“Then they led him out to crucify him.”
I don’t know what time you will read this post. You might read it at nine o’clock in the morning, which is the very hour he was crucified. In the gospel of Mark, the words that follow the scene of crucifixion are these, they “divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.” I am taken back by the cold practicality of those words; “He won’t need them anymore. Somebody ought to make use of them.”
Maybe it is noontime when you happen across these words. That’s the hour when darkness came and just sat on the earth. Heavy, smothering, consuming darkness.
You might be reading these words at three in afternoon. That is when he cried out with a loud voice, “My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?” In Mark’s gospel those are the last words he spoke, before he drew his final breath. He had been betrayed and denied by those closest to him. Judged by the authorities and beaten by the soldiers. Mocked and ridiculed by those who passed by. And now, with his dying breath, he cries out of utter abandonment, “Where is God in this?”
It might be in the evening when you find these words. The hour or two before sunset. The time when his dead body was removed from the cross and laid in a tomb that was sealed with a rock. Cold, hard, final.
Whatever time it is that you might read these words, this Friday of Holy Week is the day of the cross, the day of darkness, the day of death. Too often and too easily, I believe, too much of the Christian world has tuned the cross into a slogan which includes a prize for us. You know, “Jesus died for our sins, so we get to go to heaven.” “Jesus paid the price, so we don’t have to.” Though such slogans find their origins in portions of the epistles, their simplicity denies the complexity of Jesus’ crucifixion and the fullness of possibilities for meaning. We should also remember that the epistles offer a reflection back on the cross. On the day it happened, the Friday when the spikes were driven, the clothes divided, and his body was limp, there wasn’t much theological interpretation happening. There was fear, there was darkness and there was death – brutal, cruel and painful.
We have prettied the cross up over time. Made it gold and polished it and placed it out as decoration. We wear it as a piece of jewelry around our neck or hanging from our ear. Embroidered onto a necktie it becomes part of our formal dress. A ticket to heaven for all who believe. Sometimes we Christians call ourselves “People of the cross,” but what does that mean when we have moved so far away from the historical reality of what the cross was.
Theological reflection upon the cross, asking “What does this mean,” is not a one and done deal with the results being able to fit on a bumper sticker. As I think about the possible meanings of the cross – there are the ideas that innocence sometimes suffers, that truth can be sacrificed, and that faithfulness to the path of God might well be a very lonely and painful journey. On this day, above all days, I don’t want to pretty the cross up and make it attractive. I want to try and look at it in its cruel, raw, historical reality. Because when Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to follow me, needs to deny himself and take up his own cross” it’s not the pretty and polished cross we have made it. It is the bloody, raw, state-sponsored instrument of death that he had in mind.
Bonhoeffer writes that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship). I am haunted by the cross and what it means. Both the cross that Jesus died on and the one he calls me to. . . . And yet, I know that the very reason I am able to ask what the cross means is because the cross, in all its awfulness, was not the final word. For that, may we be grateful.