The Rt. Revd Richard Chartres
A meditation on the Cross from the Gospel of St Mark
Humanity brought to life by the humanity of God.
“IS it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because he demands it or feels some need of it, but in order to carry out his own plans? Humanity had to be brought to life by the humanity of God. . . We had to be called back to him by his Son. Let the rest be adored in silence.” [St Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 45 for Easter]
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this thy family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with Thee and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.
Reading: Mark 14.53-72
Meditation: Introduction and the New Community.
ST Peter was given the gift of tears, and the gift to see himself as he was, without illusion. As we watch and pray together in our homes this Good Friday, in this strange year when life seems to be on hold, what is required is simple attention to the events which unfolded in Jerusalem that first Good Friday.
Let us follow the story as it is recorded by St Mark, whose gospel was probably the first of the four in the New Testament to be written down.
The events he describes have a firm anchorage in history, but revelation leads not so much to the acquisition of new facts as to the dawning of spiritual light. Revelation is enacted in our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit as we encounter Jesus Christ; as his story illuminates, and becomes a part of, our own story.
The bystanders in the High Priest’s court could not bear this revelation; they could not bear to look at Jesus, so they covered his face. Peter, in his frailty and betrayal, called to mind Jesus’s words, and he wept and saw himself straight.
Before the trial in the High Priest’s Court, while Jesus was enduring the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples are pictured heavy with sleep and Jesus says, to them and to us, Watch and Pray.
To be truly spiritual is like waking up and becoming more and more aware. Remain here and Pray — that is the request of Jesus. We are to be really present so that, if it is His will, the Spirit of God may touch us and disclose the word he has for us at this particular stage of our spiritual journey.
In our first scene, Jesus stands alone before the chief priests and their supporters in the Sanhedrin; later, he is alone before Pilate and the crowds. His followers have fled, and the chief apostle — Peter, the Rock – has three times denied knowing him. Jesus is alone.
All through the gospel of St Mark, we see Jesus in the midst of his friends and teaching the crowds who had turned out to hear him. He had gathered a band of men and women around him who were learning a new kind of life together in a community; they were his disciples — his pupils.
A mark of the community being assembled by Jesus was that its members were to share their resources, as they had done in the miracle of the five thousand. It was recognized that it would be hard for those “who trust in riches” [10.24] to enter the Kingdom.
Another feature of the new community which Jesus was bringing into being was that, although it had been foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was to embrace both Jews and Gentiles. It was to bridge one of the most profound divides in the ancient world. The five thousand who were fed remind us of the five books of the law of Moses, while the miracle which (in St Mark’s gospel) follows hard after — the feeding of the four thousand in Gentile territory — suggests a community which was called to extend to the four corners of the earth.
In our own day, with the growing inter-connectedness of all things with a global economy and communications system, we are searching for just such a community, knowing that the penalty for failure is that humankind will sooner or later unleash the mushroom-cloud we have conjured up and destroy ourselves. The call to this generation is to work urgently for one world, or face the possibility of no world.
We have been given two signs, revealed to this generation and no other one before us. Those signs are the mushroom-cloud, and the earth seen for the first time from outer space: a single globe, sapphire-blue and beautiful. That is the choice which confronts us –- the cloud, or the globe.
The new human solidarity which, according to Mark, Jesus begins to assemble does not only welcome into the community Gentile outsiders but also women and children as full members. At the same time, the leadership of the community was not to be of the familiar kind where rulers lord it over their subjects but “if any man would be first he shall be last of all and a servant [deacon] of all”.
All this would amount to little more than daydreams of utopia without the transforming energy which flows from a new intimacy with God. He taught his pupils to put aside the identities created by defining ourselves over and against other people. He lived close to the heart of the Father, and opened a door so that his pupils were equipped to pray “Our Father”.
At the heart of the community was to be a spiritual life centred on being attentive and doing the work of prayer. Watch and pray. It is Christ’s word to us this afternoon. And “when you stand praying, forgive” [11.25]. Let go of anger and disappointment. These are the pre-conditions for being built up in the great command to love God and our neighbours as ourselves [12.28].
But for the moment it all seems to have been in vain. The new community has disintegrated and fled. There is a dramatic and significant defection as Jesus is being taken to the High Priest’s house: “And a certain young man followed with him having a linen cloth cast about him over his naked body, and they lay hold on him but he left the linen cloth and fled naked” [14.51]. We shall see the young man and the linen cloth again before this story is ended. But for the moment let us accept that anyone who has not been tempted to run away from this scene, from this crucifixion, has never understood it, nor stood steadfastly beneath it.
Reading Mark 15.1-15
Meditation: The Powers
IN the last scene, Jesus stood alone. The community he had been building had disintegrated. They all forsook him and fled. Peter the Rock denied knowing hm. Now he is left alone with the powers that rule this present age.
Those who were responsible for Jesus hanging there upon the Cross were not spectacularly wicked. The chief priests and the scribes were the guardians of a highly developed moral tradition and a noble national story. Pilate was the representative of a system of government which united the whole Mediterranean world, and which guaranteed throughout the region a standard of peace and prosperity which was not attained again until the nineteenth century.
Both the Jewish Establishment and the Roman Procurator were playing the political game as it has existed since the beginnings of civilisation. They were disposing of a disturber of the status quo, without being too delicate about the means, while fobbing off the crowd with Barabbas (which literally means “Son of the Father”) — a chip off the old block; a real murderer, but one who, like revolutionaries through the ages, worked for a reversal of political roles but no profound change in the system of control and domination. We have learned the hard way throughout the 20th century that new Commissar is just old Czar writ large and even more ruthless.
Then the crowd, with their cries, recall the cries of the demoniacs in the first half of the gospel. The crowd is possessed by their experience of disappointment, economic hardship, and foreign rule. Out of their pain, manipulated by the priests and whipped up by Pilate, they cry out against their own hope in cynicism and disgust: “Crucify him!”
It is all so credible. This is the world we know; this is our world. There are areas of relative peace and plenty — like ours — preserved by a superiority of force which excludes the other world of need and insecurity. This is a world in which we have enough food to ensure that everyone is fed but we do not have the political will to do it. This is a world of huge achievements, and certainly preferable to a state of disorder and chaos. But this is also a world maintained at a cost to the poor, and repression of their attempts to revise their status.
This is the world, so familiar to us, that Our Lord entered. The Word of God coming into the world did not merely go about telling people to be nice to one another. Jesus Christ gave people an inkling of their true nature, and began to gather around him a new community. It was non-violent and inclusive; a community in which human beings would see and serve their deepest selves in one another because they had been caught up by Jesus to his level of awareness, close to the heart of the Father.
This truly revolutionary social enterprise amounted to a new creation, and the Powers which dominate the world as we know it recognised the threat which Jesus and his Kingdom posed.
St Mark continually points out that it was the demons who knew who Jesus really was while his disciples were in the dark. Our world is dominated by Powers, a word used frequently in the epistles of St Paul to designate the world rulers of this present age — not so much individuals but spirits, the cravings and fears which operate in the sphere of the false self which we have built between our true selves and God.
Ironically, Mark shows us Jesus identified as Messiah by the High Priest; proclaimed to the people by Pilate; saluted as King by the soldiers, and enthroned on a cross beneath a placard bearing his proper title, with two thieves occupying the seats of honour for which James and John had contended, one on his right hand and one on his left. The Powers proclaim Jesus even while destroying him and, as we shall see, their cynical frankness about Jesus hints at a mysterious pattern in the world where even evil is compelled to serve the Creator’s purposes.
Reading: Mark 15.16-37
Meditation: The Cross
JESUS Christ was not crucified between two candlesticks on an altar but tortured to death in the way that Romans reserved for rebels. Even the ancient world, which had a stronger stomach for public horrors than ours, regarded crucifixion as a peculiarly terrible punishment.
The sixth hour was, in Roman reckoning, noon. There was darkness at noon, just as when Jesus was born there was brightness at midnight. The sun, so often the symbol of imperial power, was eclipsed.
The condemned man was commonly beaten up and stripped. Notice how many clothings and unclothings there are in this story. It is a profound theme in scripture from the time when our first parents recognised that they were naked and were covered with shame. Victims of crucifixion were then nailed to a cross about seven feet tall so that wild animals could leap up to the body. It was also easy, as we can see from the narrative, for passers-by to mock the figure hanging on the cross only just above their heads. Death was often a long time in coming, and usually occurred by gradual asphyxiation.
He was mocked: “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself.” This echoes the charges made at his trial. The temple was the central symbol of the old order. It was not only a place of worship but the pinnacle of a system of social and economic organisation which benefited some but by no means all. Jesus had wryly observed this while sitting “over against the treasury”, when he noted that the widow had to contribute all her living.
The new community was not to be centred on this great institution constructed on its mountain but on the body of Jesus Christ.
There is no lack of realism in the teaching of Jesus about the difficulties to be overcome in building the new human community, the new Israel. Above all, he taught that the obstacle to entry into this new reality is attachment to the surface self — the clothed self — that we have manufactured as our way of negotiating with the world around us.
Modern people often call this surface self the ego. It is the self which is organised over against other selves, and regards and negotiates with the others as with objects to be managed. The manufacture of this self is part of the human condition, and every one of us has to do this work to survive and function; but spiritual growth, at a certain point in life, demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the ego so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish.
The surface self, however necessary its construction, once achieved is a barrier between our deepest selves and God; a barrier which in the end prevents growth, and interrupts the healthful and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.
Adam and Eve hid themselves from the Lord God in the Garden of Eden, clothing themselves to hide from God, but Jesus is transparent to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. William Blake, the great prophet of London, said “We are put upon this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” Alas, from our earliest years we are hard at work to build beam-proof shelters, and from this position no man hath quickened his own soul.
The soul is the full expression of our deepest self, which was created for communion with God and all other beings created by God. The soul thrives in connection and communion. The ego is oriented towards self-preservation by domination.
The ego regards the world around as composed of objects of its thought or desire. The deepest self — the spiritual heart — sees other subjects. That is why, in what he says and what he does, in how he lives and in how he dies, Our Lord teaches that “whosoever would save his life shall lose it and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it” (8.35).
If we dwell in our surface self, building our castle walls to defend ourself against the others and constructing a position from which we can control the surrounding landscape, then we are cut off from the freely given and received exchange of love and worth which is the source of the profoundest energy in life, and we shrink. In the end, our defence becomes our undoing.
We enter eternal life by coming to our senses; by staying here, today; by becoming aware — not least of death. So much about the way we live now — the hectic pace which seems to be based on the logic that the faster we live, the more we will get out of this short life — flows from a repressed fear of death which stalks this civilisation. The Cross stands for the truth that we can only enter life in all its fullness by embracing our own death. Christians through the ages have discovered that this is not a morbid path but the very opposite. To accept and be aware of our own death is a liberation which enables us to stand beside others in a deeper way.
The message is, of course, even deeper than that. We are summoned to enter into the great exchange of love which gives and receives in freedom, rather than buys or sells; which contemplates with joy, rather than consumes to the point of satiation.
Our contemplation includes the cost. In so many ways, we discover that real love lies in the letting go. This is an agonising experience for many parents, and indeed for anyone who has loved deeply. We also discover that, with non-possessive love, you make a gift of power to the other person which exposes you to deep injury and wounds. Jesus Christ teaches us this truth as he hangs silently on the Cross.
The gospel began with the voice of one crying in the wilderness — the prophet John the Baptist, whose end was to be killed by Herod. Now, at what seems to be the end, there is one last cry; a terrible cry, using words from the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus feels the full weight of the God-forsakenness which there is in the world in thrall to the Powers.
Some among the bystanders, like people throughout the history of the Church, have not given up hope of a happy ending — the arrival of some celestial Fifth Cavalry — so that we might be shielded from the dreadful truth that the passage to new life lies through suffering and by accepting death.
“Some of them stood by and said, ‘Behold he calleth Elijah’.” But we know from Jesus himself that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist, and has been spurned (9.13). “Once again Jesus uttered a loud voice and gave up the ghost.”
The way opened up by Our Lord discloses that, if you do set out to make your neighbour your work of art in the new human community which Jesus came to inaugurate, then you will be exposed to hurt and unimaginable pain. But, as you look deeply into the human face of God, he will awake and strengthen your deepest self, which was made in his image; he will quicken your soul. This is work we cannot do for ourselves; it is beyond our strength and imagining. Jesus Christ lifted up upon the Cross is the mirror in which we can glimpse our true, God-created selves. Jesus Christ is the true self of the human race.
But for the moment, that body hangs upon the Cross. It appears that the Powers have won, and that there will be no new spring for the world. “Let Christ the King of Israel now come down from the cross that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him, reproached him.”
Reading Mark 15.38-47
Meditation: Death and Beyond
IT appears that the Powers have had the last word. The body which was to have been the heart of the new community falls silent. But immediately (Mark’s favourite word) the veil before the Holy of Holies in the Temple — the great symbol of the old order — is split from top to bottom; torn like the wineskins when the new patch is applied, or like the garments of the High Priest when he was confronted by Jesus. The fury of the Powers has brought their world to the edge of destruction.
Jesus hangs on the Cross in silence and a great tempest of hate and violence rages around him. It is a revelation of the true nature of the Powers, and an explosion which brings them closer to exhaustion and bankruptcy. Jesus takes upon himself all this pain and anger without reinvigorating it by returning railing for railing and cursing for cursing. Instead, he takes it into himself although the cost is terrible – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
For the moment, however, the Powers seem to remain in occupation of the field. The centurion which “stood by over against him”, named him: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” The Powers, operating through the demons, had always recognised Jesus for who he was, and pronouncing the true name of someone was believed to give you power over that person.
But there are those women — still there, unlike the men, because they had not only followed him but served him in Galilee. We wait and watch with them a little while, to contemplate the form taken by perfect love when it enters this world of ours.
Christ on the Cross reveals the face of perfect love in this world. If we are quiet enough — like those life-bearing women in the gospel story, waiting afar off — then Christ on the Cross will send shockwaves through the crust to stimulate our spiritual heart.
Sometimes he sends the gift of tears, so that the heart of stone can become once more the heart of flesh. Then we shall know the reality of the pictures given to us in Exodus: how the water gushes out of the heart of the flinty rock, and how the bush burns with fire but is not consumed.
You enter the realm of eternal life and you pass through to a new awareness by coming to your senses; by remaining under the Cross; by becoming aware, not least of death; by entering into the great exchange of love which gives and receives in freedom, rather than buys or sells; which contemplates with joy, rather than consumes to the point of satiation. As you look deeply into the human face of God, he will awaken and strengthen your deepest self, which was made in his image; he will quicken your soul. This is work we cannot do for ourselves; it is beyond our strength and our imagining.
All they that go down into the dust shall kneel before him; and no man hath quickened his own soul.
The heavens shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, whom the Lord hath made. [Psalm 22]
Life-bearing women are signs of hope in the Passion according to St Mark, but their vigil does not last very long because Joseph of Arimathaea — a rich man, and a member of the Council which had condemned Jesus — came and begged his body from Pilate and hastily wound him in the linen cloth. This is the second use of this word — “sindon” — in the gospel. You will remember that the linen cloth was taken from the young man, the disciple, as he fled. Jesus was wrapped in the linen cloth without any of the usual rites, and laid in the tomb. Joseph of Arimathaea caused a stone to be rolled across the door.
Maybe Joseph was a secret disciple doing what little honour he could to the crucified Son of Man, but the effect of the scene is to despatch Jesus with as little ceremony as possible. In 5.29, John’s own disciples — not a hidden sympathizer — took up the Baptist’s body and laid it in a tomb.
The stone is rolled over the entry. The realm of the Powers is intact; the tragedy is ended. The story of Jesus and his New Israel is apparently finished.
Our presence this afternoon; each in our own individual home; is a sign that this is not true. Whether we read St Mark’s account of Jesus’ last hours as believers or as those who want to believe, we come in hope for some glimpse of a way through to life in all its fullness.
The women come back to perform the customary rites. They are a potent sign of the reversals involved in the new human community inaugurated by Jesus. In Jewish law, you needed two male witnesses to establish the truth of anything; but Jesus taught that women were to be full partners in the new community, and indeed it was the women who had kept him company during his final hours, albeit “afar off”.
They discover that stone rolled away and a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe. This recalls the robe of dazzling light which Jesus himself wore at the Transfiguration. The young man sitting in the tomb is a potent symbol of fresh insight and energy. But the white clothes are those of a martyr. Here is the second appearance of the young man who fled when Jesus was arrested.
He says unto them, “Be not amazed, ye seek Jesus the Nazarene which hath been crucified; he is risen; he is not here; behold the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter, he goeth before you into Galilee, there ye shall see him as he said unto you.”
Losing his life, the true self of the human race and the human face of God has passed through the false surface-self, the sphere of the Powers. He has been raised by God, and is able to recall others to their deepest selves, which they can see in him and regain by following his way. There is the young man, full of life and no longer naked but clothed like Jesus in a robe of white. But these are the robes, not of purity but of martyrdom; another pointer to the way of gaining life by surrendering life.
The women at this point (there are three, to match the three disciples who sleep in unawareness in the Garden of Gethsamene) are told to tell his disciples and then Peter — for the first shall be last — that he is risen, and that “he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him as he said unto you.”
The young man invites us to go back to the beginning of the story, and perhaps to understand it all for the first time. Galilee is where Jesus first called his disciples in the everyday life and work of their home country. This time, we have the clue and, having watched by the Cross, we shall know him for who he is.
The gospel is revealed, not so much to spectators and commentators but to followers, learners, disciples in the new community which Jesus the true self of the human race inaugurates. Mark’s good news has as its climax the command to go back to everyday reality and transform it by living out life as a follower of Jesus. We are to become the body of Jesus in the world – Jesus, who himself embodies the life for others which is the true vocation of human beings made in the image of God. Humanity had to be brought to life by the humanity of God . . .we had to be called back to him by his Son [St Gregory Nazianzen].
We contemplate the cross of Jesus Christ this afternoon in the light of the responsibility which the climax of the story, as St Mark presents it, places upon us. A splendid reversal of the victory claimed by the exhausted and discredited Powers would have been one thing, but this insistence that the person awakened by the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ can only begin again, wherever we are, to follow him as a servant, offering life so as to enter into life more profoundly — no wonder that these tidings profoundly disturbed the women. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”
That is where the ancient texts of St Mark’s gospel ended. Mark leaves us, as we contemplate this scene, with the question that reverberates through his gospel. It is for each one of us to answer this question in the silence of our own hearts. “Who do men say that I am?”