A video of this meditation is on YouTube:
This crucifix of Jesus does not belong to St Barnabas Church. It was kindly lent by Father Joe of St John the Beloved, when I mentioned to him my intention to do the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday. In this liturgy, following the Solemn Collects and the singing of the hymn “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, the cross is brought into the church where it is venerated.
It is a beautiful crucifix, although I hesitate to use the word “beautiful” to describe so horrific an event. Crucifixion is a slow and painful mode of execution, reserved for slaves and people of a lower class. It was intended to be humiliating and those who died by crucifixion served as an example to others who might be thinking of breaking the law.
Jesus was convicted of blasphemy under Jewish law, and sentenced to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. There were political reasons why Jesus had to die – he had increasing popular support which challenged the authority of the Pharisees and those in charge of the Temple. He broke the law by healing and performing acts of mercy on the sabbath, the day of rest. Most seriously, he did not deny being the Son of God, and by being put to death this claim would be shown to be false, for surely, if he were the Son of God, then God would have rescued him from the cross.
As it happens, God does not rescue Jesus from the cross. Jesus undergoes death, along with two thieves on either side of him.
There were also personal reasons why Jesus had to die. Those reasons involve you and me. Jesus’ whole ministry and mission was spent among the people. Jesus loved everyone, rich or poor, saint or sinner. If Jesus the man reflects the goodness and love of human nature, then the cross represents its opposite: the cruelty and injustice of human beings.
If we study the cross long enough, we will see both the cruelty of man and the love of God. The cross can be an uncomfortable reminder of our own failings and our own sinfulness, while at the same time it can help us to see beyond them. Jesus did not run away from the shame of the cross. He accepted his painful death with courage and humility; out of love for us, he endured its humiliation, so that those who face similar treatment might know that Christ is with them when they too are victims of injustice and cruelty. Christ is with all who suffer, and at this time we think of those who are suffering because of the coronavirus, and who who are lonely anxious or afraid.
Jesus is with us because, out of love, he endured the suffering and shame of the cross. He did this for the sake of the love between God the Father and God the Son; Jesus is obedient unto death. The crucifixion is part of God’s plan of salvation for the whole world. Jesus endures the cross because of the people whom he loved, even those who sentenced him to death. From the cross Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Earlier Jesus had told his disciples – his friends – “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13.) Jesus willingly offers his life for his friends. We understand this action theologically as an atonement for our sins – on the cross Jesus squares up to the extremes of sin and cruelty and redeems them by his death.
The cross is sometimes called the gateway to life. Jesus does not stay on cross, nor is his death the final word. In three days he is raised to new life and this resurrection demonstrates God’s victory over sin and death, our most feared enemies. Jesus invites us to experience this new life with him. The amazing thing is, we don’t need to wait for our own death to experience it: new life in Christ is available to us now.
But to receive this new life, we must first see and know Jesus who died for us on the cross. An innocent man condemned to death is our Savior. In love, with humility, let us gaze upon him there, and see the depth of his love and passion for the world.