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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Ash Wednesday: The Ashes of our Crosses

There are too many Swastikas around nowadays.

I never thought I’d need to say that; I grew up at a time when Nazi iconography was frowned upon, so seeing the resurgence of the Swastika as a symbol of white nationalism and hate is a shocking reminder that these things never really got away, they just get rebranded.

My instinct is to fight back, to deploy a better symbol aso a gesture of defiance and hope. As a Christian, that means the Cross, but something stopped me from blithely suggesting we all bring out our crucifixes. Because, blasphemous as this is, we’ve made our symbol of love and grace, hope and redemption into something problematic. The KKK used burning crosses as an act of terror; now branches of the church are complicit with politics and attitudes that actively destroy lives. In doing that we’ve turned the cross into a mechanism, a banner, something to get us into heaven, something to march under so we can be sure we’re comfortable before we get there. The idolatry of our anger and fear conspire to turn the Cross into a heresy of terror.

I’m scared we’ve neutered our greatest symbol. I’m scared people see our cross as yet another form of oppression.

So. Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this year’s ashes come from the burning of palm crosses blessed in the previous twelve months. Even this is a picture of resurrection – there are ashes today, but Easter’s coming soon. And I can’t help but think that, this year at least, we need to let our use and understanding of the Cross pass through the fire.

We need to repent.

We need to face up to the ways in which we’ve co-opted Jesus and his cross into our culture wars.

We need to ask forgiveness of everyone we’ve driven away from God

Many churches now do public Ash Wednesday services where anyone can receive the ashes on their forehead. But wouldn’t this be a great time to wear the ashes ourselves as a public act of repentance for the sins and the mistakes of the church? To start rebuilding a few bridges into the communities we’ve marginalised?

Sometimes the most powerful outeach starts with a “sorry”.

The Cross was once a means of humiliation and execution, but it was transformed by Christ into a symbol of love and grace, and when we lose that we’re just another Empire. The “foolishness” of the Cross isn’t intrinsic, it’s granted by the transformative sacrifice of Jesus. Lose that, lose the love and grace, lose Jesus and the Cross becones nothing. The Church becomes nothing.

Ash Wednesday is a time to confront our past, our mortality, our mistakes, our sin. In a world where Swastikas and their ideology are resurgent, we need to utterly reject our silence, our apathy, our tacit support, rejecting the politically symbol we’ve made of the Cross and rediscover the true love and mercy and justice of Calvary.

Let us reclaim Christ’s Cross and, in doing so, pray for redemption, for transformation, for the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to come.

(This is part of a conversation which started, I guess, here.)

Good Friday 2014: Crucifixion

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It’s Good Friday. The long road to Calvary has reached its awful climax and all we can do is watch in horror as the kingdoms of the world go to war with the Kingdom of God, as those who want Jesus dead unleash their most brutal, terrifying weapon.

Crucifixion was barbaric and brutal and slow – the word ‘excruciating’ means ‘to torture on a cross”. Its primary purpose wasn’t just to kill – after all, there are far more efficient ways to get rid of an enemy – but to humiliate, to horrify, to send a message. Crucifixion was all about communicating power – that’s why the Romans crucified rebels and revolutionaries, as the ultimate deterrent, as a means of stamping their authority on the world.

This didn’t originate with Rome. It’s said that, when Alexander the Great besieged Tyre, he crucified 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants, nailing them to crosses lined up across a beach. Woe betide anyone who crossed Alexander.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus was crucified. The Romans and the Temple authorities recognised the world-shaking challenge of his teachings, perhaps more than we do. After all, if we take Jesus at his word then everything must change, the status quo must be rejected, abandoned, cast aside as meaningless in the light if God’s holiness, love and grace. To some this is recognised as hope and salvation; to others it’s a threat to be overcome, a blasphemy that needs to be crushed.

And so those who perceived this threat engineered not just Jesus’s execution, but his utter humiliation and his irrevocable defeat. He was scourged and mocked and beaten, paraded to Calvary so weak that a random member of the crowd was drafted in to carrying his cross. And that very cross alluded to more than just physical death, it implied that Jesus would be rejected and cursed by God in accordance with the law of Moses.

Look at this scene again. Everything here speaks of defeat and death; even geography proclaims that Jesus is doomed as he stumbles towards Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Jesus is defeated, both physically and spiritually. This is the end.

And yet…

And yet there are glimmers of truth here, breaking through in moments and mockery and realisation that, in the upside down world of Easter, feel prophetic. The ‘thief’ on the cross – more rightly understood as a revolutionary – realises, at the last moment, the futility of his actions and aligns himself with Jesus. The sign above the cross and the crown of thorns may be mockeries but they’re also true.

And the centurion who sees something that makes him proclaim that this is the Son of God? He becomes a symbol of God’s triumph on the cross; the power structures and the tools of intimidation used by this world aren’t just defeated, they’re transformed.

Crucifixion was one of empire’s greatest weapons. But we no longer fear the cross, we see it as a symbol of hope and salvation. We don’t commemorate Good Friday as the end, but as part of a transforming, resurrecting cycle that climaxes a couple of days later with a garden and an empty tomb. The power of death and hell, of evil and compromise and oppression is shattered at the very moment they appeared to have won.

But first there were the nails, the spears, the jeering troops. We can be resurrected, but often with pain and never without change. God’s grace costs us nothing, but that’s not to say a price wasn’t paid. The pain of Good Friday was real.

And yet Sunday is still on the way.