How do we read this story of a man dying on a cross? How do we read a story of one death, 2000 years ago when thousands die every day, old and young, not of age or illness but victims of cruel intent? He’s not alone. He wasn’t alone. One of three on that day, in that place, so the story goes. One of many more, so history tells us. They were given to crucifixion were the Romans. It made an example of those they executed to encourage the others, or rather to frighten and subdue them.
There they were: the criminals and rebels. Hanging there: a public spectacle. Strangely compelling. A magnet that drew the crowds.
What is it about the human condition that makes us want to be spectators of such things? Ghouls. What did we make of that Mel Gibson film: The Passion of the Christ to which he is now planning a sequel? A feast of gore, by all accounts. If it wasn’t about Jesus the church would probably have been up in arms about the level of violence. Yet because it purported to tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion we had a Methodist minister suggesting ways around the film classification so that younger people could see it. I didn’t watch the film. I don’t like graphically violent films. I even had to watch Schindler’s List in three parts because it aroused such strong emotions in me.
But there is for many an attraction in executions. They turned out to witness Madame la Guillotine in action during the French Revolution. Did the women really take their knitting along? They turned out to watch the Taleban’s public mutilations in Afghanistan’s football stadiums. They turn up outside America’s death chambers, with placards screaming, “burn in hell”. And in those same places others appear, light candles and pray quietly, silent witnesses, silent protesters against state murder. There is it seems a fascination with death. There is a fascination with death that has spanned human history, a fascination in particular with supposedly judicial killing. And in just the same way, and from equally deep parts of the human psyche, perhaps there always have been those different viewpoints about what is happening. Just as there are people for and against capital punishment outside America’s death cells, so at a cross two thousand years ago there were those who bayed for the death of Jesus and those who wept at the taking of his life. Those too, perhaps, though we hear nothing of them, mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sisters, who mourned the death of the criminals who shared Jesus’ fate. It is not for the innocent alone that people mourn.
There’s a poem by Barbara Seaman, titled “Good Friday Rising” in which she speaks of God with eyes shut against the Good Friday suffering and the darkness of the day “”all shadow, past and future, shoved into one three-hour space” with “stars sprinkled like clues”.
The poem suggests to me all heaven as spectator at this Friday crucifixion; the stars silent witnesses, and they only with any idea or understanding of what is happening. But there is suggested, also, a connection with all other suffering, with, for sure, all innocent suffering, but perhaps with all those times in the story of humanity from the great genocides to the random killings of individuals, from the deeds of terrorist cells to those of mighty marching armies of state. And the connection in all is perhaps that God’s eyes are shut. The connection in all is perhaps the constant refrain, Where is God? “Where is God?” asked someone watching the execution of a child in a Nazi death camp. Where is God? There on the gallows, came the reply. If God has turned his back then God is also dead upon that instrument of human violence. Or is it that God does not see because God is suffering too; because God is there in the child; because the eyes of God are the dead eyes of the child; because God is there wherever violence is done to another; because God is there always suffering alongside us and in us? Are the stars silent but seeing; silent but weeping inwardly?
Might they represent the eyes of heaven, open, intent upon witnessing humanity’s many inhumanities so that no suffering is ever unseen, no suffering ever, dare we hope it, in vain because it is beyond the eye of God? Does this Friday cross say to us, as we contemplate it once more, that always and again God is to be found in the crucified?
And yet do the crucified always find God? Hear that cry across the centuries. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” How does the hymn go? “Do thy friends despise forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer.” Yet here is Jesus obedient to the will of God and abandoned not only by his friends but also, it seems, by God. Jesus learned those words from his hymnbook. One who lived many years before Jesus had uttered those same words of dereliction. Jesus, in his moment, in his lonely moment, in his moment of being utterly alone, calls those words from his memory to express his sense of abandonment. And again and again down and down the ages, men, women, children and whole communities have re-echoed those words: in those Nazi death camps, in the genocides and mass slaughters of Eastern Europe and Africa, in the knife and gun crime that affects so many communities, in the constant fear that hanuts life in Syria, in the seemingly random attacks on the streets of Paris, Berlin, London or Stockholm; in a Quebec mosque shooting; in Palm Sunday bombed churches in Egypt: Where is God? Why, God, have you abandoned us? And God does not answer in the might of an army; God does not answer in the terror of a bomb; God does not answer in the strength of men and machines.
But God’s answer comes in the tears of orphaned children, the eyes of mothers and fathers who have buried their children, eyes dry because there are no more tears to cry.
And God’s answer comes in the way of a man who went to a cross two thousand years ago; who took a way that refused to contemplate any course other than love; a way that sought no power, no security but went on in the certainty that fear cannot be conquered by more fear, that hatred is only increased by more hatred.
How do we read this story? We can read it as ancient history. We can read it as confirmation that the innocent will always suffer. We can read it in a narrowly religious sense of something done for us by a God beyond us. We can read it in a narrowly religious sense of something done for us by a God who is close to us. Yet all these things may not touch our lives, touch our thinking. How we read that story will determine whether or not it has any power in our lives. Is the story of the cross just a tale about a way of death or might it be an invitation to a way of life?