Calvary, Golgotha, the cross. Holy Week has been building toward this moment. The arc of salvation history has bended toward this day. The cross is the center point of history. For medieval Christians it was also the center point of the universe.
Though we know that the cross is not the center of the universe as pre-modern people may have imagined, the cross remains the center point of our religious world and our spiritual lives. And so we come to contemplate on this day, the events so long ago, we say familiar words and familiar prayers, we sing familiar hymns, and we ponder the mystery of a God who became human like us, and becoming human, took on human suffering and pain in all of its extremity. And we wonder, why?
The power of the story lies not only in the words on the page, or the words as read aloud, but in all the images that are evoked in our minds as we hear them. The cinematic adaptations we have seen again and again since our childhoods; the countless images of crucifixion upon which we have gazed, whether in reproductions in books, or in art museums or in churches like our own. Our hymns are also full of such imagery, powerful, emotional. And there are the ways all of these images reverberate across our culture: crosses worn on pendants, crosses on tattoos, crosses burned on lawns.
The violence of John’s version of the passion jumps out from the page. There is the violence of language—mocking and scorning; the violence of humiliation, flogging and the crown of thorns. There is the violence of the crucifixion itself—execution by torture as it’s been called. The state violence of this form of capital punishment; displayed publicly for all to see and to understand as warning; the constant presence on the outskirts of cities throughout the Roman Empire of these instruments of execution on display and the bodies of victims as well.
The text conveys other violence, the virulent anti-Judaism that is woven throughout John’s gospel, but especially here where the gospel writer does everything in his power to divert attention and blame away from Rome and onto the Jewish community. So violent, so anti-Jewish, in fact, that many scholars and theologians advocate abandoning John’s passion gospel on this day. The history of anti-semitism and its resurgence in recent years; its presence in contemporary political and cultural discourse leads me to consider alternatives for future years.
Even if we can ignore or set aside the text’s anti-Judaism, the other violence of the text continues to work on us. We may internalize it, transforming it to guilt and shame, or project it onto a vengeful God who demands blood sacrifice.
But there are other ways of reading this story, other themes that we might emphasize:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son…
Or the verse we heard in last’s night gospel reading: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Ponder that statement. “He loved them to the end.” It is the same word that lies behind Jesus’ last words on the cross in John’s gospel: “It is finished.” It has been completed. Was that the end to which he loved them, to that final point, to his death? It is the end to which he loves us and the world, a love which brought him to this point, a love that reaches out to us and to the world from his arms outstretched on the cross.
For all the violence and hatred in the text, there is also, and above all, love. In Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples, he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The cross is about suffering, yes, but we should never lose sight of what stands behind that suffering, God’s love for us, Christ’s love for us. It is love that brought Christ to us in the incarnation, love that he showed his disciples and those to whom he ministered, and love he shows most profoundly on the cross.
The violence may repel us. The bloody depictions throughout Christian history may make us avert our gaze, to turn away, to turn inward, but even if we do, we should not let that violence and suffering obscure God’s love.
I’m reminded of the great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, who lived in turbulent times, including the Black Plague, who herself suffered illness unto death, and on her deathbed had a vision of the crucified Christ on which she reflected for some thirty years. The vision and her interpretations were replete with graphic descriptions of Christ’s body on the cross. She writes:
And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years and after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.”
Love was his meaning. Love is the meaning of the cross. My prayer for us all today is that we experience that meaning in all of its profundity and power, that love suffuses us, fills us, and draws us closer to Christ. May love be our meaning.