Today’s gospel is not only about Jesus, it is also about you and me, writes Michael McKenna, the Bishop of Bathurst.
Our knowledge of the arrest, interrogation, torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth comes primarily from the accounts of the four Gospel writers. For many people, this knowledge has been enhanced by the imaginative representations of artists and mystics, as well as by stories handed down in the Church, though not found in Scripture.
As Christians, we receive this knowledge, not as mere record of the unjust punishment of a good man, but with faith in the identity of Jesus as truly divine and truly human. We understand his death as the perfect sacrifice which heals the division between God and humankind: through which death will be defeated and creation made new.
And behold, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; and the tombs were opened… (Mt 27: 51-52)
It is possible, even with that understanding, to look on the events of the Passion as a spectacle. It is certainly an engrossing drama, capable of stirring deep emotions and intense intellectual engagement.
However, as we gather in our churches to hear this story told again, we are invited to move from being just listeners and spectators. We are offered a chance to discover that we are part of the story and the story is part of us.
Although art and interpretive writings can be helpful, there is no substitute for direct encounter with the inspired Word of the Gospel. If we read it and listen to it with open and expectant hearts, it can be a real meeting with the Christ himself. When it is proclaimed in the congregation, he is really present.
This year, we have Matthew’s gospel. Each gospel tells the same story, but its own way. Let’s begin at the end: with the words of Jesus from the Cross.
In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks to Mary and the beloved disciple before crying out “I thirst!” and then “It is accomplished!” In Luke, Jesus speaks with the penitent thief, forgives his killers and says “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The scene described by Matthew and Mark is far bleaker. All we hear are the mutterings and insults of a hostile crowd. And, alone on the Cross, Jesus cries out “Eli, eli lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Those words are the beginning of the twenty second psalm. For faithful Jews like Jesus, to quote the first line of a psalm was to quote the whole of it. And, if we read through this psalm, it describes vividly the suffering of the man on the Cross:
O my God, I cry…but you do not answer…
I am scorned by men, despised by the people…
My heart is like wax melted in my breast…
They have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones
If we read to the end, we reach a shout of hope as the psalmist proclaims the deliverance of God’s servant “to a people yet unborn.”
With his cry, Jesus is saying all that, but it takes nothing away from the reality of the pain of separation he expresses in the opening line. The sinless one has taken on all human sin, is bleeding with the wound of the rift between God and humankind.
My own sins, my own crosses sometimes weigh me down. Suffering is not always sin, but sin is always a suffering. The cross in my life is whatever mocks me with my powerlessness, whatever threatens to destroy me.
For some, it may be a chronic physical or mental condition, for others, troubled relationships, or the struggles and anxieties of daily life. It is fear of the Cross that leads me into sin, as I look for relief or forgetfulness that I wrongly believe will let me avoid it.
To follow Christ to Calvary can be, as it was for many of the onlookers, an engrossing drama about someone else. Becoming Christian, though, I can begin to realize that the weight of the Cross he carries includes mine, includes ours.
And that to join him on it is to lay down that weight and find that it does not mean my destruction, but the destruction of the sins that afflict me and the death that I fear.