My dear wife called me on Monday afternoon: "I have a confession," she said. I immediately started to run through the list of potential things she could be apologizing for – spending too much money at Home Depot on plants, losing her cool with our rather obstinate son. Her answer was unexpected: "I know it is still Lent, and we’re not supposed to be doing these things yet, but the Easter decorations are out. Heath went in the closet and is hiding eggs in the living room." Because my wife is a pastor, and keenly aware of the effect and power of liturgy to shape our living, she knows that we must resist the urge to skip over the hard stuff to Easter. But she also knows that this is the point in Lent when things get hard. We have been singing in a minor key for a couple of weeks; the stories aren’t of lost sheep being found and prodigal sons welcomed home. These passion stories are brimming with pain – and not just any pain, the humiliating suffering of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Just as spring really shows up, as azalea blooms in the memorial garden open, we as church descend into darkness.
Because we come in here every week and our eyes are drawn up here, to the cross. The last two weeks of our neighborhood Lenten lunch series we have been at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Cornwallis, and St Stephen’s Episcopal on the other side of Hope Valley. Both have beautiful sanctuaries, cooled by their brick walls, a darker than ours so that the light shines through the majestic stained glass windows both churches have, reds and yellows and blues, up high in the back of the chancel. I love their spaces, but ours is markedly different, much more simple and bright, but also designed – and it is my understanding that those of you who were a part of it did so on purpose, so that the second you walked in the focus would always be clear. Up there, on those pieces of wood at the heart of the Christian faith.
But it is a strange symbol, isn’t it? This cross, hung in churches, made into countless kinds of jewelry and emblazoned on t-shirts, is, at its core, an instrument of death of the state. At the core of it, that is what was happening that day. Cicero called crucifixion the "extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves" and the "cruelest and most disgusting penalty." These executions usually took place along main thoroughfares, as a deterrent. Once the criminal was hoisted up, often after a beating and carrying the often 100-lb crossbeam to the site, their arms were either tied or nailed at the wrist. The feet always seem to have been nailed, through the ankles, to opposite sides of the vertical beam.1
Yet in addition to the excruciating pain, Mark seems to want to tell us even more about the humiliation. He tells us about the inscription of the charge, dripping with irony. He tells us that people passing by made fun of him. Everyone joined in, the chief priests; even those who were being crucified beside him mocked him. Mark wants us to understand just how alone Jesus is. And He feels it, crying out with the words of Psalm 22, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Mark’s description is stark and spare and desperate. Jesus’ life ends with a passerby putting sour wine on a sponge, sticking it up to his lips, almost as a joke. It seems as though these folks misunderstood Jesus’ cry, eloi, and thought he was calling to Elijah. As He cried out and breathed his last He was, in every way we can see, completely alone.
Except He wasn’t. That is the majesty of Mark’s telling. Even in the desperation he gives us two crucial cues. The first is about the curtain. Back in chapter 1 at Jesus’ baptism, as He was coming out of the water, mark says, the heavens were torn apart, schizo, as the Spirit descends like a dove. Here, in chapter 15, the same word is used again as the curtain is torn in the temple. Mark brackets his entire gospel with the tearing, the breaking in of God to humanity in the incarnation, and the tearing down of that final barrier between us and God, death itself. Access to God isn’t something mediated by the priest. God is free, and comes to us all. Immediately following we have the centurion, this guard who seems to have been there the whole time. After watching Jesus beaten and nailed to the cross, after watching people laugh at him, this man proclaims the irony of the scene – that the sign they hang above him ‘The King of the Jews’ is, in fact, true. There is something in the way He suffered, something the centurion sees, something in the way the world changed at His death, that confirms what Mark’s readers have known as true from the very first verse of the Gospel that begins in 1:1 with, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
Because this cross behind me is far more than an instrument of torture, the electric chair or table upon which the lethal injection is applied. It is a symbol that demonstrates to us that suffering reveals what is true. Suffering reveals truth. Through his crucifixion, Jesus reveals the utter futility of the power of the empire. That even the most glorious societies like Rome, like ours, fall prey to desperate acts of inhumanity, thinking that violence and cruelty are at the root of real power. But the centurion’s proclamation reveals that the emperor isn’t lord, isn’t truly in charge. God is.2 But even deeper than that, what the cross does is reveals the enormity of God’s love for us. The bible uses many images to help us try and understand what happens on the cross – as a God who pays a penalty for us, as God’s victory over sin and evil, in the vein of the sacrifices the people would make in the temple, as Jesus the Son who takes the penalty of the Father, the judge. Scripture doesn’t offer us one set, clean theory of the atonement.3 Ultimately, the cross says to us that there is nowhere we can go that God’s love cannot find us – from the exhaustion of our days to the failure we feel; from the mistakes that haunt us to our deepest suffering, from cancer to divorce, to sitting beside hospital beds as people we so dearly love get sick and die. Even unto death, in a world filled with war and poverty and greed, those pieces of wood up there on the wall remind us that God is at work in EVERY place, especially in those places where anger and jealousy and brutality seem to have won. That is the church’s proclamation, that through Christ comes the world’s liberation, freed to embody His love each moment.
On Wednesday night at our fantastic Lenten class Ruth Caccavale was showing slides, teaching us tons of wonderful things about period and perspective, all of these awe-inspiring and sometimes gruesome images of Jesus being beating and flogged, carrying the crossbeam up the hill. A couple of minutes in, as she spoke, I began to hear this wailing. At first I was confused, then annoyed, then I realized it was a baby crying. Some poor mother, homeless already and here as we hosted Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network last week, was trying to soothe a pretty angry infant – which is hard enough in the nicest home in the world – walking the halls, pacing, trying to get her to sleep in her pack and play in one of our Sunday School rooms. The juxtaposition – the images of Christ against the child’s wailing – was powerful. And I realized that is what the cross is about – that you and me, that that dear mother might know the depth of God’s solidarity and love. That she was not alone. That even in her exhaustion – and this is really hard to see sometimes – God is at work redeeming the world – her, us, a world that is too content with her not having a home.
So, friends, before you leave, take a moment and look up at that cross. I would imagine you, like me, take its presence for granted much of the time. I want you to really look at it, so that you might never forget the scope, the depth, the enormity of God’s love for YOU…on good days and harder ones, when your faith is strong and when the burdens seem too much. That God’s love follows us even unto death. And that we might know, as the church remembers in these next couple of weeks, that the story doesn’t end there. That there is more to come. That hope lives among us.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I was helped in my understanding of the particulars of crucifixion by Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 96-99
2. Marcus Borg and John Crossan, The Last Week, (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 150-151.
3. If you want to learn more, check out Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press,, 1994), chapter 13.