On Friday, a group of us from Madison’s Episcopal churches walked the stations of the cross in the downtown. The Stations of the Cross are a traditional Roman Catholic devotion, consisting of prayers and meditations commemorating Jesus’ journey from his condemnation to death to his burial. Traditionally there were fourteen stations, and they are a common fixture in most Roman Catholic, and many Episcopal churches, with images depicting each of the stations mounted on the walls of naves.
What made our stations different, and quite powerful, is that instead of using those traditional images, we paused at various institutions in the life of our city and state, beginning with the Federal Courthouse, and ending here at Grace. The twelfth station was at the steps of our tower entrance, where a homeless man died on a bitterly cold night in January 2014.
What makes a stations of the cross like the one we did on Friday so powerful is that it connects the experience of suffering of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago with the world in which we live and work today. To walk the streets of the city, carrying a cross, meditating on the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, while all around us people were going about their business. I saw and greeted people I knew; we passed by food carts where I buy my lunch regularly. I don’t know how people reacted, what they thought. For me, tracing Jesus’ last steps on the sidewalks of Madison is not only about me observing and meditating on Christ’s passion, suffering, and death. More profoundly it brings his suffering and death into our world and into our lives, confronting us with the sin and oppression of our world, with the suffering in our midst, and proclaiming that Christ is present where homeless people congregate, where mothers mourn the deaths of their children, where protesters speak out for justice and equity.
We got a few strange looks as we walked and prayed, and I’m sure some of you, when hearing me describe what we did on Friday, might respond similarly, finding such public displays of devotion, even the devotion of The Stations of the Cross itself, odd and off-putting.
There’s nothing wrong with such responses. But it’s important to recognize that many of our rituals of Holy Week are themselves a bit strange. We may think nothing of waving palm branches around, shouting “Hosanna” and processing through the courtyard. We do it every year. But to outsiders, to strangers, to non-Christians, it’s decidedly odd. Some of you may have felt a little self-conscious as you participated.
We imagine that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a big deal; that he was met by jubilant crowds. A close reading of Mark’s gospel suggests something quite different. It’s likely that the group of those who waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna” was quite small. It’s likely that it was only the group of those who had come with Jesus from Galilee; that the Triumphal Entry, as we call it, was little more than a nuisance, a slight disturbance to the normal hustle and bustle of Jerusalem. It’s likely that it aroused as little public notice as our little group of people walking the Stations of the Cross did on Friday.
Still, there’s a reason why we re-enact this piece of street theatre from the gospel. Our observance of Holy Week, invites, no, compels us to participate, to put ourselves in the great drama as it unfolds. We did it later, too, as we listened while the Passion according to Mark was read, and we ourselves took on a role, shouting “Crucify Him.” Our participation will deepen in the coming days as we re-enact the events of the Last Supper and then on Good Friday, remember the crucifixion and stand at the foot of the cross.
At times, like this morning, we may feel somewhat self-conscious. Although it’s something we do every year, waving palm branches, shouting “Hosanna,” even as we do most years, to process outside through the courtyard, is out of the ordinary. It takes out of the pews, out of our comfort zone and asks us to think about how we are participating in these great events of Holy Week, how they affect us.
It’s likely that if we reflect at all on what we’re doing this week, we put ourselves in the drama, locate ourselves in the story. It’s likely that we imagine ourselves members of the crowd, bystanders, perhaps, even as Jesus’ disciples, those who accompanied him from Galilee to the confrontation in Jerusalem.
The story Mark tells is rather different than the one we tell ourselves, or the one our liturgy tells. Even as our worship this week will invite us in, ask us to see ourselves in the great drama of Holy Week, the passion narrative we just heard read is a story of Jesus’ progressive abandonment by all of his friends and companions. He is betrayed by one of his followers, denied by another. There’s the odd, intriguing detail that one young man was so eager to flee from Jesus, that he left his clothing behind and ran away naked. The three who were closest to him could not stay awake while he prayed in agony about what was to happen. In the end, Jesus dies alone. He is so alone that at the very end, he cries out in utter despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end, Jesus feels abandoned even by God.
Mark writes his gospel at a time when the community of Christians of which he is a part is facing an uncertain future. It’s likely they were either in a period of persecution, or expecting it to come shortly. The despair that Jesus displays on the cross, the entire tone of the passion narrative, reflects this difficult situation. But Mark is not writing from a perspective of despair. Rather, he is writing to encourage his community, to inspire it. He wants them to understand, to know, that in the midst of whatever suffering they might experience, their God is present with them.
Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” was answered. God had not abandoned him. Indeed, as we know, God was present in the midst of the suffering; God was on the cross. The story ends, not with God’s silence, but with God’s vindication. When the centurion proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” he is announcing to the world and to us, that God is present in the midst of suffering, that God reveals Godself to us in the times of our greatest need.
Jesus’ death on the cross, his horrific execution at the hands of a brutal empire, proclaims to us and to the world, where we can see and know God. Wherever the weak and the poor are oppressed, wherever humanity is crushed by the injustice of anonymous institutions, wherever people suffer at the hands of greed and exploitation, God is present. In all of those places, the cross stands in judgment on the evil perpetrated by humans. In all of those places, the cross stands as a symbol of a different possibility, a different order, God’s reign of love and justice breaking through. This week and always, may we see and experience that gracious and loving reign breaking into our world, may we see Jesus Christ on the streets of this city and in all the places where injustice and suffering occur.