Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.
Friday has dawned but it is still night, the darkness and the shadows growing all the deeper as the sun makes its way toward noon. After their final supper together, Jesus and eleven of his disciples had gone to dark Gethsemane where the moon and the last of the stars was extinguished by the betrayal of the other disciple. Judas had left the table, took himself freshly washed feet to meet a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards. Their torches brought garish light to the garden; wild, misshapen shadows marched to where Judas said Jesus would be. There was Sacrament on Judas’ breath when he kissed Jesus —a kiss of identification, and death.
A fevered skirmish between the sleepy disciples and the High Priest’s posse, was quickly quelled by Jesus, the peacemaker, who also mended the wounded ear of Malchus. Then, Jesus had surrendered himself while the disciples fled.
Alone, except for his arrestors, Jesus was taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas. Peter had followed at a distance, found himself also being interrogated. As Jesus was questioned by Annas he was scrutinized by the maid. “Are you not one of them?” Others questioned him, too, three times asked Peter if he were not one of the disciples, but each time Peter said, “I am not.” The cock crowed after the third denial, but not to greet the day.
Inside, Jesus’ interrogation turned nasty when, upon answering one Annas’ questions, he was struck in the face by one of the policemen. “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong,” Jesus said. “But if I have spoken the truth, why do you strike me?” Perhaps, then as now, he was struck precisely because he does speak the truth. Jesus was bound and carted-off to Caiaphas.
After a brief visit to the High Priest himself Jesus was taken to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate seems pitiable, almost: an inquisitor defending himself to the Judge. It is Pilate who is on trial, not Jesus. But when Pilate found no reason to charge, must lest hold Jesus, the will of the crowd rendered Pilate powerless yet again: he could not protect Jesus. The crowd demanded Barabas’ release, and it was granted. They demanded Jesus’ death, and Pilate recused himself, acceded to their wishes. Jesus was flogged, mocked, condemned to death.
About noon, while lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple for the Passover meal, Jesus was stripped, nailed to a cross and put on hideous display for anyone passing by to see. Defying the crowds at last Pilate commissioned a sign to be hung on the cross: “The King of the Jews.” It was written in three languages, so that no one missed it. But what did Pilate mean? “This is what we do to trouble makers?” Or did he maybe believe it himself?
Soon it was over, finished. Jesus died in only three hours, but continued his earthly work even to the end. With almost his last breath he did what he always did: reordered lives and relationships: “She is now your mother,” he said of Mary to the disciple he loved. And to Mary he said in turn, “He is now your son.” That was Jesus ministry from the very start—giving his followers to each other in new ways.
It is to this precise moment that everything prior has led. And we would turn away from it, partly because we know the story so well And partly because we really haven’t the first clue as to what it all means. How does this death, this death bring life?
Many have tried to put words around it, bring sense to it or purpose out of it. Better, perhaps, to fall silent. Or turn to the Psalms. Jesus used a few of his last breaths to quote the beginning of Psalm 22, as a way to interpret his own experience of that moment—though only Matthew and Mark have the stomach to remember that he did.
Maybe we turn to another Psalm, not to interpret Jesus’ death so much as a to understand the nature of our own lives.
Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
Let me know how fleeting my life is!
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
And my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath .
Surely everybody goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
They heap up, and do not know who will gather.
And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you…
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
And give ear to my cry.
Do not hold your peace at my tears. Psalm 39:4-6, 12a)
How do you react to this statement: “A faith unequal to death is a faith also unequal to life”? Do you see our culture as “death-denying”? How might “knowing our end” and “dying well” be a kind of prophetic testimony to our culture?