Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday: an hour with the Cross

'Could you not watch with me one hour?'
An hour of readings, reflections, and silence

Arrest from the Passion according to St John 
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’ This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’ Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ 

So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

Jesus is handed over to his enemies as a result of an act of betrayal by one of those closest to him, one of the 12, a man he had picked to be one of his apostles. We are rightly appalled that he could do so; and not just us, but generation after generation. Judas has become a figure of loathing in all places where the Gospel in known, and his name has become a by-word for treachery. But think what it was that brought the Son of Man into this world in the first place – the Sin of Adam; our sinful nature; our rebellion against the will of God. We must not be too quick to condemn Judas ... for to do so is in a sense to condemn ourselves. Yes he sinned, and sinned grievously, in handing Jesus over to those who hated him; but it was for our sins that he was handed over ... and allowed himself to be taken. St John strives to make it abundantly clear that no force on earth could have taken Jesus prisoner had he not willingly let himself be taken in their power. Look at what happens when he tells them that he is the one that they are looking for: they stumble backwards and fall to the ground. Note well his reply 'I am he,' echoing God's reply out of the burning bush to Moses 'I am who I am.' There is divine power in his reply. And to underscore the fact that he goes willingly, he prevents his disciples from fighting those who have come to arrest him. He goes willingly, for his hour has come, and this is what he has come to do. He has been betrayed into their hands by Judas; but only because our first parents betrayed the Father first; and also because we betray him still by our sins. 

pause for silent prayer & reflection

Trial from the Passion according to St John 
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. 

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

Pilate asks Jesus 'what it truth?' when Jesus tells him that he has come into the world to testify to the truth. We hear those words with wonder: how can any man stand in the presence of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and ask 'what is truth?' We can excuse Pilate in one sense, I suppose ... he acts in ignorance. He has been drawn into a situation not of his making; pressures that are alien to us are conspiring to bring him to the point where he will have to condemn a man to death for reasons he does not understand, and almost against his will ... but in the sense that he is the man with the power and the one making the decisions we can not excuse him at all. Pilate is about to condemn a man he believes to be innocent of any crime for no other reason than it is the expedient thing to do: he doesn't want to risk riot, or a breach in relations with the Jewish authorities, or the chance that they might use a refusal to condemn to undermine his position in the Roman system of government. He fights them, but only enough to soothe his conscience, not enough to actually cost himself anything. And his words 'what is truth' is the prelude to the handing over of an innocent man to the most horrible death imaginable. Because in a world where there is no certain truth, any thing is possible, any thing is allowable. His question should fill us with horror ... but does it? Perhaps we identify with those words more than we should ... because at heart we are happy with the idea that truth can be relative ... what is true for you, may not be true for me. Who is to say that what I do is sin? Who can say? What is sin? Or as Pilate would say 'what is Truth?' Except that Jesus said that he was truth; and he came to testify to the truth; and so we know there is no such thing as relative truth ... something is either true or it is not; and if it is true it is true or all people; and those who try to claim otherwise speak a lie. 

pause for silent prayer & reflection

Condemnation from the Passion according to St John 
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

The scouring at the pillar and the crowning with thorns is a scene of horror. St John describes it in only a few words. But his listeners would have known only too well what a Roman flogging consisted of: being whipped with leather cords tipped with bone or metal weights at the end. They would not only have drawn blood; they would have stripped flesh from the body; the pain and the blood loss would have left a man barely able to stand; add to this the peculiar agony of having a rough cap of long thorns driven into the scalps, with blood running in the eyes from a hundred puncture wounds ... weak, in pain, blinded, he also had to bear the mockery of being dressed in a purple robe, having them cry 'hail, king of the Jews' ... knowing each time they cried it he was about to be punched in the face, unable to see where the blow was coming from ... what kind of brutes would torture a man like that? A man for whom they could have had held no personal animosity? For they after all, were not Jews. Indeed, if they had heard anything about him, surely it must have been good, for had he not healed the centurion's servant? Soldiers talk; they must have known that this was a good man that they were treating so savagely. And yet they cold-bloodedly beat him to within an inch of his life, crying 'hail, king of the Jews' as they did so. And yet we, who know him to be the Son of God, and King of Kings, and know full well all that he has done for us ... do we not with equal cold-bloodedness, continue in our sins? How different are we from the soldiers that day, when we, like they, call him King, yet mock him and wound him with our deliberate sins? 

pause for silent prayer & reflection

Crucifixion from the Passion according to St John 
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfil what the scripture says,
‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.’
And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Why does Pilate refuse to change what he has written? Is he being simply willful, almost like a child refusing to make any alterations to what he has done? Or is he being petulant, taking a petty revenge? Saying to the Jews: 'you made me do this, even though I didn't really want to; now I will embarrass you by placing a sign above this bloody and battered figure, declaring him your King; because this pathetic figure is all the king your deserve; and to rub the insult in, I will write the lie in all the languages spoken in this area, to make sure that all that see will be able to understand; and so Jews will be humiliated; and Gentiles will laugh and look down on you!' Or is he being prophetic? Because we know, that unknown to himself, he speaks the absolute truth – Jesus truly is the King of the Jews. More, as he hangs on the cross, dying, he is close to accomplishing precisely what he came into the world to do. It is ironic that the man who not long before asked 'what is truth?' should not be the one who defends the absolute truth of Christ's kingship against those who wish to water it down and he will not let those who object to to the title 'the king of the Jews' have instead 'he said he was the king of the Jews.' They are the ones who should have known the truth of who Jesus was; yet for various reasons they could not let themselves believe it to be true. How like them we are sometimes; for we, of all the world, know the truth of Christ's message. Yet for our own purposes, how often we try to water it down, to remove the hard teachings, to declare as unimportant the parts that are inconvenient to how we chose to live our lives, to angrily push to the side as 'out of date' the parts that embarrass us in front of our liberal, secular friends. How extraordinary it is that it is Pilate who reminds us that he is King; and that what he has written, he has written; because the truth can not be changed. 

pause for silent prayer & reflection

Death from the Passion according to St John 
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath  especially because that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

And so we draw near to the end of our Hour with the Cross with the words of Jesus ringing in our ears: it is finished. He had accomplished all he entered this life to do. He had taken flesh and lived as a man in solidarity with us, so that we might know that we had a God who understood from lived experience all it was that suffered in this life. He had preached the Kingdom to us, so that we might have his teachings to guide us in order that we might know how we should conform ourselves to God's will. He founded his Church, entrusting it to the faithful Apostles he chose, so that his guidance might continue through it, and we might strengthened by the sacraments she ministers to all who follow him; and he suffered and died on the cross to redeem us from our sins so that at the last we might be with him in heaven. Well he might say 'it is finished.' It is tempting for us to look past that moment of atonement to the glory of the Resurrection ... but let us not. Christ is now laid in the tomb. Let us pause and stay a while in the shadow of the cross and the darkness of the tomb. In that dark place let us consider what it was all for. It was done in order to purchase for us the rewards of eternal life. Will we claim that reward for our own? Will we work out our salvation with fear and trembling  Will we humbly turn aside from all those fleeting things that world calls pleasures, but we know to be empty and a lie? Will will let blood that flowed from Christ's hands, Christ's feet, Christ side wash us clean so that when the time comes for us to lie in our own tomb, we will awake to life everlasting? I pray that each of us will ... but it is a prayer that can only be answered if each of us first answers Christ call on our lives and to live totally in his truth, this day and always. Amen.

pause for silent prayer & reflection; depart in silence

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