For our Good Friday service tonight, I’ll offer these reflections on the traditional Catholic stations of the cross.
Jesus is Condemned to Death
The Gospels don’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you by letting you kid yourself that you’d ever choose anyone but the other Jesus son of the Father, Jesus bar-abbas.
Arraigned in purple majesty, crowned in thorns, his spit-upon skin in tatters just like the grief-torn garments of Caiphus who’d cried blasphemy before confessing our original sin “We have no King but the President,”Jesus’ career concludes by collapsing, betrayed by a friend, deserted by the rest, denied by the one who’d always wanted a selfie with him.
It’s the high priest who puts the titles together which the Gospel began: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ The’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.
The attendance is always light on Good Friday because we’d like to forget-
Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.
And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world.
The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst. And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.
The chief priests’ reasoning: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” is correct. It’s a perfectly rational position. It’s how we’ve arranged our world.
So we let the theologians and preachers console us with theories and, worse, explanations, but what the Gospels give us is the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among people like us.
Deep down, we prefer a God up in glory who watches down from a safe, comfortable distance.
Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the other Jesus bar-abbas, every time we would shout “Crucify him, and every time some other Pilate will wash his hands of it and push God out of the world on a cross.
Jesus is Made to Bear the Cross
“The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. The mystery with which the New Testament wrestles is not the fact of Jesus’ death but the manner of that death. It’s the way in which Christ died, on a cross, that proved foolishness to the irreligious and a stumbling block to the religious. The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it. The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.
The shame is the point.
During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind.
To us, God bears a cross and hides behind suffering.
God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man.
Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Later, when the dying Christ declares “It is finished,” he’s ending any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than a bloody tree.
Jesus Falls the First Time
He stumbles because he’s scared.
Sometime last night or early this morning, the Gospels tell us, “Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.”
In the second century, a famous pagan named Celcus wrote a diatribe against Christianity, one of his chief points of attack being: “How could someone who claimed to be the divine Son of God mourn and lament and pray to escape the fear of death?”
And stumble on his way to death.
St. Paul says that “For our sake God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no Sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
If sin is separation from God, then Jesus stumbles because he’s stepping closer to the edge of the only literal abyss where there is only the deafening lonely sound of God’s absence.
Jesus Meets his Mother
She’d taken her boy to Jerusalem every year for years to celebrate the meal which remembers God’s rescue of them.
But now, the sacrifice is her son. The mother’s boy is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And she has to watch as we put those sins on him.
Standing amidst an angry mob, her lips trembling and tears welling up in her eyes, as she watches her boy outrage the chief priests and elders for the last time, watching on as he stands with torn clothes and a bloody face and tells Pilate that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority. I bet Mary will wish she never taught her boy that song:
“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.”
Simon Carries Christ’s Cross
Is it a brave, noble deed?
Or is Simon just getting the condemned man off his sidewalk?
St. Paul says we’re a mystery to ourselves. Our sin deceives us; such that, what we want to do we leave undone and what we want not to do we do.
Sin, St. Paul says, seizes an opportunity in us and elicits the opposite of what we intend. If so and if our sin is in Christ, then who’s to say whether Simon helps to carry Christ’s cross out of simple charity or out of sin? As an act compassion or as an act of cowardice, wanting to get the whole mess over with as quickly as possible and far away from him?
Simon couldn’t be sure about Simon’s motives any better than we can assess Simon’s motives. The truth of himself is in the cross he helps to carry. The cross to which Christ is condemned is the cross from which Simon is freed from no longer pretending he’s anything other than a sinner in need of the righteousness that God will credit to him from Christ’s account alone.
Veronica Wipes Jesus’ Face
It’s a wasted gesture, wiping his bloody face when very soon it will be flowing from his hands and his feet and his side. The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” Jesus had said. “For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew uses that same word ‘waste’ when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper. Two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman.
She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil- about $35,000 worth. This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body and his face. She anoints him.
And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him, for her waste of a gesture. Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the ‘good’ they could have done with that much money. They estimate the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the count the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. If she hadn’t wasted it.
Yet it’s her faith that Jesus praises.
The disciples look at her and they get angry at the ‘waste.’ Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste, an example of how we too should pour ourselves out in love for one another. With Jesus all the ‘good’ we can do isn’t the point. It’s not an End in itself. It’s just what happens when we pour ourselves out completely, when we waste everything we have, for someone else.
Jesus Falls Again
St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
And in Gethsemane early this morning, Christ emptied himself even of that,
pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says there’s nothing left of Jesus now. There’s nothing left of his humanity.
Jesus isn’t just a substitute. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.
It isn’t that Jesus will die an innocent among thieves. He will die as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.
He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.
He is every Caesar and every Judas.
Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror and gun violence.
He is everything we scream at each with signs.
He has become all of it.
He has become Sin.
St. Anselm argued that those who dispute Christ’s substitutionary death in our place “fail to consider the weight of sin.”
It’s the weight of sin, all of our every sins, upon him that causes Christ’s knees to buckle a second time.
Jesus Consoles the Women of Israel
The Book of Revelation calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.’ According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible ‘what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’ The blood of Jesus, says Luke, ‘makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.’
And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was ‘destined since before the foundation of the world.’ St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that everything that unfolds in Christ from cradle to cross is “in accordance with the scriptures.” The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. When we arrive at the foot of the cross, the Gospels want to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. The comfort Christ offers his mother and the women of Israel, whilst bleeding and dying, is the comfort longed for by the prophet Isaiah. Finally, God is comforting his comfortless people. Only, it’s the cold comfort of the cross. Only a death paid in our place by the Son who is the suffering servant will ransom captive Israel.
Jesus Falls a Third Time
Once for every time we deny him, Jesus falls carrying his cross where he’ll die nailed up like a scarecrow. He falls whilst we deny him to the tune of the cock’s crowing, hiding like Adam behind a fig leaf with fruit stuck in his teeth.
In falling with the cross religion and justice have handed him, Jesus makes clear the Fall need not refer to Eve and Adam in a garden. To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, we make the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of ourselves. The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular people revealing their inhumanity to man. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.
The cross is our fall.
The cross is our original sin.
Jesus is Stripped
Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, Jesus is naked, absolutely vulnerable before us. The Church has always read that erotic Old Testament poem as a parable for Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church, the people joined to his body by their baptism into his death.
Like scorning, unfaithful lovers, we betray him with a kiss and strip him bare, but all God needs is nothing to do anything and God takes the naked shame of Christ’s cross and by the baptism of suffering and death he makes us his betrothed.
Jesus is Nailed to a Tree
We boast in the cross, Luther says, because in nailing him to the cross God has nailed all our sins there once and for all. They’re forgotten in his body. ‘He has born our grief.’ ‘He has carried our sorrow.’ ‘Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.’
He could not die because it’s impossible for God to die.
He ought not to have died because Death had no claim on him.
Were you and I not in him, he’d have no sin in him. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly. He dies with the ungodly in him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.
In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. In Christ, you’re crucified, Paul says. You’re Buried with him in his death.
Good Friday is your funeral.
You’re condemned with him because you’re in him who is the pardon of God; therefore, after tonight there is now no condemnation.
His Body is Taken Down
St. Paul calls Jesus the Second Adam, the first fruit of a second creation.
Adamah, is the name of the dirt from which God made the first Adam.
When Jesus finally dies, and all of his friends have fled in fear or shame and even his mother is gone. It’s Nicodemus who had lurked in the shadows who steps from the safety of the sidelines to take his body down from the cross and bury him in the plain light of day.
The priest who had scoffed at his teaching about being born again is the one who lays his body like a seed in the adamah of a garden as though he is who were always meant to be.
His Body is Laid in a Tomb
He was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome.
He wasn’t even the only one crucified on Good Friday.
The names of all the others are unknown to us. Only his name abides.
And the Jewish people to which he belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. Take those together and I am convinced that we would not be here tonight with him in his death had God left him there.