Dorothy Sayers once raised the question as to why so many of us react with horror when a cat catches a bird, yet we seem quite unmoved when the infinitely worse horror of the crucifixion is paraded before us in our Church services. I think she has a point. In many communities, the Good Friday and Easter Sunday services are extraordinarily well attended yet it is hard to discern a distinctive and long lasting sense of shock or subsequent difference in behaviour, as we might expect or hope for between the Church goers and the non Church goers, particularly once the Easter sales are under way.
There are two contributing factors we should bear in mind. The first is that the Easter story has little apparent relation to our modern world. It tells of a series of events we ourselves have not experienced first-hand and which have been portrayed in a host of symbolic ways over many centuries. The second difficulty is that by encountering the story many times over, it becomes predictable in its retelling, and we are relegated to passive listeners or readers of a very familiar story.
In some ways the casual familiarity of whatever the chosen readings are for a particular year stops us getting too involved with the uncomfortable contradictions and variations in the various gospel versions of Easter. Nevertheless many of us would be aware that there are different versions and knowing that they are being told in different settings might remind us that the different branches of the Christian Church remember the Easter story in very different ways.
Focussing on the differences in the gospel stories is of course only one way of looking at truth. If we are going to move from spectator to participant mode we have to discover, not so much academic truth, as truth that speaks to us. The symbolism chosen by Luke in his account is particularly helpful in this regard.
Luke is not into high-blown theology. His remembered observations (or some might even say his “slant”) show us a Jesus whose radical and uncompromising attitude to his own plight and to those around him is not so much mystical holiness as lived compassion.
Not for Luke an emphasis on Jesus’ god-like characteristics but rather noticing Jesus living out the principles he taught.
We know from his reported teachings for example Jesus taught forgiveness of enemies. Now in the crucifixion we have the theory tested in the extreme.
Here in today’s gospel passage we have a scene where his enemies are in the act of destroying him with a shameful death – and as we note, having Jesus crucified along with common criminals. When someone good is treated shamefully we don’t need to be told that the shameful treatment is its own indictment. Luke in selecting these words of forgiveness to highlight is showing Jesus notices the human situation in context. Jesus, in forgiving those who treated him shamefully, was demonstrating more than expected forgiveness because in his words he also recognises the humanity of his executioners.
That is all very well, but as with other parts of the Easter story, is it any more than yet another feature of Jesus character we can wonder at? While we can admire his words from this safe distance, to make his words live, surely we as his followers should be striving for a similar attitude. Look again at what Luke is telling us.
“Two others also, who were criminals, were lead away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.” (Luke 23:32-34)
Forgive them, they know not what they do. Not only are these words unexpected under the circumstances, some of the early Greek manuscripts of Luke leave the verse out altogether…..perhaps an editorial preference! Forgiving the unforgivable is hardly the philosophy of our current justice system and nor is it the expected response to violence aimed at the innocent.
Because we are not Jesus, it is probably unrealistic to expect that we echo his words, particularly when for example we read of a terrorist attack – or a robbery with violence. Yet if his words are to live in such a way that our lives are shown to be reshaped, we need constant reflection as to how we deal with those who wrong us or those who wrong those close to us. If there is no evidence for forgiveness in our chosen actions and policies perhaps we need to ask again if we are entitled to claim ourselves to be his followers.
The next aspect of Jesus character being demonstrated is to do with why he found himself in this situation in the first place. Now I know much has been written about sacrifice and the notion of God sacrificing his son. While many tomes have been written on this topic I want to suggest a rather more direct interpretation. To me there is a simple inevitability about the crucifixion. For me, Jesus had taken on the key issues of his day. There was oppression, a church leadership which was losing its way, and a faith that served its leaders but not its people and certainly not their neighbours. Despite growing opposition to his message, Jesus steadfastly held to his message despite the growing danger signs, and finally refused to back down from his teaching at the point of no return.
As far as the Romans were concerned Jesus is being crucified as an enemy of the State. Yet this is not the normal enemy of the state. The Greek word used to describe the other two criminals crucified with Jesus was kakourgos, a word that was commonly used for someone engaged in armed resistance against Rome. Jesus’ option of non-violent resistance to all forms of oppression was not strictly a crime, but nevertheless it would have made the oppressors uncomfortable.
We might for instance imagine Herod Antipas furious that his morality might be brought into question as it most certainly was by Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. We can understand the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin uncomfortable at the suggestion of Jesus that theirs was a religion of show rather than integrity.
We can understand Pilate as Roman Governor, uneasy that in a territory where allegiance must be first and foremost to Rome, Jesus was gaining a coterie of followers. Having watched the way that recent dictators deal with potential rivals it is not hard to see why Jesus was on a dangerous collision course with the powers of his time.
Jesus teaching by example again is more than just a call to admire his steadfast holding to his path. If we genuinely believe that Jesus was right to hold to what he knew to be true the Easter challenge, as his self identified followers, surely we should also be asking if we too are prepared to hold to our standards regardless of personal cost.
For me the clue to the understanding of what the crucifixion can mean for us comes in Luke’s story at the end.
“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, Into thy hands I commit my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:44-46)
A curious darkening, perhaps an eclipse-like event and the curtain of the Temple being torn in two sounds more than the special effects department for a Hollywood block-buster or perhaps the Lord of the Rings interpreted by Weta Workshops than just a normal day, yet if we look here for the symbolism it suddenly begins to make sense.
The clue is in what the curtain in the Temple was hiding. The curtain was intended as the barrier between the Holy of Holies and the people. The only one allowed to pass behind this curtain, and then only on one day a year, the Day of Atonement, was the high priest himself. The high priest, supported by the Temple aristocracy mediated between the people and God, so the Temple Curtain being torn was another way of saying that now no longer did anyone need to act as a mediator or filter between the people and the God they followed.
The irony is that gradually no matter what Jesus accomplished, eventually the human psyche kicked in to replace one mediator with a series of other mediators. For some today the mediators and their replacement curtains hiding secret places might be treated as if under the control of Church hierarchies. No doubt for some (and not all) Catholics, the curtain mediator is provided by proxy in the form the Pope, the Cardinals, Archbishops, bishops and priests, just as a good number of protestants still look to their individual forms of Church leadership to mediate on their behalf. We can only speculate what Jesus might say to a Church where some are still believed required to mediate God’s grace and where those who consider themselves religious still operate behind curtains of mystery and closed doors. But do we really need to speculate if we step forward to speak the truth which we know requires our voice.
Yet the message in Luke is clear enough. Without a curtain, the acts of love are not constrained to be kept hidden in secret, only truly accessible to the chosen ones. The symbolism of the curtain ripped from top to bottom, proclaims that it is no longer necessary for a mediator before we too can become the hands and feet of Christ. The symbolism is of course one of potential.
When I look at the world for the signs of hope – signs of forgiveness, peace, and love for neighbour, signs of inclusivity whereby place of origin, or race, or faith no longer act as barriers between people, I would suggest progress has been patchy indeed. But here is the catch. If we believe Luke has it right, it is up to each one of us to work for such a world. We can no longer appeal via a mediator for what is hidden behind the curtain.
Fortunately there are those who catch the vision and come to realise that Jesus is not one to be observed so much as one who inspires us to live in his name. There are those who widen the family circle with inclusive action, there are those who offer forgiveness and act as peace makers – and there are those whose hands and hearts are available in his service.
Good Friday is good if it helps us come to terms with realities. Good Friday is good if we cease to be observers of the acts and listeners to the words of the mediators and instead start to become participants. Good Friday becomes good if and when we accept its challenge. Dorothy Sayers claims that Easter does not make much difference for many. Will it make a difference to you?