Note: I don’t often include the songs that were sung/performed, but on this occasion, I believe they add a certain something.
Sing: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Man, I haven’t been back here in ages–not since that night all those years ago. I was younger then, of course. Though under the circumstances, I’m not sure I was any better looking.
I remember it was a nicer day than it should have been. There was a cool spring breeze blowing gently and bright sun in the clear blue sky–of course, that would change before any of us realized.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I seem to do that a lot when remembering that day. Never before has my memory been so clear and so cloudy at the same time as when I remember that day.
I’d known Jesus for some time, by then. You’ve probably heard about me, even though you never knew my name. Everybody knows about the 12, even if they get some of the names mixed up. But they weren’t the only ones Jesus commissioned to spread the good news about God’s kingdom. I was one of the 72 that Jesus sent out—two-by-two—to prepare the way ahead of him. It was unreal: I felt like John the Baptist in more comfy clothes and with better food. Man, those were some crazy times: people healed, demons cast out, all sorts of odds overcome.
You know, I wasn’t even in town when Jesus was arrested. The Jerusalem hotels get booked up nearly a year in advance, and—once Jesus told all of us he was going to Jerusalem for the Passover this year—every one of his followers wanted to be in Jerusalem to celebrate it with him. We knew it would be too late to book a big banquet hall—in fact, I’m not sure how Jesus managed to secure space big enough for he and the Twelve. But Lazarus and his family were kind enough to put me up. And just knowing that I was within two miles of both Jesus and Jerusalem at the Passover would have made it memorable. But of course, the events of that night made it memorable for other reasons—reasons that changed everything.
It was still dark when the pounding at the door began. Mary and Martha were obviously more used to this kind of thing than were the rest of us staying there. I got the impression that they had served as a waypoint for many of Jesus’ followers who needed to pass through the area unobserved. But there was nothing covert about this man—who I later learned was named Daniel. He yelled so loudly you couldn’t even make out what he was saying, and I thought the door was going to fall from it’s hinges from the beating he gave it.
Mary got to the door first, as the man panted out: “Jesus——“ he panted.
Something had happened, but Daniel was too distraught to explain. While Martha made some tea and Mary tried to calm him down, Lazarus and I and some of the others started packing our bags. Whatever was going on, we were going to be there too.
Suddenly there was a shout from bellow: “No!!!” Mary screamed. And we all came tumbling back down the stairs in concern and fear.
My memory isn’t very good here. It’s like I sort of zoned out when I heard the word “arrested.” There had been a lot of close calls for Jesus these last years. There had been a few times it seemed like Jesus was even throwing fuel on the fire. But he had always managed to get away, even if that involved mysteriously moving the crowd like it wasn’t even there.
But we’d all heard the rumors. We’d known how people were being kicked out of the synagogue for believing in Jesus. We’d seen the last couple days how the Jerusalem leaders had stirred up the crowds against him.
Arrested. Jesus may have given them ample motive, but there was no doubt the charges would be trumped up. There would be no doubt that those snakes would find a way to……
Lazarus’s hand clapping on my back brought me out of my daze. “Time to go, friend,” he said as we set out, the early light of dawn just breaking behind us. We had only a few miles to travel, but we didn’t really know where we would find Jesus. We knew they were taking him to Caiaphus’ house, but would he still be there? Even if he wasn’t, there were only a few places to look. If we were lucky, others who were loyal to Jesus would be trailing him, leaving bread crumbs for the rest of us to follow.
Sing: Go to Dark Gethsemane
I could tell you about the next few hours—hours spent anxiously searching, fearing the worst and knowing nothing. But none of that matters, because we were too late. From Caiaphas to Pilate to Golgotha. That’s where we found him—stripped nearly naked, nails already piercing his hands and feet, crown of thorns savagely crushed into his head. I have never been able to shake that image from my memory.
Time seemed to stand still then, too. I’m sure there was chaos all around, but it was as though all the sound was sucked out of the world along with the air. Creation itself seemed to hold her breath as Jesus hung there—his heaving chest the only indicator of life.
Suddenly, it heaved more deeply than normal, and I knew it had to be the end—this would be his last breath. Jesus wasn’t going to survive long on the cross—not as long as we’re used to—but who could fault him, his body broken as it was, subjected to beatings that tore his flesh from his bones.
But after that breath, there did not come the expected death-rattle groan, but something even more earth shattering:
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)
That forgiveness was a slap in the face, for certain. Here was Jesus forgiving the people who crucified him as a common criminal, and I’m still holding a grudge against Lucas for letting his dogs poop in my yard. What a hypocrite I am!
I’d like to say this knocked some sense into me, but I’m not so sure. But it did make me more aware of what was going on around me. While my mouth had been agape, my friend Jesus—the Messiah—was being ridiculed. It was that stupid sign!—“This is the King of the Jews”—that they put on top of the cross. What started with the authorities trickled down to the soldiers. My blood was already rising in defense of my friend when one of the criminals hanging on another cross joined in. That was the last straw! Hearing him of all people taunt Jesus and tell him to save himself was simply too much.
I opened my mouth to speak, but someone else beat me to it. “Shut up, you idiot,” I heard. Not quite the way I was going to put it, but probably better considering the presence of the women around us. But who was this that was standing up for Jesus? It wasn’t someone near me…… It almost seemed like it was coming from that direction……
It was! Could you believe it?!? Jesus, hanging on a cross, being taunted by one criminal and defended by another. I don’t remember all that he said as he stood up for Jesus, but I do remember the way it ended. He turned to Jesus with a strength and resolve that betrayed the dire circumstances and he said: “Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, please remember me.”
Holy smokes, right? I mean, I’ve heard of deathbed confessions and all, but this is pushing the envelope to the bitter end. Jesus, however, never missed a beat:
“I promise you that this very day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Salvation. I wish I could tell you we all realized then and there that this is what it was all about. But we didn’t. Maybe we couldn’t, I don’t know. It took Jesus explaining it all to us afterward before we realized that salvation is where this was heading all along. At the time, it just seemed cruel. Hopeless. A tragic ending to what could have been.
But even in this moment, as we were all thinking about ourselves and what this meant for us, Jesus was thinking about others. Jesus, as he usually did, was thinking about relationships and how to bring us together—how to help us find purpose through each other—how to help us be the fulfillment of our prayers in one another’s life.
Looking down from the cross, his gaze connected with that of Mary. His mother’s. Just a few spans away from the cross that bore her firstborn son. Oh God, I hadn’t even realized Mary was there, let alone thought about how she was feeling through this! “Forgive me,” I thought, as Jesus yet again managed to shake me from my self-indulgent despair.
His head turned toward Mary, who had John at her side. John had always loved Mary like she was his own mother. I think that’s one of the reasons he and Jesus were so close. Again his chest heaved. Again we held our breath in case it was his last. [WAIT……]
And again his voice—weak as it was—sounded above the din of the crowd:
“Dear woman, this is your son. This is now your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
That was when the lights went out. [PULL DOWN HOUSE LIGHTS]
Sing: The Old Rugged Cross
Trauma has a way of messing with your perspective of time. Add darkness into the mix, and it’s nearly impossible to be sure how long it was between things. I’m not entirely sure I’m remembering it all in the right order.
The sudden and unexpected darkness that enveloped us seemed to unsettle those who had been mocking Jesus. They quieted down for a while—that was strangely fortunate. But then again, I think the darkness drove us back into our own thoughts.
Grief is a funny thing. We didn’t know about the different stages of grief (or all of that) back then, but I was experiencing most of them at that moment: there was plenty of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. But mostly, I remember feeling empty. Abandoned. Hopeless. Jesus had taught us so much about God’s care and concern for us, how we are loved by God more than the birds of the air, and all that. But here……when it mattered……God seemed nowhere to be found.
Suddenly, Jesus said what we were all thinking. It happened so suddenly that his voice scared me, as though I was startled awake once again:
“My God, My God, why have You forsake me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
It wasn’t until later that we realized Jesus was quoting from the scriptures. That happened a lot with Jesus, but those are other stories for another time. Remembering the context of those words from Psalm 22 helped us (later on) to hear them as words of triumph instead of abandonment. They helped us transform the cross from a symbol of torture and death into one of hope and life. Because Jesus said those words, we realized that we were “the generations to come” who will “tell…of the righteousness of the Lord, of what He has done” (Psalm 22:31)
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. We didn’t know any of the yet. We couldn’t comprehend how Jesus was using one of the psalms he loved so much to transform our mourning into shouts of joy, just as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted (31:13).
Instead, it was dark. Jesus was obviously dying. And we didn’t understand.
As if we needed a reminder that his body was giving out, his voice again sounded in the darkness:
“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)
Dehydration. Exhaustion. Anemia. It was all catching up with him.
And it was like blood in the water, and the sharks were circling. That very human expression of distress and weakness ramped up the viciousness of his tormenters. Instead of water to quench thirst—or even a little wine to help abate the pain—it was vinegar they offered him.
I could see Jesus’ body tense and twist as that sponge soaked in vinegar was squeezed against his face, dripping into cuts and running into the lacerations on his back and sides. Is there no end to the cruelty of our human race? How can Jesus forgive them, even as they continue to kick him when he’s down—even as their…their…their evil is on full display?
They were right about one thing: Jesus’ life was about to end. He even said as much, as soon as they got that vinegar-soaked sponge out of his face:
“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
It’s a strange kind of triumph when the goal is to expose violence. And that’s what this was, really. To people who didn’t know him, “it is finished” sounded like Jesus was giving up—like he was quitting the fight to live any longer. But to those of us who knew him—to those of us who had been so completely changed by knowing Jesus—we heard something different. There was a resolve in his voice……a note of satisfaction, like a job well done. Jesus, it seemed, felt he had accomplished something, even if we didn’t know what that was.
Nor did we have the opportunity to ask him. Because a second later, the end really came:
“Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands.” (Luke 23:46)
Special Music: Kelley Mooney’s adaptation of L. Cohen’s “Hallelujah”
Drama Part 4
If we didn’t know everything had changed before the moment of Jesus’ death, we certainly did afterward. The whole earth shook, like the very foundations of creation were keening with grief. After the sun reappeared, someone noticed the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The earthquake caused some caskets to be unearthed, and (without enough time to bury them all before the Sabbath), a couple days later some would even claim these corpses were walking about and “proving” they were alive.
Of course, that’s a story for another day, too.
The remarkable thing about this day is the way Jesus taught us to see how the Kingdom was already there. In his actions and his words, Jesus pulled back the curtain of this world and allowed us to see that the Kingdom was already in place—we just had to trust enough to live it out.
He did what I think the young people these days call “flipping the script.” All those things we were afraid of proved to be nothing. All those things we had trouble seeing became real. The symbols of death became the means to life. Even death itself became redeemed as Jesus recognized in it a reunion with the Father.
I wish I could tell you we knew all this at the time. But unfortunately, we didn’t. We knew Jesus’ death changed everything, but the change we thought happened drove us to despair. We holed up in fear, hiding out with the expectation that we too would be killed. This, we thought, was the end. The cross seemed to be one giant X-marks-the-spot where the train wreck of our hope piled up onto itself.
I’m not sure what else to tell you. All these years later, I still don’t comprehend a tenth of it. But my witness remains the same: I was there. I was there. I was there.
Sing: Were You There? (vv.1-3 only)