Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It's all gone wrong, hasn't it? Somewhere over the course of the week, things have gone astray. Sunday, we were cheering a triumphant Christ, and today, we're mourning a dead criminal hung on a gallows. Even by the end of worship last week, the shouts of, “Hosanna,” and, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” faded away and the words “Crucify him,” echoed deep in our hearts. The palm branches are already starting to turn to ash.
Things certainly started out on a promising note. A protest, rich in messianic imagery, carved its way through the City of David. The King, it seemed, had returned at last. And as the Passover approached, expectation was high that God would once again deliver captive Israel. The entire Gospel, it seemed, had been leading up to this week – so much so that St. John devotes nearly half of his Gospel to the events in Jerusalem. We were finally at the crescendo and something exciting was about to happened – the world was about to turn. And then... suddenly...it didn't. Things fell apart.
The one who healed the sick and even raised the dead now lies in a tomb. The Rabbi now suffers a fool's fate. The one who came to fulfill the Law has been executed as a criminal.
Make no mistake. While we like to talk about the glory of Christ's Passion and death, this was not a death valued by any one. We venerate the Cross, but to those who frequently saw crucified bandits littering the highway, they knew exactly what the Cross represented: oppression and shame. To be hung on a cross was not a noble, good, or beautiful death, if there can ever be such a thing. For the Romans, it was the death of a traitor, a rebel – a death deemed to barbaric for a citizen of the Empire. To the Jewish people, anyone who died in such a manner, hanging from a tree, was under God's curse. It was a death carried out not according to the Law of Moses but the tyranny of Caesar and his governor. It wasn't the death of a good man – one earned in old age. It wasn't a death for a greater cause. No, this is the death of a heretic. For the Romans, it was a crucifixion of one who claimed the divine authority and kingship reserved for the Caesars. For the Jewish audience, it was a curse reserved for one who blasphemed against the one true God.
And this we call “Good”? Today is a good day? The story that leads up to this is called “good” news? It's doubtful that any of the witnesses would have agreed.
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Throughout the great cathedrals of Europe, master craftsmen would include skulls and dancing skeletons – a reminder to all who entered of their own mortality. These images – called memento mori –which were always dark, could at times become downright sinister. The macabre is never far away. Skeletons dance across stone and canvas, a taunting reminder of the certainty of death. The lesson is for all: king and serf, teacher and fool, bishop and beggar. We. Will. All. Die. And it is in this spirit that we began this past season. As the world began to bloom again, as life overtook the barren lands of winter, Christians across the Church knelt and received ashen crosses, with the reminder that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. We will all surely pass on to corruption.
The grand irony is that such an ugly, painful process spurs us on to some of our most beautiful pieces of art – the grand requiems of classical music, elaborately sculpted tombs from Renaissance Italy, and the beautiful paintings that show the suffering of martyrs. Chief among the horrendous topics that artists have tried to express in beautiful ways is the Passion. In fact, when one looks at the development of art, one of the greatest leaps forward is the depiction of suffering – that the Christ on the Cross ceases to be passive and begins to show frailty and pain. Jesus begins to look very human. We need think no further than Michelangelo's Pieta that sits in Rome. The limp, lifeless Jesus may be the Son of God, but he is also all too human. His mother holds him, weeping. And yet, there is a serenity to the sculpture. There is something about the inevitability of Death that speaks to the very core of our human nature. Something is calling us to search for creativity in destruction, to find beauty in the hideous – in short, to find order in chaos. Something, deep within the very heart of who we are tells us that today, of all days, might possibly be Good.
It is in his death that we see Christ at his most fragile, and consequently, his most human. The Divine Healer hangs, broken. The One who brings living water is thirsty. The Only Begotten Son of the Father expresses concern for his mother. The person we see crucified seems very far removed from the transfigured Christ we met before the beginning of Lent. Instead, we see a human, Jesus of Nazareth, in all of his earthly frailty. And it is in this humanity that we find goodness. It is in his death that the full weight of the Incarnation comes to bear. God became human not just in form, but in very essence, sharing even in the most horrible parts of our being. It's precisely this humanity that makes the story so vital. God became incarnate in the very fullest sense, living but also dying. In his death, Jesus, the embodied Son of God, shows the fullness of his humanity. In Christ's death, we see just what it means that God became human – we see the extreme depth of that love. In Christ, God joins humanity, even in the tomb. Amen.