Photo by Rui Silva sj, Instagram: @ruisilvasj, courtesy of Unsplash.
Collect: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinner, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.
I’d like to begin by drawing our attention to the statement at the back of our bulletin today. It may seem obvious, but these things are buried deep in our psyche and while John’s Gospel may be the most overt, it comes out in all the gospel tellings of the Passion. And so, because it is such a part of our stories, and of our own history, and lives on till this day, it is necessary for us to name it so that we can hope to be aware of it when it manifests in our own lives.
“Jesus was a Jew. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism that took time to form and evolve into the institutional Church of today. There were areas of contention and disagreement among the Jews in Jesus’ time [just as there are among Jews today, and among Christians as well], and the leaders of the early Jesus movement did not shy away from hostile rhetoric against their detractors, as evidenced by a number of New Testament passages. The Greek term usually translated here as “the Jews” varies in meaning and application, alternately referring to the most powerful Jewish religious leaders; Jews of the region of Judea specifically—[Judeans]; or to those Jews who had reservations about Paul’s mission among Gentiles. In essence, “the Jews” function in the New Testament as “the other” against which Christianity came to define itself. When the Roman Empire [legalized] Christianity, Christian rhetoric against Jews gained power, and Christian texts inspired anti-Semitism, most notably during the Crusades and the Holocaust [but also in a variety of other contexts as well]. In our modern context, it is important for us to remember that while New Testament writers took issue with Jews who disbelieved in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, these texts do not take issue with anyone’s race or origin. Nor do they prescribe for us, in contradiction with Christ’s central purpose, mistrust or hatred of non-Christians.”
Today is a hard day. It is one marked by profound violence and suffering. It is the story of the horror and tragedy of humanity on full display.
We see Judas betray the one he purports to love. We see Peter draw his sword and then try to save his own skin while warming himself by the fire by denying his knowing of Jesus. We see the destruction that results in people’s lives from trying to maintain power and authority. We see the chaos that can be created from a misguided crowd worked into a fervor. We see the devastating weight and cruelty of empire in response to one who would challenge it.
We see the shock amongst the disciples as Jesus is taken away. We see the grief of the women as they remained by the cross. We see the need of Jesus when he says, “I am thirsty.”
As I walked the Stations of the Cross this Lent, I was struck anew with just how very gritty this story is. Jesus falls. And then falls again. And again. As he walks, he encounters people along the way, some who show him pity and compassion, and others scorn. He says goodbye to his mother, and when he dies, he is laid in her arms.
So much suffering and cruelty. And yet there is beauty, too, even here: upon the cross Jesus sees his mother and his friend and entrusts them to one another’s care. Amidst his own suffering, he says to those he loves, “take care of each other.” Jesus sees the horror we can inflict on one another and responds with: “you need each other.”
And this is just a microcosm of what he does on the cross. For in that moment when Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away in the garden, he chooses to interrupt the cycle of violence that we enact upon each other every day. He does not respond to violence with more violence. He makes a spectacle of that violence—a spectacle intended to convey one thing by the Romans, but Jesus makes about another. For in his death, he turns the mirror back on us.
We are the perpetrators of violence. We do this to each other.
We are here in the story—at different times, different people. We are Judas who betrays. We are Mary Magdalene who waits. We are the disciple whom Jesus loved who adopts. We are Mary the Mother of Jesus who grieves. We are Peter who denies—and then Peter who later defends.
We mark this day not just because it is unique, but because it is also universal. It is universal in its depiction of the human story. In suffering. In violence. It is unique in that God shows up in the midst of all of it, experiences it alongside us, and then chooses to interrupt it. Universal in its experience. Unique in Jesus’s response.
In a few moments we’ll have the opportunity to meditate around the cross. I’ll be honest, I struggled with this practice for a long time—it was so informed in my mind by the theology that had formed me in my early days: that the cross was the way Jesus satisfied the need for sacrifice to an angry God. I no longer see it that way. Theologian and priest Maria McDowell puts it this way instead: “through the cross, we come face to face with a God so willing to be one of us that they will suffer all that it is that we do to one another, even death on a cross.”
That is, indeed, something worth meditating on.
And as we meditate on the radical love demonstrated in Jesus’ act on the cross, we would do well to meditate on what that act asks of us as well as violence continues to make headlines, from Ukraine to Jerusalem, from Brooklyn to Grand Rapids.
Northern Irish peace activist and writer Gareth Higgins writes in his most recent book, “catering to fear and pessimism is a function of the most dangerous belief: that violence can bring order out of chaos. Healing the world requires recognizing the damage this story has done.”
We must recognize the damage that story has done, as Jesus did. In his action, an instrument of death becomes for us a means of solidarity, salvation, and liberation. Our response must be to work to continually and again and again acknowledge and purge that violence from our own hearts. The violence is not “out there” somewhere in those “others,” whoever those “others” might be. It is within us each time we choose to warm ourselves around that fire where its safe and warm rather than stand with the one cast out. It is within us each time we allow ourselves to get caught up in the fervor of the crowd. It is within us each time we set ourselves apart from “them.”
And when we hear that cock crow, we commit ourselves anew to this man from Nazareth and the radical self-emptying love he demonstrates for us, remembering that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God does not wait for our perfection to come near us. God enters into the world in Jesus, living amongst us, and experiencing the depths of sorrow and the worst that we do to one another. And through the spectacle of the cross, liberates us, saying a resounding, “no!” to the cycle of violence to which we are enslaved.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.