the idea that he is a king, and ignores his words ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ Mockery, denial, ignorance. Part of a process aimed at obliterating his humanity. Evil is often like this. It belongs to a chaos, a meaninglessness that sometimes seems to stalk the world looking for victims. It frightens us even to think about it, and we would prefer, in fact, not to think about it. It offends our sense of justice. Most of the time we encounter goodness in people. Even when we encounter the opposite, it is more often a pettiness or a thoughtlessness than an actual evil. And yet, this element of is there in the world. We need to acknowledge its reality.
The mock regalia of kingship planted on Jesus is intended to humiliate. A desire to humiliate others is something dark and sinister. This particular humiliation will culminate when he is lifted up on the cross, exposed for the world to see. Yet in these moments we see Jesus meeting the senselessness of our world, that element of chaos and darkness that we prefer not to think about until it is forced on our consciousness. Even the coronavirus pandemic has elements of this, which is part of its ability to create fear. This pandemic seems so irrational, so ruthless in is impersonal energy. Hence although it is a product of nature and not of human beings, we think of this too as part of evil. Even in this case, though, human carelessness seems to have played a part in its spread from animals to humans.
Jesus in the courtyard, being taunted by the soldiers is vulnerable to this strange human weakness for meaningless gestures of hatred, contempt, ill-will. He is hit full-on by the irrational evil that is part of our world. Jesus on the cross is held before our eyes, victim to this destructive force like so many before him and so many after him. It tells us that God in Christ identifies with us fully. What hurts us hurts the Saviour. He will be one with us even in our pain and desolation, as we wonder why the world can be so unfair sometimes. God shares with us the human condition. And because it did not defeat God, in the fullness of time it will not defeat us.
Saviour Jesus Christ,
from crib to cross
you were exposed to the vagaries of life,
to its chances and misunderstandings.
You met hands that helped you
and hands that sought to harm you,
tongues that blessed you
and tongues that cursed you.
Protect us from chaos within and without,
but in all things draw us closer to you
in the true Kingdom of God.
8. SILVER COINS
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27.3)
Looking at Judas, we need to be very careful. His very name hints at his Jewish identity, and of course he is involved with the Jewish religious leaders of his day. In centuries past the Christians have charged Jews with deicide, murdering God. It has contributed towards a culture of contempt which in turn has helped to pave the way for genocide. Unfortunately, some of the readings from the gospel of John in Holy Week can also seem to be anti-Jewish. But when we hear the mob swept along in its own fervour, it sounds pretty much like every mob in history. And when we hear of the authorities getting worried about the Son of Man helping the poor and downtrodden, it sounds like every authoritarian regime we have ever read about, fearful of subversion. The Jews are not to blame. But how appropriate is the idea of blame when we come to the suffering and death of Jesus? Consider the example of Judas himself.
I thought that I knew well the passage from Matthew quoted above, but when I came to read it again for this meditation I registered something for the first time: Judas repented. I remembered all the rest, ie that he hanged himself, and that the money went buy Potter’s Field as a cemetery for foreigners. But somehow all through the years I had overlooked that little word, repented. And surely it changes how we see Judas? Not so much a monster as a stupid, foolish, complex man who in a venal decision betrays the Saviour. Someone, in fact, not that different from us.
One commentary that I consulted described him as ‘a doomed and damned man’. But didn’t he repent? And doesn’t God forgive those who repent? In fact, Judas in returning the money lamented that he had betrayed an innocent man. That sounds like something from the heart. As Christians we cling to repentance like a life raft in a stormy sea. We know that we can come to the Lord again and again. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis has said that while we may weary of confessing our sins, God never wearies of responding to us with forgiveness.
Have a closer look at those thirty silver coins. They were stamped with the image of a Roman emperor – someone who had been proclaimed as god-like. This was a blasphemy. But everybody used those coins. They were part of the commerce of everyday life. Only in the Temple were they banned. This meant that Jews, who were careful not to fall into idolatry, none the less had to deal with coins carrying a blasphemous image. This was the sting behind Jesus’s words about rendering to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to God what belonged to God. In carrying those coins they were already part of the world with all is compromises.
What about us, today, in our advanced capitalist economy? Today money is more and more an abstract set of digits flowing through computers. We, too, have to deal with money having no idea what it has contributed to before it came to us, or what it will go afterwards. Like Judas and his silver coins, we are deeply implicated in the world around us. And yes, our money too, has idolatrous implications. What we spend our money on will show what we worship in material terms.
So perhaps we should look at Judas with more pity and less horror. Together we are all part of the world that Jesus came to save. Together we belong to a world that wants to ignore this saving initiative of God, a world that struggles to understand who Christ is. We do not claim to be better than others, we are simply grateful that we know Jesus Christ and that he knows us. And that the door to repentance is always open.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you told us again and again
that God loves us and is a God of mercy.
Your own life showed God to us.
We pray for ourselves and for our whole world,
that you would lead us deeper into understanding
who you are and how we should live in the world.
Let your grace overcome any pride in our hearts
and keep us open to your saving word
whispered in the very centre of our being.
The men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him. They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ (Luke 22.63)
It’s like a parlour game with menaces: If you’re so clever, then tell us who hit you. This is part of the continuing attempt to humiliate Jesus. It must have been frightening for him, not knowing from which side the next blow would come, waiting for it. The Greek word in the gospels that is usually translated ‘blindfold’ comes from the word for ‘to veil’, and suggests something more like a hood, covering the head. We know from our own day that this is often the fate of hostages. They are hooded as part of their powerlessness, unable to see their interrogators. It brings added fear.
Yet looking at this scene with Jesus and the soldiers, you have to wonder, who is really afraid here? They have effaced Jesus. Shut away his power to look at them, prevented any eye to eye contact. The face is a powerful instrument. It can radiate to another a huge range of emotions. Before the face of another we feel accountable. Were they afraid of what they might see in the eyes of Jesus? They shut away the possibility of glimpsing love or forgiveness. The soldiers could not see his suffering. Perhaps they could not bear to see these things. Far from glimpsing his divinity, they cover up even his humanity. We think of the many victims of torture in our own day, whose humanity is viciously erased.
There is a moment in the gospels when Peter first glimpses the awesomeness of who Jesus is, and falls to his knees, saying, ‘Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man’ (Luke 5.8). It is a common human reaction when we contrast the messy reality of our lives with the holiness of Christ. We shy away from that face. If this happens we need to remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the one boastful, the other remorseful (Luke 18: 8-14). The gospel makes it clear that Jesus told this parable to some ‘who were confident of their own righteousness.’ It is the tax collector, with all his compromises, who goes home having received the mercy of God.
Well, we are not confident of our righteousness, and paradoxically that is why we are able to come to the face of Jesus. The face turns towards us with mercy, reassurance, love, acceptance. This is the Jesus who looks and sees a widow putting a small coin into the Temple treasury, a housewife kneading bread, a sower casting seeds, unemployed labourers lining up and desperately hoping to be picked for a job. He looks on everyday life and finds here signs of the loving presence of God in our world. The Son of God does not reject the world, in fact he embraces it with God’s love. He does not ask perfection from us but he does ask honesty. As long as we know our own need, we can approach that face without fear.
Lord Jesus Christ,
we come to your face,
to the look in your eyes as they promise love
to your ears that are ready to listen,
to your lips speaking their words of reassurance.
Draw us onward,
point the way,
and be our companion on the journey.
6. PURPLE CLOAK
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s quarters) … and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak … After mocking him they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him (Mark 15.16-17a, 20a)
Laughter rings round the barrack courtyard. If the whole cohort was present it would have been about 400 men to witness the humiliation of Jesus. Soldiers are often bored. Poking fun at Jesus would have been good sport, a way to pass the time until they got bored with that too. The purple cloak was part of the mockery. Since this man had allegedly declared himself to be a king, very well then, robe him in kingly garments as part of the joke.
Purple is a bold, striking colour. In the ancient world it was a difficult colour to dye, and the expense added to its mystique as the colour of authority. To this day, dignitaries are often robed in purple as a sign of their status. It also makes them stand out in a crowd.
Jesus as he walked through Galilee and taught the crowds had once referred to this. No point, said Jesus, looking for a true prophet like John the Baptist dressed in gorgeous robes: ‘Those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces’ (Luke 7.25). If you want proof of who I am, added Jesus, look at the deaf who now hear, the blind who now see, the lame who now walk, and the poor who have heard good news. He heals, teaches and brings life: this is what shows the authority of Jesus, not purple robes.
We look on a nearly broken figure in that courtyard. The red blood seeps into the purple cloak. He had been scourged, a whipping so brutal that people sometimes died. Its depiction in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ shocked and horrified some cinema-goers. But looking on, we see a difference between authority and power. Pilate has power. The soldiers have power. They have the power even of life and death. But they do not impress. The irony is that the one on whom a purple robe has been shoved in a joke is actually the person of true authority. Earthly power comes and goes. But profound, lasting authority is found in Jesus. It is the authority of love, of service, of integrity. It is the authority of having sought and followed the will of God. This is an authority that does not impose its way on us, does not dominate us or manipulate us. This authority speaks gently to us by example, and by inspiring us invites us to come under its banner. It is a gentle authority, one that seeks out that which is good in us and seeks to build on it. In this way we co-operate with God and with God’s presence alive in us, as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
We are easily impressed by the glitzy. Fashion and wealth clothe people in the garments of celebrity. But instinctively we know that this is not the way of life. It is the Son of God who is mocked and scourged who gives life. He clothes us with his love, heals our wounds, lifts our spirits, and invites us to share his work in the world around us.
Lord Jesus Christ,
sometimes we feel powerless,
swept along by the currents of the world.
Help us to our feet,
cleanse our clouded vision,
show us how among the powerless
your true authority still works
miracles of love today.
Peter began to curse, and he swore an oath. ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14: 71-72)
Tears are real objects. They are part of us that we shed. In fact, you could say that tears are proof of our soul. They show that there is a place at the very core of our being where powerful emotions seize us. We weep for many reasons: shame, frustration, joy, laughter, grief. Tears are a physical thing but they point to our spirit, alive and active.
Consider Peter. Peter is part of the inner circle of the Twelve together with James and John,. Peter has promised Jesus that he would never abandon him. One account has him lashing out with his sword to try and prevent the arrest of Jesus on the Mount of Olives. But as he follows the arresting party to the palaces of the powerful, Peter realises that the danger could extend to him. Caution takes over. We are told that he watches at a distance. Then, when challenged, he denies any association with Jesus. When Peter realises that he has failed Jesus, tears of bitter shame run down his face.
In the culture of the West today, shame is often regarded as a bad thing. We are aware of how a sense of shame can be manipulated to induce guilt and exploit people. But can we really do away with shame altogether? It is inseparable from our sense of responsibility, it is part of how we honour commitments. This needn’t be something grand. I remember an electrician looking at church lighting that had been poorly installed and saying, ‘I would be ashamed to leave a job looking like that.’ Our desire not to let others down is linked to this possibility of shame.
The tears that wash over the face of Peter are a physical sign of the shame he feels. But they are also a sign of his love for the Lord, and of the strong bond between teacher and pupil. There is a heart-tugging moment in the gospel according to John where followers of Jesus begin to drift away when his words become too challenging (6.68). Jesus asks the Twelve if they are going to leave him too. Peter replies, ‘Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ This revelation of God among us comes through a relationship of warmth, trust, friendship, as Peter’s reply hints.
This fearsome knowledge is why Peter must turn again. Precisely because he weeps in shame, he will be able to persevere. The place in his soul that produces his tears is the same place where he will renew his commitment, rediscover his courage and accept his special responsibility in carrying forward the message of Christ.
Nobody with soul escapes tears in this life. Failure is always difficult, and to know that we have let others down is always especially bitter. We need to go beyond shame, though, and remember that we can only feel shame because we also know the right thing to do – and have failed to do it. Our compass works, even if we have ignored the arrow pointing in the right direction. Shame calls on us to work through the shame and find again our inner sense of direction pointing the way forward.
when Peter wept in shame,
you looked at him and saw his tears.
In your love and belief in him
later you gave him another chance.
You challenged him to be brave and carry on your work.
When we know our own failure, our tears, our shame,
draw us onward.
give us purpose,
inspire us with your grace,
so that we may know that we live in you
and you in us.
4. SWORDS and CLUBS
Judas, one of the twelve, arrived, and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs. … Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled’ (Mark 14.43, 48-49).
This must have been a frightening moment. The disciples have been sleeping, exhausted with worry. Jesus has heard the noise of the approaching arrest party, seen the flare of their torches. The disciples wake up to see the grim sight of men approaching them armed with swords and clubs.
Swords and clubs were the most common weapons of the period, and would continue to be so for centuries. We need to be frank here. Swords were weapons of death. They were designed to kill by running through an opponent. Clubs, on the other hand, were weapons of disablement. They were intended to render an opponent senseless, unconscious, but usually not to kill. The arresting party intended this show of force to bring fear, to intimidate Jesus and his followers so that they could arrest him and take him in for questioning. To us today, swords and clubs seem like something from epic films, and evoke little fear. To understand, we have to think in today’s terms: of a group of men arriving with menacing weapons such as shotguns, powerful rifles, ‘zombie’ knives and daggers.
Swords and clubs, weapons of fear. But who is the most afraid here? It is not Jesus, who points out to the arresting party how cowardly the authorities have been. They could have arrested him in daylight in full view of the people, but they were too afraid of the people to do so. This tells us how Jesus was already loved and respected. No, they had to do the deed under the cover of darkness, because they feared how the crowd might react. Even then they bring swords and clubs, in case that little band around Jesus try to defend him. It is the people brandishing swords and clubs who are afraid. There stands Jesus. We can visualise him looking at the faces of those taking him captive, as the flickering flames of their torches throw light and shadow on their faces. He sees anger, determination – and fear.
Fear and aggression often go together, in that order. We are afraid and so we adopt a defensive position, prepared to lash out. Mentally we often carry swords and clubs with us, in the form of our tongue, ready to silence others. Our insecurities make it difficult for us to tolerate even helpful criticism, or words of guidance. It’s even harder to hear a challenge to think again about the way we live. This is truenot only at the individual level, but also at the social level. The Twitter mob descends in wrath on those who dare to challenge what is fashionable. Swords and clubs can be wielded over the internet.
Jesus knew the power of fear, how it could drive aggression. Confronted by swords and clubs he does not reply in kind. During his anguished prayer in Gethsemane Jesus has confronted his fear and worked through it. Now, centred and calm at his arrest, he encourages us to be honest about our fears. We need to admit our fear and not be driven by it. True wisdom is not to answer to fear with fear, not to repay to aggression with aggression, but to find that inner ground where we know ourselves loved and accepted where it really matters – with God. It’s easier said than done. It’s a lifetime’s work. Which is why it is so important.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you stood your ground,
and yet without anger,
Help us to find deep within us
that place where you speak to us.
In times of tension, resentment, or blame,
give us the words of both honesty and charity,
for we know that we need them both.
In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground (Luke 22.44).
Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives. From here there is a clear view of the old city of Jerusalem. He can see the city, with its walls, its palaces, seats of power. He must have known his vulnerability. Here shortly he will be judged, whipped, humiliated and killed. We know that he had an inkling of what lay ahead because he is praying hard. Let this pass me by, he says, let this pass me by. But let your will be done.
If you look this verse up in your Bible you may find it in brackets, or shunted down to a footnote. This is because some of the oldest versions do not have this verse. But this verse has been known to Christian writers since the 2nd century. So why was it omitted in some ancient texts? Was it because it showed Jesus in anguish, not only that, but sweating profusely? Was this too human a picture for one who we know to be also the Son of God? It speaks of turmoil so great that his heart is pounding, great beads of sweat form on his brow and fall from him. You can imagine the scribes hesitating at this point. Too earthy. too human.
But this word picture in Luke does not diminish Jesus Christ in our eyes. It should move our hearts, because it gives us a glimpse of the cost to him of carrying on. It is also a reminder that fear and courage go together. When we are afraid, we can lose faith in ourselves. We doubt our ability to carry on. This, though, is precisely where courage is shown, where we find that even trembling legs can continue to walk forward. Jesus knew courage when in a moment of fear he contemplated the horror that lay ahead. Just as we do now, he sought strength in prayer.
Sweat happens in exertion. We sweat when our work is hard and exhausting. Christ is working here and now, as he sweats in anguish, and his labour will continue on to the cross, where his endurance will be a work that will speak for all time and into eternity.
Sometimes people feel that they are hypocrites if in a time of great need they turn to God and ask for help. They may feel that they don’t pray often, or don’t live the Christian life that God asks of them, and that it is hypocritical to turn to God at moments of great trial. At moments like these we should hear the words of the Lord: ‘Come to me all of you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.’ The heart of the gospel is always that God is love. It is not hypocrisy that drives us to prayer in our hour of need. It is honesty.
Lord Jesus Christ,
we are already moved with sadness
as we see you kneeling to pray,
in great turmoil.
You would want this time of distress to go,
you would long to walk another path,
not to have to pay the price.
But you cannot and must not.
Faithful, committed, courageous,
you will rise and go forward.
Our eyes are heavy with the sleep of indifference,
we slumber as you work around us, unseen.
Help us to our feet, and open our eyes to see
where you are present
and invite us to share your work in the world.
2. THE LAMB
They are to take a lamb for each family … They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel … (Exodus 12: 3, 7)
This smear of blood was the sign that would protect the Hebrew people from the forces of death as they ranged through Egypt. Death would pass over their homes. It was also a sign that their freedom from slavery under Pharaoh was at hand.
Centuries later, when Jesus sat with his little band that evening, it was a Passover meal, central to Jewish memory. Reciting the events of the Passover tell them who they are and where they come from. On the table in front of them there would have been, according to tradition, the shank bone of a lamb, a reminder of the lamb which had been slaughtered to provide the saving sign of blood for the doorposts.
If we are honest, it is a gruesome thought: all those lambs being sacrificed at the time of Moses. It was also a time of confusion, hope and fear. A window of opportunity had opened for their escape. They could not even wait for the bread to rise. They had to act boldly, seize the moment and go. Yet it began with the death of a lamb for each house. Death and blood brought life and freedom. Even in the chaos of the sudden escape, there is that moment of utter seriousness signalled by the bleating of lambs as their blood is shed. This emphasises the drama, the urgency, of what this moment. They must seize it – and go.
When Jesus and the Twelve sit in the upper room, the promises about the Messiah are being fulfilled. There, at that table in Jerusalem sits the one hailed by John the Baptist as ‘The Lamb of God’. This Lamb’s death will bring life. His blood will bring safety. We remember this at each Mass when the host is lifted up and the priest exclaims, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.’ We are invited to the table which is the altar of the Mass, the table of communion. But we are also being called to the eternal banquet of heaven, to the supper of the Lamb where every face will be turned towards us in welcome, and where our host will be the Lamb of God himself.
We each ask, am I worthy? Can I really be welcomed? The memories of sins and failures float before our eyes. Encounter with true holiness makes us bitterly aware of our own compromises. But then we remember that the Lamb gave up his life so that a great people beyond numbering could pass over from death to life, from sin to mercy, from hurt to healing. From slavery not to Pharaoh this time, but from slavery to sin. We belong to that rescued and liberated people. The Lamb promises us a place at his table.
In the early 17th century the poet George Herbert wrestled with his unworthiness and turned it into a poem in which he engaged in a dialogue with God:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
We too know our unworthiness. But God in Christ not only accepts us but welcomes us, washes away the dust of sin that clings to our feet and anoints us with the oil of healing. The Passover into eternity awaits us, but we already share its blessings every day of our life. Because each day divine love and mercy await us anew.
Lamb of God, your blood is a sign
of your promise of life.
Take us by the hand;
guide us through our uncertainties,
hesitations, failures and betrayals.
Help us pass over from the land of death
to the land of life;
from the slavery of our addictions
to the freedom of the promised land;
from loneliness, to your table of welcome.
1. THE NAILS
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. (Mar 15:25)
The accounts of his crucifixion don’t mention nails. We are simply told that ‘they crucified him’. But afterwards Thomas says that unless he can put his fingers in the holes made by the nails, he will refuse to believe in the risen Christ. This tells us how traumatised the disciples must have been by the grinding reality of the crucifixion. No wonder most of them ran away. They had seen holes torn in the flesh of their beloved Lord. The memory haunts Thomas. The horror of those nails is the first thing that springs to Thomas’s mind when hears that the Lord is risen.
For now, though, the cross is still to come. Jesus is preaching openly in Jerusalem. Spies dog his steps, reporting back to the authorities. The disciples are frightened. Somewhere out there, the iron nails are waiting that will soon pin him to the cross. Were they in a store somewhere in the citadel, part of a grim inventory of implements of torture and death? Crucifixion happened frequently against robbers, runaway slaves, and rebels. Extra large iron nails like this would have cost money. It is likely that they would have been salvaged from each execution, cleaned off and used again and again.
By going to Jerusalem for a major festival Jesus shows that his message is for the whole world. He knows that it will end in his death, for the authorities will be frightened. When those nails are taken out of the hardware store, they will be one more sign that he shares in the pain and suffering of humankind. The nails that plunged into the limbs of others are the same ones that will now plunge into his arms and legs. Our pain is his pain. Sometimes we feel helpless. The nails tell us that he too felt helpless as he was nailed down. It’s a comfort to us, in distress and sorrow, that the Christ walked this way too.
A beautiful modern hymn ‘The Servant King’ by Graham Kendrick contains the lines:
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered
The Christ who was there at the beginning of creation, out of love for us surrenders power and in his flesh shudders under the impact of hammer and nails. He knows in his flesh what can only be known through flesh: how vulnerable we are, and how sometimes we have to endure suffering that we cannot avoid.
we remember the hammer and the nails
and your body under their impact.
We think of the suffering of our world:
of the pain in our streets, our hospitals, our own homes.
Give courage to all who suffer.
Let your crucified hand touch our hands
each time we lift them and ask your help.
Let us know your closeness in our hour of need.