The Last Hour

21 March 2008 at :00 am

Many of us here will be familiar with the Quaker, Sidney Carter's Hymn "Lord of the Dance", but fewer may know one of his other hymns, which he puts into the mouth of one of the robbers who was crucified with Jesus. The refrain goes like this:

It's God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter a'hanging on the tree.

It's a striking image, not least of all because for us who now sing it are aware that Christian orthodoxy has always thought that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity, and so it is God a'hanging on the tree. And if there is, nonetheless, a hint of heresy in Carter's words, it matters not, because coping with heresy can often be a way of being led deeper into the mystery of God's truth.

Understanding the cross has always been a problem, even indeed for the very earliest Christians. How can this good man who told them so much about God have ended up like that? And the gospel writers struggle to try to explain. They all agree that Jesus ended his life with some sort of final shout, but they don't agree on what words were actually said; Matthew and Mark both simply say that it was a loud shout, and then Jesus gave up his spirit. Luke has Jesus uttering the night prayer from Psalm 31 'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.' John has Jesus saying 'It is finished.' Historically it seems unlikely that anyone can have known what Jesus said at that point. The remains of someone who died from crucifixion at about the time of Jesus' death have been found, and it seems clear that, because of the agonising position of the body, death usually came from the lungs filling with liquid as the victim could scarcely swallow. So he literally suffocated. It would be impossible in such circumstance to shout or even say anything. What we have in the gospels are the writers' attempts to explain the inexplicable, the death of Jesus in this humiliating public manner. Luke, therefore, stresses that, even in this moment, Jesus' faith in God allowed him to offer this to his Father. John, by having Jesus say 'It is finished' makes the theological point that Jesus' death was a deliberate part of the whole drama, and his obedience to God had been tested even to this extreme and yet survived.

Matthew and Mark, however, report some time before Jesus died that more disturbing cry 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me', and the implication is that the suffering of the cross was not just physical, but psychological as well. Jesus words there are from Psalm 22, a prayer to be used at the time of death, and it too ends with trust in God retained. So maybe even Mark and Matthew, who would have known the psalm well, were looking forward to Luke's theme of 'Into thy hands I commit my spirit.' by having Jesus say those words.

But the essential point is that the words from the cross raise the question of where God is in this, and the words are ambiguous, they indicate both trust in God and yet an awful sense of separation from God. Throughout the passion stories there are the themes of betrayal and abandonment. Betrayal is often described in the gospel accounts as handing over, Judas, his disciple, hands over Jesus to the authorities; the Jews, his own people, hand him over to Pilate, a foreign governor; Pilate, the representative of justice, hands him over to the executioners. And on the cross he was abandoned, abandoned by his disciples, abandoned by the crowds who used to follow him, and, it seems, abandoned even by God.

But where is God in this? Is he the master puppeteer, pulling all the strings? For if so he seems almost to be his son's murderer. We are reminded of that story of Abraham and Isaac we heard earlier. You will remember that Abraham took his son Isaac up to a high mountain intending to offer him in sacrifice and then, at the last moment, a ram appeared stuck in a thicket. But there was no substitute ram at Calvary. And the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, had another variation on that theme. According to Owen the angel calls to Abraham:

Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

That's a voice from the First World War, but, I fear, it is the world we know all too well. The world of betrayal, the world of abandonment, the world where a God who provided a substitute ram seems only absent because now there are not any substitutes, and we feel abandoned by God himself.

But then, maybe if God is absent as the master puppeteer he is nonetheless there in another way, in an infinitely more real and powerful way, for it is him who is there on the cross. For all the theme of abandonment God is at Calvary, and at the Somme and at Paschendale, and in Dachau and Auschwitz, and in Iraq and Gaza. But he is not there as the puppeteer, but as the victim. He is there suffering in his world that so often rejects and crucifies him. The early church had a name for such a doctrine, they called in Patripassianism, the idea that the Father suffers. And some of the early Church Fathers thought it was a heresy. But we are not so sure now. Theology that is separate from our experience of reality is no theology at all, or certainly not one worth having, and if God has made the world and loves the world then we must believe that he suffers in this suffering world as well. And that is what the cross shows us. The cross isn't an event just to think about. It is one to feel as well. And from that felt point of view God isn't absent, but powerfully present, sufferingly present, crucially present even, there on the cross.

And what we then find is that the cross is a window into the soul of God, a window through which we can see what it is like to be God, and a window that can therefore let light into our room, the light of the knowledge of God. For the cross shows us how God works - and at what cost.

Now according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, its effect was immediate, for as Jesus died so the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The outer part of the temple was called the court of the Gentiles, where anyone could go. But then inside that was the Jewish area, and finally, at one end of that, an area known as the Holy of Holies, where it was believed God was especially present, and it was separated from the rest of the Temple by a huge curtain. With the Gospel accounts we are again in the world of theological explanation rather than historical event, but the point is clear. The curtain is torn apart, and the Holy of Holies made accessible to all. At Calvary God is made available for us all, at the cost of his mystery. And what we see on the cross is none other than a Crucified God.

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