Standing at the foot of the cross

Mary Copping, 14 April 2017

Psalm 22: 1–20; John 19: 1–42

Today is perhaps the most difficult day in the whole of the church calendar, as we remember – and enter into once more – the agony of Jesus hanging on the cross, enduring such pain, an innocent man dying a criminal’s death.

We stand at the foot of the cross as our Lord is crucified. Mary, his mother, perhaps remembered all that Simeon had said to her in the temple when they took Jesus in there as a baby: being told that he would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’. Where was the light now, where was the glory? How had things come to this, through human cruelty? Simeon had said, ‘A sword will pierce your heart’. Did she feel that sword pierce her very soul as she watched her dear son dying, an innocent man, people baying for his blood, no one understanding? How could they kill an innocent man, 33 years old, for no reason? Her soul was pierced with pain.

John – he had been Jesus’ closest friend, sat next to him at the Last Supper, had been described as the disciple Jesus loved – perhaps Jesus had confided in him, looked to him as a friend and support? He was in front of the cross, next to Jesus’ mother, not being able to help her, not being able to help Jesus, not being able to help himself – no words, just suffering and perhaps anger at what people were doing to his innocent friend. How could they? So much more painful to see someone else suffering than to suffer for yourself; you can’t take this away. What could John do? Yet from the cross, a look of love from Jesus – and asking John to take home his mother, to take care of her. ‘Of course, master, I will do that for you; I can’t do anything else, but I’ll do that for you.’ Helpless.

The soldiers did what they had to do. Just another crucifixion of a guilty man – all part of the job. Once they’d banged the nails in and put up the cross, making sure they’d done a good job – the body wasn’t going to fall, it was well nailed up. Just someone to be hung up there until he died … making sure they did a professional job. Then dividing Jesus’ clothes up, making sure they had a fair share of the spoils and drawing lots for his seamless robe. Did they look up to see Jesus; were they totally unaware that this was someone different? Wondering what all the fuss was about from the people around as Jesus died. Perhaps not understanding what Jesus was calling from the cross – ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ – perhaps he was a bit deranged?

The women at the cross – were they thinking of Mary and wondering how on earth she could bear this? Perhaps thinking of their own sons, husbands – thanking God that it wasn’t them, but perhaps feeling guilty they even thought that. Mary Magdalene, who had washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and tenderly dried them with her hair, now seeing those feet she had so gently cared for brutally nailed and bleeding. How could they, what has he done? He saved my life – how have things come to this?

The disciples – where were those who had been with Jesus for three years, determined to stay with him, who had shared so much of his life with him? Yet leaving him through fear of being seen with the ‘enemy of the Jews’. Fearful that they would be associated with this trouble-maker and arrested by the authorities, fearful at what had happened to their master, who only five days ago had been fêted by the crowds and was now scourged and whipped as a hated person. Fearful, perhaps, of seeing their master in so much pain. How could they leave when Jesus needed their support? They had slept as he had prayed and sweated blood, and now they fled as he bled on the cross. Where were they when he needed them most? Would we have left Jesus in his hour of need, for fear of being labelled as one of ‘them’?

God, watching his Son dying on the cross of shame, dying the death that would lead to life. He knew, as no one else knew, that this death would bring life and light to the world. But he also had to watch his Son suffering terrible pain, even suffering a feeling of estrangement from him: ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ ‘My Son, I’m here.’

God’s love was the perfect love … the love that encompasses on the cross the pain of the world and the suffering in it … the love that encompasses each one of us.

And yet ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3: 16). God’s love was the perfect love, the love that gave even his only Son up to a violent and painful death on the cross. The love that gave him up so that all the world could be saved. The love that encompasses on the cross the pain of the world and the suffering in it. The love that encompasses the children who died in the Syrian gas attack, the children dying of cancer, the children orphaned by AIDS in Africa. The love that encompasses each one of us as we look on the cross of Christ. Arms outstretched to receive us and our pain and suffering, to receive the world.

As we gaze on the cross of Christ – as we see his humiliation, his suffering, his pain – we thank God that he did send his only Son to bring us back to him, to bring us back to the knowledge of his love for us and for the world. We thank God that he does continue to love us and care for his world. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Love – unconditional, all-encompassing. The love that gave all, holding nothing back.

Words from Vanstone’s ‘Hymn to the Creator’, in his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense:

Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

Thank you Lord.