Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feastday mean anything to the saints? Do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the lightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning. Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. in short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.
Come, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.
When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head. Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.
We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.
“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’
“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.
“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’
“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’
“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’
“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.
“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.
“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”
—The Way of a Pilgrim
What a wonderful story of the multifaceted ways in which Christ works in our lives! The issue here is alcoholism, but don’t restrict the lesson to that. Christ can heal any affliction if we let him. Notice first how Christ uses human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice how the monk abandoned his agenda (begging alms for the church), at least temporarily, to address a person’s needs that he perceived. We have to be ready to see others in pain if we ever hope to help them address it. Notice too the monk’s gentle persistence and the faith he has in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.
Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered too long in his quarters to read it. Was it really coincidence that the soldier found the gospels before he got to his drinking money? This is how God typically works to control the circumstances of our lives in a wise and loving way, but we have to pay attention to realize it!
Finally, mark how understanding occurs—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas, which sadly many try to do, especially today) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. Under normal circumstances it would have been best if the soldier had read the gospels with others and learned how to interpret them from the tradition we have, but that didn’t happen in this case. No problem, though. God can use even less than ideal circumstances to break through to us, as the young solder discovered. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul.
If you are struggling with your faith, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this story and its lessons. Maybe you should even pick up the gospels and start to read them yourself. Here is indeed balm for your soul!
Where did I find you, that I came to know you? You were not within my memory before I learned of you. Where, then, did I find you before I came to know you, if not within yourself, far above me? We come to you and go from you, but no place is involved in this process. In every place, O Truth, you are present to those who seek your help, and at one and the same time you answer all, though they seek your counsel on different matters.
You respond clearly, but not everyone hears clearly. All ask what they wish, but do not always hear the answer they wish. Your best servant is he who is intent not so much on hearing his petition answered, as rather on willing whatever he hears from you.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
When once I shall be united to you with my whole being, I shall at last be free of sorrow and toil. Then my life will be alive, filled entirely with you. When you fill someone, you relieve him of his burden, but because I am not yet filled with you, I am a burden to myself. My joy when I should be weeping struggles with my Sorrow when I should be rejoicing. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy on me! My evil sorrows and good joys are at war with one another. I know not where victory lies. Woe is me! Lord, have mercy! Woe is me! I make no effort to conceal my wounds. You are my physician, I your patient. You are merciful; I stand in need of mercy.
Is not the life of man upon earth a trial? Who would want troubles and difficulties? You command us to endure them, not to love them. No person loves what he endures, though he may love the act of enduring. For even if he is happy to endure his own burden, he would still prefer that the burden not exist. I long for prosperity in times of adversity, and I fear adversity when times are good. Yet what middle ground is there between these two extremes where the life of man would be other than trial? Pity the prosperity of this world, pity it once and again for it corrupts joy and brings the fear of adversity. Pity the adversity of this world, pity it again, then a third time; for it fills men with a longing for prosperity, and because adversity itself is hard for them to bear and can even break their endurance. Is not the life of man upon earth a trial, a continuous trial?
All my hope lies only in your great mercy.
—The Confessions of Saint Augustine, 10, 26. 37—29, 40
With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit.
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the LORD brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?
—Lamentations 1.12 (NIV)
LORD, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.
I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbor— darkness is my closest friend.
—Psalm 88 (NIV)
It is now the day after the crucifixion, and if we are to take it seriously, we must pause for a minute and reflect on what Jesus’ first disciples must have been dealing with on that day after. We cannot say for sure because Scripture is largely silent about this (but cf. John 20.19; Luke 24.13-24 for clues), but surely they would have been absolutely devastated. The most wonderful person they had ever known had been brutally and unjustly executed. The women had seen his bloodied and pierced body taken down from the cross and buried. The man his disciples had hoped was Israel’s Messiah was dead and every good Jew knew that God’s Messiah didn’t get crucified like a criminal—or so they thought.
Surely today’s texts would have reflected the utter devastation and hopelessness Jesus’ followers must have felt on that first Saturday. Like the psalmist above, surely they (like we) were asking the “why questions”—Why did this happen to Jesus? Why did God allow this to happen? Where was God in all of it? Why had he apparently abandoned not only Jesus but them as well? For you see, Jesus’ followers did not have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight we have. They were definitely not expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead because there was nothing in their Scripture that would have prepared them for what God did in Jesus that first Easter Sunday. And we fail to take Jesus’ death seriously if we gloss over all this and simply want to skip ahead to tomorrow.
But that is not how life works, is it? We typically don’t have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight as we live out our days and here is where we can learn some things about faith and hope in the midst of our own desolation as we reflect on the devastation Jesus’ followers must have felt the day after his crucifixion. Each one of us has our own hurts and sorrows and brokenness. Perhaps it stems from a job we did not get or that we lost. Perhaps a loved one got sick and died despite our prayers for healing. Perhaps we have had our families torn apart by divorce or addiction. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we too have had our expectations violated, especially now, and typically more than once. We’ve had our hopes and dreams shattered to one degree or another, and like Jesus’ first disciples, we look around and ask why. We wonder where God is in it all and why he has apparently abandoned us.
And this is precisely why Holy Saturday can be helpful to us because if we really believe in a sovereign God, Holy Saturday is a time when we must wait on him and see how he is going to act in our lives, both individually and collectively. We must put aside our limited expectations and wait and see what God is going to do in and through us. Like the psalmist in his utter desolation above, we too must cling to our hope in God and his mercy, in God and his sovereign power, and in doing so we will discover that we gain some much needed and desired patience. It is a patience tempered with humility as we wait on our Sovereign God to see what he will do to bring new life out of our own desolation, fears, and violated expectations.
We wait on this Holy Saturday even though it is not entirely possible to block out the wondrous truth that happened that first Easter. Unlike Jesus’ first disciples, we do know how the story turns out. While we didn’t expect a crucified Messiah, we have seen his dead body taken down from the cross and we have seen the empty tomb and heard the stunned and joyous testimony of the first eyewitnesses. And like his first disciples, this has violated our expectations. But we realize that God’s power and plans for us are so much better than our own. As we wait for Easter morning on this Holy Saturday, we are reminded that despite our failures, hurts, fears, and brokenness, God is a sovereign and merciful God, capable of bringing about New Creation from our desolation, and all this helps us wait on God this day with hope, real hope.
Take time to rest today, especially from the seemingly non-stop bad news of this crazy mixed-up world. Reflect deeply on these things as you learn to wait on God to act in your life and in this world to end the scourge. Remember that if God really did raise Jesus from the dead, he can surely do mind-blowing things for you and in and through you (or as a cabbie once said to Professor N.T. Wright, “If God raised Jesus from the dead, everything else is basically rock and roll, isn’t it?”), no matter who you are or what you are dealing with. As you do wait on God—and this will not happen overnight—you will also discover you are gaining the prerequisite humility and patience that you need to open yourself up fully to the Presence and Power of God’s Holy Spirit living in you. And when that happens you will have the assurance that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his Cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.”
And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”
“l am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.
“I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.
“For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.
“Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.
“See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.
“I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.
“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.
“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”
A fantastic Good Friday devotional, and one I highly recommend you make part of your library.
Earlier [Jesus] had said to his disciples, “As the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected” (Luke 17:24-25). His triumph would be won, but only at greatest cost. Another time, he said to the disciples, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10.18), so we know that he had before him the vision of his victory; but it would come only through his suffering. Once, we are told, “while they were all marveling” at the wonderful things he did – the healings and exorcisms and miracles – he turned to them and said, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of [wicked] men” (Luke 9:44), but they could not believe it; it was completely outside anyone’s conception of the Messiah that he would be betrayed, condemned, and crucified.
Here in this final portion of our Good Friday vigil, we are trying to gain some deeper understanding of what this all means for us personally. In preparing to examine more closely the final saying, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit,” I have tried to indicate that not even Saint Luke would have us believe that this offering of Christ’s life was a gentle passage into a heavenly reward. In these meditations I have written first of John’s and now of Luke’s three sayings separately from the others so that we can see how they fit into the purposes of these two Evangelists, but in the end the Christian tradition has always combined the seven sayings into a whole. When I was in seminary, I had many wonderful professors, but in recent years there is one, a theologian, who has emerged as the most prominent in my memory. He is long dead now, but I will never forget what he meant to me. I remember in particular talking to him once about great questions of life and death, and the struggle to believe and to make sense of things. His only child, a son, had been born when he and his wife were in their forties, and then they lost him to a rare disease when he was twenty-three. Out of his great grief, this bereaved father said, “The Christian life is lived in between My God, my God, why halt thou forsaken me? and Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
There is a Tree, “mystical and eternal” which rises above the hills of time. Where its shadow falls, there God’s claim rests upon us and something is exacted of us. Those who have entered even a little way into the silence of the threefold hour [of Jesus’ crucifixion] are bound to say, “This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.”
—The Rev’d Dr Wheaton Phillips Webb, The Dramatic Silences of His Last Week, 52
Sometimes just as we have come to accept “the withering away of the Cross,” a silence falls…darkness,…and it strikes us how mortal we are and that before three decades have passed, or four, our very names will be unremembered and all we strive for as if it had never been.
Yes, and it is here [at the foot of the cross] where at last we find the courage to address [Jesus] with the same desperate familiarity with which a man just beyond his reach [the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus]–yet not beyond his reach–dares to plead, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” Remember me! For if you do not remember me, I shall go down to the dust bereft and unremembered of all.
—The Rev’d Dr Wheaton Phillips Webb, The Dramatic Silences of His Last Week, 50
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. John.
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.”This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound himand brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” the girl at the door asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.”
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded. “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest.
As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it, saying, “I am not.” One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.
Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they struck him in the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jews insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” So this is what the soldiers did. Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,”and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 18:1–19:42 NIV)
This is the Passion of the Lord.
Hymn: Faithful Cross
Faithful Cross! above all other, one and only noble Tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peers may be; sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!
Lofty tree, bend down thy branches, to embrace thy sacred load; oh, relax the native tension of that all too rigid wood; gently, gently bear the members of thy dying King and God.
Tree, which solely wast found worthy the world’s Victim to sustain. harbor from the raging tempest! ark, that saved the world again! Tree, with sacred blood anointed of the Lamb for sinners slain.
Blessing, honor, everlasting, to the immortal Deity; to the Father, Son, and Spirit, equal praises ever be; glory through the earth and heaven to Trinity in Unity. Amen.
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. Holy God, holy and strong,holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
O my people, O my Church, what have I done to you, or in what have I offended you? Testify against me. I led you forth from the land of Egypt, and delivered you by the waters of baptism, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
I led you through the desert forty years, and fed you with manna. I brought you through tribulation and penitence, and gave you my body, the bread of heaven, but you prepared a cross for your Savior. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
What more could I have done for you that I have not done? I planted you, my chosen and fairest vineyard, I made you the branches of my vine; but when I was thirsty, you gave me vinegar to drink, and pierced with a spear the side of your Savior. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
I went before you in a pillar of cloud, and you have led me to the judgement hall of Pilate. I scourged your enemies and brought you to a land of freedom, but you have scourged, mocked and beaten me. I gave you the water of salvation from the rock, but you have given me gall and left me to thirst. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
I gave you a royal scepter, and bestowed the keys of the kingdom, but you have given me a crown of thorns. I raised you on high with great power, but you have hanged me on the cross. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
My peace I gave, which the world cannot give, and washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you draw the sword to strike in my name, and seek high places in my kingdom. I offered you my body and blood, but you scatter and deny and abandon me. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
I sent the Spirit of truth to guide you, and you close your hearts to the Counselor. I pray that all may be one in the Father and me, but you continue to quarrel and divide. I call you to go and bring forth fruit, but you cast lots for my clothing. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
I came to you as the least of your brothers and sisters; I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, set your passion, cross and death between your judgement and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Grant mercy and grace to the living, rest to the departed, to your Church peace and concord and to us sinners forgiveness, and everlasting life and glory; for, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, you are alive and reign, God, now and for ever. Amen.
The changing of water to wine was, as he told us clearly, the first in the sequence of ‘signs’ by which Jesus revealed his glory. The second was the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54). From then on he leaves us to count up the ‘signs’, and different readers have reckoned them differently. I think the most convincing sequence goes like this. The third ‘sign’ is the healing of the paralysed man at the pool (5:1–9). The fourth is the multiplication of loaves and fishes (6:1–14). The fifth is the healing of the man born blind (9:1–12). And the sixth is the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).
John cannot have intended the sequence to stop at six. With Genesis 1 in the back of his mind from the very start, the sequence of seven signs, completing the accomplishment of the new creation, has an inevitability about it. Now here we are, at the foot of the cross. John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, this will be the moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. And the ‘signs’ are the things that reveal God’s glory. I regard it as more or less certain that he intends the crucifixion itself to function as the seventh ‘sign’.
As though to confirm this, Jesus gives one last cry. ‘It’s finished!’ ‘It’s all done!’ ‘It’s complete!’ He has finished the work that the father had given him to do (17:4). He has loved ‘to the very end’ his own who were in the world (13:1). He has accomplished the full and final task.
The word that I’ve translated ‘It’s all done!’ is actually a single word in the original language. It’s the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid. The bill is dealt with. It’s finished. The price has been paid. Yes, says John: and Jesus’ work is now complete, in that sense as in every other. It is upon this finished, complete work that his people from that day to this can stake their lives [emphasis mine]. (pp. 131-32)
One of the most moving moments at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 came when Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, gave a splendid and stirring lecture. Many of us, who had only heard him on the radio before, hadn’t realized that he can not only do a brilliant three-minute ‘thought for the day’ but also a magisterial and moving full-scale address—part lecture, part sermon, part testimony.
In the question time that followed, one question in particular made everyone pause and hush. ‘Tell us about Jesus.’ What would he, a leading Jew, say about the one we call ‘Messiah’?
Sir Jonathan went straight for this passage, and for verse 34, at the heart of Luke’s story of the crucifixion. ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.’ At that point, he said, Jesus was echoing what the high priest says on the Day of Atonement, interceding to God for muddled and sinful Israel. Jesus, said the Chief Rabbi, was never more thoroughly Jewish than at that moment, praying for those around, praying for forgiveness, pleading the ignorance of the people as the particular reason.
As we stand back from the story, we remind ourselves that this last phase of the whole gospel had begun with Jesus coming to Jerusalem and solemnly declaring God’s judgment on the Temple and its whole system. That had led to his trial before the high priest of the day, and then to Pilate and to condemnation. Jesus really does seem to have believed that it was part of his role to take into himself the task of Temple and Priest together. He would be the place where, and the means by which, God would meet with his people in grace and forgiveness.
But if Jesus on the cross is the true Priest, Luke insists that he is also the true king. This, he says, is what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes! ‘This is the king of the Jews’! Of course, it doesn’t look like that. It looks as though he’s a failed Messiah. The sneering challenge, ‘If you’re the king of the Jews’, goes back to the demonic challenge in the desert: ‘If you’re the son of God …’
And the point is that this moment, this bloody and dark moment, this miscarriage of justice, this terrible suffering, this offering by Jesus of his full self to the will of God—this is how God is dealing, in sovereign, rescuing love, with the weight of the world’s evil and pain, and with death itself. Jesus is the green tree, the wood that wasn’t ready for burning, dying in the place of the dry trees, the people all around who were eager to bring in the kingdom in their own way rather than God’s way.
So we draw all our prayers together in daring to echo that strange request made by one of the brigands alongside him: ‘Jesus—remember me when you finally become king.’ That’s often as much as we dare say.
But Jesus surprises us, as he surprised the brigand, by his response. He is becoming king, here and now. No more waiting.
‘Today.’ In the brigand’s case: paradise now, and resurrection still to come. In our case: forgiveness, healing and hope, here and now. And the call to serve, and to give ourselves, as he gave himself for us.
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.