Stations: Death (Good Friday)

7-8-33tWe’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.

 

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Launchpad – Via Crucis: The Stations of the Cross

The Stawp-1489871621007.jpgtions of the Cross are the traditional commemorations of the various stages of Christ’s journey towards Calvary. While the following series isn’t always based on the traditional Stations, it’s rooted in trying to see how the echoes of Holy Week manifest in today’s world…

  1. Gethsemane (Jesus prays in the Garden)
  2. Judas (the Betrayal of Jesus)
  3. Malchus (Jesus heals the servant of the High Priest)
  4. Conspiracy (the Trials of Jesus)
  5. Terror (Jesus is tortured)
  6. Dismas (the good thief)
  7. Burden (Jesus carries his cross, helped by Simon Cyrene)
  8. War (Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem)
  9. Humiliation (Jesus’ clothes gambled away)
  10. Death (Good Friday)
  11. Burial (Jesus placed in the tomb)
  12. Resurrection (Easter Sunday)

Stations: Humiliation

1102014731_univ_cnt_2_xlAnd now Jesus ascends the hill; his long walk is over and the end is near, but there are still humiliations to come. The soldiers strip him of his clothes; forget all those works of art where Jesus wears a loin cloth, the fact is that people were crucified naked. This is, after all, a public spectacle; crucifixion isn’t just about killing someone – a dagger and a dark alley would deal with that with far less hassle – but about stripping them of their dignity and their self-respect and their basic humanity. And so no-one’s going to step in and spare the modesty of the Messiah – they want him naked and ashamed.

Maybe this feels like an humiliation too far. Pain and beatings are one thing, but this is more calculated. This is designed to show who’s in charge, to rob Jesus of his agency and his dignity. The fact that soldiers start gambling for his clothes is just another twist of the knife – imagine being stripped and seeing even your clothes being passed around as trophies. This is a part of the crucifixion we often overlook, but it’s one of its vilest elements.

The Australian church leader and activist Jarrod McKenna recounts how, during a protest over the rights of refugees, he and his colleagues were arrested and strip-searched, in what seems to be more of a calculated attempt at humiliation than any real security concerns. And in re-reading that story I’m confronted with the injustice and the dehumanisation that often takes place under our radar. Jarrod later staged a protest in his underwear as a way of drawing attention to what had happened; it’s confronting and challenges our concepts of public modesty, and maybe we need to remember that Jesus isn’t crucified in a way that makes him look good for the portraits, but in a way that takes on the worst the world has to offer.  And we should pause and recognise that, because we’re too close to the story, we know how this ends. We’re too quick to jump to Easter Sunday, or even the darkening skies of Good Friday. At least there’s power there, at least there’s hope.

But for now, Jesus stands naked and alone, smirking eyes catching him at his more vulnerable. And now one soldier leaves his group and picks up a hammer, as his comrades-in-arms continue to throw dice. The game goes on with no great urgency. Everyone knows who lost.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Stations: War

8_womenJesus is on the verge of ascending the executioner’s hill, but throughout his journey he has drawn a crowd. Among them is a group of women, mothers mourning and weeping because they know what’s coming, at least in part; they know that Jesus is going to die, they know that crucifixion is a brutal spectacle designed to put an end to the story, nails hammered into bloodied full stops.

Jesus knows that the story is bigger, an epic rather than a Roman propaganda statement. He knows what’s coming beyond the nails. That’s why he turns to that group of women, that group of mothers, and tells them not to weep for him but for the future, because something else is emerging over the horizon, something terrible, something brutal, Jerusalem’s armageddon. In a few years’ time everyone will be weeping for their children, because Jerusalem is going to strike against Rome and Rome’s going to strike back and the consequences will be horrific beyond imagining. The City of God is going to fall, people are going to die, and the children of those women, albeit grown adults at that point, will be the ones to suffer.

These are the civilians who always suffer in times of war; the traumatised children watching parents die, the women raped and brutalised, the parents wondering if they’ll ever hear from their families again, those who die when a city burns, those who flee to a life as refugees and all that entails. And Jesus looks at them in pain and sorrow because even as he stumbles towards Calvary, he’s having this moment of prophecy, a prophecy of Jerusalem’s fall forty years later, maybe even a prophecy of all the other wars to come.

We mourned the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt this weekend, and that’s another example of the innocent suffering in the face of violence. But in the mourning, as we look into the abyss of grief, we must remember not to be corrupted in response; Jesus is still moving towards the cross, and we can weep and mourn as we walk with him, but let’s never become the ones who hammer the nails in the name of security; we follow the Prince of Peace, even on the hardest of journeys, even on the longest of walks.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Palm Sunday: The Art of Looking Ridiculous

Jesus doesn’t march into Jerusalem at the head of a vast army, nor does he wave from the back of a tank. There’s no fly-past from a squadron of fighter jets, there are no nuclear silos on standby. Anachronisms aside, this isn’t how Jesus rolls.
Instead he sends the disciples into town to find a donkey; a colt, the foal of a donkey. Jesus, a full grown man, is going to make his triumphal entry on a donkey that’s way too small for him. He’s going to look ridiculous. Maybe that’s the point, maybe this is a piece of prophetic theatre.

After all, this is Jerusalem, full of Passover pilgrims and simmering tensions. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous; Pilate will have war horses riding into town, and chariots, and gleaming armour and sharpened swords. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous, Rome will be looking powerful, intimidating, dominant.

Palm Sunday is, among other things, a piece of satire. Jesus announces his Kingdom in a way that mocks the imperialists and the occupiers of the time, mocks those who so worship earthly power in all its iterations. And in doing so he may look foolish, feet dragging on the floor as the untrained donkey veers this way and that, but still people look at him and shout “Hosanna!” Lord, save us.

This whole ride to the rescue becomes increasingly bizarre over the course of the week, culminating in crucifixion. And if the story ends there then it is ridiculous, just another protest that ends in violence.

But it doesn’t end there; the tomb is empty and all the Powers of the world are unable to overcome a thirty-something carpenter riding a donkey that’s too small for him. The Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules and never will.

And so we follow our King and embrace the foolishness, part of the community but dancing to another song. We respond to things in a different way, rejecting the binary choices presented by the world and offering compassion and grace instead. We lay down our swords in the face of a thousand empires; we continue to ride our donkeys.

Or do we?