Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sealed in blood: a meditation on the Passion of our Lord

Yesterday was Good Friday, the day that Jesus Christ was executed. I'd like to express some thoughts about this occasion, the most solemn day in the Christian year, before the Easter Vigil this evening. The Passion moves me to tears, literally, and it has ever since I read the accounts for the first time, years ago. No less so today.

This is the day that God the Incarnate Word, God in human form, hung upon the cross. For our sakes, not merely for all of us, but for each of us. For your sins, and for mine, and for those of Herod and Pilate, and Barabbas, and for those of his own disciples, and for every leper and sick woman who came to him, and for those of Lazarus, and Cyrus, and David, and Manasseh, and Antiochus, and Sennacherib. This is the day that Our Lord endured the agony in the garden, the scourging by Herod's men, the interrogation of Pilate, the mockery of the crowd, the blows of the Roman soldiers, the nails in his hands and feet, the crown of thorns, the spear in his side. This is the day that the Perfect Man, the Second Person of the Trinity, endured the shameful death of a common criminal, and endured the mockery and abuse, physical and mental, of those whom he had come to save.

"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One" jeered the crowd. But, of course, that wasn't his purpose. The nature of God is to love, and love demands an object, it takes no fulfilment in itself, for as it is said, "Charity seeketh not her own". Or as William Blake, a great poet given to dualist-Christian strains of spirituality said, "Love seeketh not itself to please, Nor for itself hath any care." For all of eternity, even when our world and our universe didn't exist, the Father and the Son had poured out love for one another. Jesus Christ was more than happy, at the slightest hint of a request, to save, succour, and help others. But He who could multiply loaves and fishes to feed five thousand people would not turn stones to bread to feed himself, and He who could save others from death refused to turn aside from his own fate. Even at the last, he could called on his father, and been freed by "more than twelve legions of angels", but He who was the master of fate, at the moment of his death, chose to submit and die.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Even in the hour of his death, Our Lord remained the good shepherd that did not fail to think of his flock more than of himself. As he walked up the hill to the Place of the Skull, bleeding from the wounds of scourging, his head torn by the crown of thorns, so weak that they needed Simon the Cyrenian to carry his cross for him, he heard the weeping of those in the crowd who felt for him, and his first thought was not of his misery but of theirs. "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children". Christ forgave those that mocked, beat, and crucified him, to the last man, pleading their ignorance to His Father, the author of justice. He thought not only of the mothers and daughters of Jerusalem but of his own mother, whose perpetual virginity had left her childless and alone, and as he hung on the cross, dehydrated from blood loss, his parched lips wet only with the taste of vinegar, his suffocating lungs straining with each word, he granted the care of the Virgin Mother of God to John the Beloved, his best friend and the one to whom, one day, he would appear in glory and grant a vision of the Last Things. "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!"

And most intimately of all, as he slowly died of suffocation, thirst, and blood loss, his very body disintegrating as it had begun to do the night before, when in his agony the vessels in his body began to rupture and "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground", with the crowd jeering at him, the soldiers casting lots for his clothing as had been foretold centuries earlier, he heard a voice of praise and humility from the very last place it could have been expected. The dying criminal hanging next to him accepted his guilt and deserved punishment, contrasted his own guilt with Christ's innocence, and said to Christ simply, 'Remember me'. Not asking for salvation, or for release, or for any benefit of his own, but merely asking to be remembered. And he received the promise, the greatest promise ever made to a man, "Verily I say to you, this day shalt thou be with me in paradise."

Church tradition tells us this man's name was Dysmas, that he was freed that very day, when Christ descended into hell to preach to the dead, and that he entered as among the first saints into the kingdom of heaven. The orthodox account in the Gospel of Luke suggests that the criminal said this in response to the other criminal's challenge, "If thou art the son of God, save thyself and us'. But the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter, providing an alternative (and quite nearly as old) passion narrative puts it a little differently: here Dysmas takes the initiative, challenging the crowd, 'We have been made suffer thus because of the wrong that we have done; but this one, having become Savior of men, what injustice had he done to you?' This portrays him in a more assertive light, not merely failing to be evil but actually, in the last moments of his life, taking a stand in favour of the good.

"Verily I tell you, this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise." None of us is truly lost until the end: the story of St. Dysmas shows us that even in our last moments, on our deathbed (or who knows, maybe even in the next life) we may be confronted with the Presence of God and have the opportunity to turn away from evil. And we can be delivered from evil just as Dysmas was.The accounts given by Luke and by the anonymous author of the Gospel of Peter give us warning, though. The crowd, even seeing this last expression of love and forgiveness, still contained those who continued to be obdurate in their hatred and contempt for the good. There are those who would rather embrace hatred and evil, as self-destructive and unhappy as they are, then admit they were wrong. The orthodox accounts suggest that the soldiers had no need to break the legs of Christ because he was already dead, but the author of 'Peter' says this was done as a deliberate act of malice, to make His death slower and more painful, out of spite for Dysmas' repentance. "And having become irritated at him, they ordered that there be no leg-breaking, so that he might die tormented." There are people and beings who hate good more than they love anything in its own right, and whose driving principles are almost purely negative: to destroy what they dislike rather than to build up what they like. The soldiers are among them; watching this Divine Man die in agony, all they could think about was who would get his clothing, and were more interested in quibbling over a carpenter's meager clothes than having the slightest touch of sympathy or compassion for him. And when challenged and rebuked by a dying criminal who might easily have chosen to think of his own plight rather than think about the injustice done to Jesus, they chose to sneer at him and out of spite, to make the death more painful even then it already was. And in that act they chose their side, as much as the repentant thief Dysmas chose his. All of us, when confronted with the presence of God, have the choice to accept Him or to deny him, and if we choose not to love him then we will hate him. As Fr. Alexandre Kalomiros says, "In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone."

"He was in the world, and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not." The soldiers saw Love Incarnate on the cross, and there souls were turned to hate just as the soul of the thief and the Jewish women were turned to love, for as John the Beloved Disciple tells us, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." No one can remain untouched by that Presence, and if we do not soften our hearts and turn to him then we become hardened and turn away from him. There is no neutrality when are brought face to face with "Love Divine, all loves excelling": the direct experience of Christ will inspire in each of us either an overwhelming attraction or an overwhelming revulsion, and confirm us either in obedience or rebellion; it will no longer leave us the shelter of ignorance. That is why Christ gave us that terrifying warning, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin." To have a genuine religious experience is a very serious business, because it strips from us the cloak of ignorance, the genuine and innocent lack of knowledge of an honest atheist or a child, that excuses so much. When we see Christ we are, finally, "without excuse", and face at last the terrible responsibility of choosing to join either the repentant thief or the sadistic soldiers.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This was the divine mercy and love of Christ, that even in the hour of his death, he refused to be touched by rancor or by bitterness towards his persecutors. He who had told his followers, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you", was never unfaithful to his own words, not even when he was dying a more painful and more agonizing death than he could have imagined, betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter, mocked by the crowd that had hailed him five days earlier. This was truly the last temptation of the Enemy, of whom it had been said that at the end of the forty days in the desert, he 'departed until an opportune time'. That opportune time, for the last and greatest temptation, the temptation to spill the cup his Father had given him instead of drinking, to refuse to say 'Thy will, not mine, be done', had begun last night on the Thursday when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had then been pitched on the knife edge between faith and despair, as much as when he was standing of the knife edge of Solomon's Portico and the Enemy said, "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down...." And that excruciating moment of temptation stretched on, and on, until three o'clock on the next day when Jesus Christ breathed his last. He must have thought about how he could get out of this mess- by denying his Divinity, by denying his Kingship, by pleading with Pilate, by demonstrating miracles to Herod, by calling upon the holy angels. But to the last, he stayed faithful, and death with the last temptation as he had dealt with all the others, and saying in so many words, "Retro me, Satanas."

"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." No: the true Christ of God, infused to the last cell of his body with the love and charity that comes down from heaven, thought in his dying three hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Beloved Disciple, of the faithful women of Jerusalem weeping over his death, of the condemned and repentant criminal next to him, of the crowd who in their ignorance and weakness consented to his death. Perhaps he thought of others too, but he didn't think of himself. He pleaded from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But like Job, who had said, "Though he slay me, yet shall I trust in him", he remained humble and obedient and did not see, even in his most forsaken hour, a licence to betray his calling.

"Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?" The extra-canonical Gospel of Peter dates from probably the late first century; it was treated as credible by some of the Church Fathers and probably represents an independent testimony of the Passion, differing in many details (but not in theological import) from the canonical gospels. It puts this famous saying differently, "My power, my power, why hast thou forsaken me?" We can compare these two accounts and see something quite interesting (it's quite possible Jesus said the same thing in two slightly different ways). In the extra-biblical account, Jesus is confessing that the 'power' which animated him was the same as the power of God, and that he had, within himself, a divine nature as well as a human one.

"And it was then about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the earth until the ninth hour; and the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst." As the moment of death, the moment at which the power of evil became triumphant, for a day, over the Author of Good, the moment at which God Incarnate died the death of a criminal, and at which rebellious humans succeeded in killing the one who had come "that they might have life and have it abundantly", the world itself seemed to quake at the horrendous injustice done to him through whom this world itself was made. We are told of the great eclipse and earthquake by Matthew, and Luke, and the author of 'Peter'; Matthew backs up the sense of how much this represented the overturning of the natural order by telling us that a number of dead people broke from their graves and came back to life, in a kind of creepy foreshadowing of the Resurrection which would come in a day and a half. When this earth's Author and Maker was put to death, the earth itself seemed to shudder in horror.

"The veil of the temple was rent in the midst." The great earthquake that tore in half the curtain of the Temple, which revealed the secret inner sanctum which was meant to be forever concealed, must have been seen as a terrible portent; "Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God". It would be like an earthquake ripping appart St. Peter's Basilica or the temple at Tirupathi, though more so, for the Jews much more than Hindus or Christians had a sense of God's total otherness. They believed the inner sanctum, behind the veil, was consecrated to the Most High God, and only the High Priest himself, on one day of the year, could enter into the Presence without being struck dead. The tearing apart of the veil would have been seen as ipso facto evidence, terrifying and numinous, that a great sacrilege had happened. Whether or not this earthquake was a miracle, there is evidence from non-Christian Greek sources, cited by Eusebius of Caesarea, that a great earthquake did rock the eastern Mediterranean in the year 32-33 AD, and there may have been Roman records, noted by one 'Thallus' of a great eclipse over Judaea as well. We normally draw a sharp distinction between the spiritual and natural universes, but perhaps here is one of those few instances where the separation breaks down, as it does during any miracle, and where nature itself seemed to be overturned by the enormity of what had just happened. As the earthquake was a natural disaster, the tearing of the temple veil was a supernatural one, that foreshadowed in an eerie way the destruction of the Temple itself forty years over, and that must have struck the people of Jerusalem as a terrible omen.

"It is finished," said the Lord, in Latin "Consummatum est." The English translation does not do justice (and who knows, Christ may have used Latin). Christ was saying, "It is accomplished", or perhaps, "It is consummated." Romantic love is (very often) consummated by the act of coitus, and if the woman is a virgin, then this may involve blood. Christ's consummation of his love for fallen humanity, too, was sealed in blood, the blood that poured from his torn forehead and his pierced hands and feet. The blood of the virgin's bed when she surrenders to her lover recapitulates the blood through which the love of Christ and his Bride was consummated. It is, of course, a commonplace observation, made by innumerable theologians, poets and mystics down the ages (and interestingly enough, the Hindus have an equivalent theological concept) that erotic love, and the act of coitus, are at their best a carnal figure of a spiritual reality, symbolizing and incarnating (in the literal sense of the word) not merely the spiritual communion between lovers, but the everlasting covenant and communion between Christ and fallen Man, which was initiated by the Incarnation, as a romantic relationship is initiated by a first date, and consummated by his death on the cross. It is no accident that in early modern English of Donne and Shakespeare, 'to die' was used as a euphemism for the sexual climax. For something in human nature and in our souls recognizes that there is a hidden, obscure but inescapable connection between pleasure and suffering, between love and death, between sex and the mystery of the Cross. The physical act of love is the closest thing we can experience in this world to perfect union with another, and that perfect union was what God the Son accomplished through his Incarnation, sealed with his blood as the writers of old used to seal letters with wax. Every stroke of the scourge, every blow from the soldiers' fists, every cut from the crown of thorns, every issue of blood from the wounds in his hands, his feet, his side, every drop of blood that mixed with his sweat in the Garden as the red wine mixes with water at the Eucharist, was a further expression of his boundless and perfect love for us, just as every kiss and caress of the lovers is an expression of their love for each other. For as it said, "by his stripes we are healed."

"Consummatum est." It is perhaps for that reason that the wounds of Christ, and the streaks of his precious blood, are eternal. When Christ comes again in glory, at the end of the world to defeat the armies of evil, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse that even then, innumerable ages after the Crucifixion, he will bear the wounds of his sacrifice: "He was clad in a vesture dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God," and again, "in the midst of the elders stood a lamb as it had been slain." For this act of supreme love was so great and so momentous that it can never be forgotten or diminished, not even visually: Our Lord wears the marks of his suffering forever. For the past can be transcended, and out of evil God brings good, but evil can never be made not to have happened, and the past can never be replayed. Yann Martel, in his bestseller "Life of Pi", puts it well: once a dead God always a dead God, even though resurrected. If God's death was to have any meaning, instead of being a sham and a farce, as Martel puts it, the death must be real, and that means that for the rest of eternity, the Trinity must be in some way wounded by it. I have no idea what Martel's personal faith is, but here he brilliantly puts the essence of the fundamental debate between orthodox Christianity and the Docetic schools of thought, and shows the fundamental flaw of Docetism. Christ accepted that permanent, everlasting injury to himself out of love for us, and for the rest of eternity he wears the marks of his Passion, just as so many military officers wear their decorations for the rest of their lives.

"Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round", this is what the Lord must have felt in his last minutes, as he remembered the prophecy, "the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet". But he knew that it was worth it, just as a man and a woman, after months of getting to know each other, after building up love through friendship, mutual devotion, and sacrifice, know that it is worth it when they make love for the first time, because in this act of supreme love, Christ knew he was accomplishing something great for his people. He had told his disciples, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends," and being perfect in all ways, he followed this logic to its perfect conclusion.

"Consummatum est." And truly, how much was really consummated in that moment? In the moment of his death were consummated the three hours of his dying, the three years of his ministry, the thirty-three years of his life, the countless generations that God had been speaking to the people of Israel, the countless millenia of human history, the many millions of years of animal evolution, the very history of our universe itself. It was all leading up to Christ, its center and its focus, and all those endless ages finally found their purpose when he spoke his last words from the cross: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."


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