By Rev. David Brinton
Our society is shot through with traces of the Roman Empire, not just physical remains in the form of ruins and artworks, but in our legal system and church organization, our philosophy and aesthetics, how we explain to ourselves what is truly good and beautiful and why – these also descend from the Romans or from the Greeks through the Romans.
But above all the most common visual reminder of the Roman Empire in our day, visible everywhere really, if you look, is the Cross. Most of us are wearing one around our necks this morning. The cross stands at the summit of churches throughout the world, and is visible everywhere in these Convent buildings, and, astonishingly (given the times we live in) next door at the hospital.
Crucifixion, a killing technique involving binding, and in some cases nailing, a person to two pieces of wood, was an agonizing mode of judicial murder in the Roman world. It now stands above our churches and hangs around our necks as a sign of God’s… mercy! So much for the mighty Roman Empire.
Is it any different today? What symbols will be erected in some future time as testimony to the wickedness and hypocrisy of our culture, one wonders – the culture that brought a certain kind of freedom to the world, democracy, technology, medicine; the culture that has the most elaborate system of justice ever devised to protect the rights of those accused of criminal acts – but the culture that also has brought us Hiroshima and Auschwitz; a vast terrible migration of displaced and homeless people; the catastrophic attempts to eliminate indigenous cultures and peoples; the sexual abuse of the innocent and vulnerable; the destruction of rainforest, tundra, ocean and atmosphere; famine and want of biblical proportions? Grotesquely, some of this has happened right under the sign of the cross, the sign of God’s mercy, which for many of the victims will forever be a sign of their oppression.
Perhaps the difference between Rome and us is that the Romans did not try to hide their cruelty. They thought it was perfectly justified, and their crucifixions were held very publicly for all to see. We try to hide our crucifixions, even from ourselves.
Today we hold up one particular crucifixion and say that it is the ultimate one – the most heinous example of human wickedness ever known, not because its victim was the greatest teacher of love ever known – but because he is the Source of love.
But is it really possible to speak of one crucifixion being more horrific than any other? What we declare today to be unique – the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth – is in fact repeated over and over again throughout history. The danger of a Christian piety that sentimentalizes the death of Jesus, that wallows in sorrow about that distant death long ago, is that we tend to be unmoved by all those other crucifixions, happening even as we sit piously in the shadow of this great crucifix today.
Today, on Good Friday 2022, it is essential to remember that in a real sense every day since the beginning of time has been somewhere, for so many, such a Friday.
And yet, in the community of Christian faith, we nevertheless proclaim that there is one unique death undergone on one unique Good Friday that changes all those other Good Fridays, those known to us, and those unknown. We say that the crucifixion of Jesus sheds light upon and transforms all the others that came before it and have happened since and are happening now, even as we gather in this place.
We say this is so because in the passion and death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth for religious heresy and sedition against the Roman state, God is killed.
This proclamation is absurd in the view of many. How could a good and loving God permit any crucifixion at all? To say with pious eyes directed heavenward that it is all made better because God himself comes and joins in the horror in the person of Jesus does not address the problem of innocent suffering at all, does it?
Perhaps this conviction lies behind an early Christian heresy which claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross. There are many versions of this scenario from ancient gnostic texts to modern potboilers – in one of them Simon of Cyrene, who carried the Cross to Calvary according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, actually was himself nailed to it in Jesus’ place, while the Son of God stood by in the crowd, laughing at his would-be tormentors: mocking human wickedness, not suffering at its hands. How could he? He is God. And God does not have anything to do directly with anything as messy as human flesh, and certainly does not suffer in it and for it.
In another version of the story, Jesus does not avoid crucifixion but enlists Judas Iscariot to help him get to the cross as quickly as possible. The Crucifixion in this scenario becomes, not an act of solidarity with the human condition on the part of God, but a means of escape by which Jesus leaves his fellow humans behind to muck about in the flesh on their own.
Both of these distortions of the gospel, the one in which Jesus does not die, and the one in which he more or less orchestrates his own death in a kind of suicide, are stories of his escape from the reality of the human story.
Is it possible that the author of the Gospel of John, whose Passion we have just heard, was reacting against these false scenarios, when, alone among the biblical writers, he insists that Jesus carried the cross to Calvary by himself? There is no Simon of Cyrene in John’s Passion. No Simon to alleviate the suffering of the via dolorosa, no Simon to even carry the cross for Jesus, much less to save him by being nailed to it in his stead.
The gospel of John points to what is unanimously proclaimed by the authentic tradition of the early church: that in that long walk and in that hideous death, God himself was taking upon himself – carrying – the burden of human wickedness – all human wickedness, all the crucifixions, all the muck that compromises human love, human beauty, human good intentions, and in doing so, destroyed its power over us.
Is this credible? Perhaps not. It is a mysterious choice we make – to dismiss it or accept it.
The rational Christian mind has produced bookshelves defending this belief. But few will be moved in the deepest sense, in the heart of their being, by intellectual argument alone. Faith needs the intellectual arguments to be a fully human faith, but it does not depend on them.
No, if we choose to believe it is true, we will do so because we recognize in it an act like all other acts of true love and at the same time the supreme expression of that love, an act which is at once absurd, senseless, even offensive, and yet utterly convincing: God, the source and heart of the universe, enters our human suffering in Jesus of Nazareth, and takes it upon himself. If this is so, then all the crucifixions, including the ones we may be undergoing at this very moment, are transformed. They do not have the final word, these crucifixions of ours.
For since God has taken our brokenness upon him in an act of divine love, healing it, we can continue to bear our own crucifixions and have a reason to hope that the crucifixions of others, like ours, are not in vain, but will have a share in Christ’s Easter.