The First Station – Jesus is condemned to death

We enter this scene as a riot has just threatened to break out. Pontius Pilate, the Governor, representing the imperial occupying power, Rome and Cesar, sits in judgement and a broken, bloodied man stands in front – only just stands, at every moment it looks as though his feeble and exhausted body will give way. They are there, facing each other across the stone pavement within the Antonia Fortress which was the headquarters of the Roman military in Jerusalem.

'Ecce homo'

‘Ecce homo’

One of the most amazing sights is to come into Durham by train. From the vantage point of a wonderful Victorian viaduct you have before you the most incredible view and collection of Norman architecture. There is the great Cathedral, massive, confident, almost masculine in its architecture. And there, to its left, is the keep of the Castle. They symbolise church and state, earthly and heavenly power and nowhere as perfectly as this. There is a similar arrangement around Parliament Square in London. On the four sides you have the Abbey, representing the church, the Supreme Court, representing the law, the Treasury representing the executive and the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, representing the legislature. It is the most wonderful space in which to stand and contemplate power, in its many manifestations in a democracy like ours. The situation in Jerusalem was not so different. Today, pilgrims to Jerusalem on their first morning will probably be taken to the Mount of Olives and shown the view of the Old City, located across the Kidron Valley that separates the Mount of Olives from the Temple Mount. In what is so often lovely morning sunshine the pilgrim sees before them the breath-taking beauty of the Dome of the Rock which sits somewhere close to where the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple complex would have stood. Beneath the Dome and the Al Aqsa Mosque is the platform which formed the base to the Temple and now forms the foundation of these two important places for the Muslim community. When Jesus came down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, surrounded by a singing and palm waving crowd, he would have seen the Temple, glistening in the sunlight, the marble reflecting the light as though it was glass. But to the right of the Temple he would have seen the towers of the Antonia Fortress – church and state, heavenly and earthly power, located together. Nothing really remains of the fortress, just the pavement known in Hebrew as Gabbatha. And it was here that Pilate took his seat to make his judgment. St John tells us When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. (John 19.13) The words referred to, that he had heard, were a challenge to him, a threat to his position. The crowd had shouted out ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.’ (John 19.12) Matthew tells us that Pilate was unsure about the sentence of death that was being demanded. Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’ (Matthew 27.22-23) So to stop the riot that threatens to break out and save his own reputation Jesus is condemned to death. Pilate knew in his heart that Jesus was innocent, that there were no grounds for condemnation, but external power brought to bear on him, the ‘church’ and the crowd, let him to set aside the demands of justice and to sacrifice Jesus to satisfy the demands of expediency. This is not the only time it has happened in human society. The First Station that pilgrims pray at is located close to Gabbatha, the Pavement. The actual pavement is in the basement of the Ecce Homo Convent close by and it is possible to visit this. And when you do you will see that, into the stone, bored soldiers have carved their names and the games with which they would pass the time. They were doing a job, waiting for a judgement, waiting for a sentence, waiting for their shift to finish. So they left their mark in the Pavement where Pilate sat and Jesus stood.

Gabbatha or the Lithostrotos

Gabbatha or the Lithostrotos

A miscarriage of justice is an affront to justice and leaves its mark on society and this is what we are witnessing here. Injustice or lack of justice scars us, as stone is scared by graffiti. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ we cried; bring to justice those who murdered Stephen Lawrence; free the Christians held by ISIS in Syria. God help everyone who is locked in a prison cell, awaiting trial; those who know they are innocent but against whom evil is ranged; those who await a retrial but are losing any sense of hope and those who are serving a sentence for a crime of which they are innocent. ‘It’s not fair’ is one of the first things we learn to protest as a child, the unfairness of injustice and here, before us, on the Pavement it is played out. Jesus is condemned to death and we walk away free. Lord, you were innocent, I was guilty, you were sentenced I was released. Look in mercy on those who sit in judgment and those who are in prison. Amen.

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