We’ve encountered a lot of darkness during this journey; betrayal, violence, conspiracies and injustice, wars and prophesies of wars, all of these have walked alongside Jesus. Now these forces are gathered at the top of a hill, powers and principalities coalescing around a piece of wood, crowding around for a glimpse of the nails.
Those nails are driven through Jesus’s wrists, hammered through his ankles, and he’s raised up, hanging naked from a cross, crown of thorns burning into his brow, a sarcastic sign posted above his head. He is raised up, a spectacle for all the world to see, and people spit at him, hurl abuse and insults, the apparently victories of Palm Sunday forgotten by the mob as they scent blood.
The gathered soldiers, the weeping relatives, the curious bystanders, all of these see a young man cut off in his prime, struggling for breath as his blood falls and is absorbed into the dust. They see what the world sees, but for those who sing of incarnation during the long nights of winter, something else is happening. Maybe the principalities sense it too; this isn’t just a moral teacher dangling from a cross, this isn’t a demigod reaching the end of his myth. This is God Himself, become human to take on the worst of the world, and now we can almost hear the baying of violence, the mockery of injustice, the whispers of betrayal, guns cocked for war and swords unsheathed. This looks like a victory for the bad, and even Jesus feels foresaken.
And yet this is a divine self-sacrifice, and instead of turning spirits to stone and sin to noxious smoke, instead of salting the earth with the crushed bones of legionaries, instead of unleashing angels of judgement full of rage and fire, God hangs on the cross, suffocating.
I can’t pretend to know how this works, can’t sit here and turn this into some mechanism, some transaction, a coin in a slot. This is something far more profound, something ineffable and unknowable. Its roots reach from sacrifices in the desert and from a King in his Kingdom and crying in a stable. The supernatural collides with the natural, earth is staked to heaven by an executioner’s tree, and God refuses to flood the earth anew, refuses to cleanse the world with fire. Instead he dies, the one without beginning or end piercing a veil. And in doing this, by dying in grace rather than warring with vengeance, those powers that climbed the hill are neutered and defeated. The skies darken; the world shakes; a centurion acknowledges that which has always been true, and death and sin are broken and brought to heel.
It’s a victory, no matter how it works, but at a cost. A bloodied body hangs on a cross as oblivious crowds pull their cloaks around them and start down the hill for home. We may be forgiven for thinking that this is the end.
But the final victory is still to come, and that will be as strange as today’s upside-down inauguration. And we’re going to have to wait – two days left to go…
The other posts in this series can be found here.