The Second Station – Jesus receives his cross

As the pilgrims leave the chapel in which the First Station is recalled they cross an attractive courtyard to a small chapel and at that chapel they are given a cross.  It’s a simple cross, almost life size but not quite. But it’s big enough for two people to share the carrying.  Who will carry the cross first?  Sometimes there’s reluctance to come forward, that reluctance you sometimes feel in church to put yourself forward, to put yourself into the spotlight – who wants to read; who wants to pray; who will give their testimony?  And then someone summons up the courage ‘I’ll read, I’ll pray, I’ll share my testimony with you, I’ll carry the cross.’ Once that initial barrier has been broken down it is never as difficult again to find willing volunteers to share in the experience of carrying the cross along the Via Dolorosa.

Crucifixon

When Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ hit our cinema screens in 1979 it created a storm.  There is the famous clip of the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, debating with Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese and Michael Palin on a show called ‘Friday Night Saturday Morning’ (interestingly filmed in the Greenwood Theatre which is part of Guy’s Hospital) about whether the film was blasphemous.  Looking back 36 years and having seen a great deal that was more scandalous than this film, the ‘Life of Brian’ seems quite clever, insightful even.

I love the scene of the Sermon on the Mount and the ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ mishearing.  But one scene that I also remember is the queue for crosses and a rather gentlemanly soldier ticking people off on a list as he asked them ‘Crucifixion?’

But there was nothing to laugh about crucifixion, nor taking up your cross.  From this point onwards the journey towards Calvary, Jesus ‘Calvary Bound’ will be horrendous to witness.  He has only been in custody less than twelve hours but the brutality of the treatment that he has received has left an already weary man, weak, blood-soaked, desperate.

Don’t forget that Jesus has been on the move for three years.  His ministry has not been from a church and a pulpit but from the road and from any vantage point that he could manage.  As he says in St Matthew’s Gospel

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8.20)

In Samuel Crossman’s great and much loved Passiontide hymn ‘My song is love unknown’ we’re reminded of this fact in the lines

In life no house, no home,
My Lord on earth might have;

Three years as the wandering teacher had taken its toll and even in this week, whilst he had the comparative luxury of staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, the stress must have been enormous.  From the moment he entered the city on Palm Sunday he has been watching his back but clear in his own mind and clear with his disciples – though they haven’t caught on to what he was saying – what the outcome would be.

In the courtyard outside the chapel the pilgrims are handed the cross to carry to the church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The crosses are left at the church and returned to this place to be used by the next group.  It is efficient and much appreciated.  The crosses are well made and there is no danger of getting splinters in your hands.  Like so much ‘liturgy’, such as the foot washing on Maundy Thursday, it is sanitised.  We only enter partly into the experience – and I’m not criticising it for that, it’s just the reality.  Except that we mustn’t imagine for a moment that it is anything like reality.

Jesus wouldn’t have been handed what we would instantly recognise as a cross.  He would have been handed the cross beam, a rough hewn plank, splinters and all, heavy, cumbersome, that he would have to half drag, half carry down the long streets that led from the fortress to the city walls and out to the rubbish dump outside the walls where crucifixion took place so as not to pollute the city.

Unlike with our pilgrims he had no choice.  He was not a volunteer, refuse and he would have been the recipient of even more lashes.  He had no choice but to take the cross, to take the wood laid on his shoulders and to walk.  As the wood was laid upon him I wonder if his mind went back to a story he knew well?

Via-Dolorosa

It’s the story in Genesis of Abraham and Isaac and the demand made upon Abraham by God that he sacrifice his only son.  You can read the full account in Genesis 22.1-14.  It is a moving story, foundational for the community and for us as we approach Good Friday.  But it is this verse that is so powerful as we watch Jesus.

Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac. (Genesis 22.6)

The father takes the wood and lays it on the son to be sacrificed; Jesus takes the wood laid across his shoulders and is led to the place of sacrifice.  The parallels are obvious and did Jesus recall this and the words of the lad?

[Isaac said] ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ (Genesis 22.7-8)

‘I’ll carry the cross.’  The volunteer steps forward from the group of pilgrims and shoulders the cross and walks from the courtyard into the street, and turns right, along the Via Dolorosa.  The person had a choice and they volunteered.  But you had no choice with the cross you are carrying and neither did Jesus.  That’s where ‘The Life of Brian’ gets it wrong.  ‘Crucifixion?’  It was no choice, just as ill health, depression, dementia, an unhappy relationship, low self esteem, a lack of confidence, anything you are carrying now, was not your choice, it’s your cross, and it weighs you down and my cross weighs me down, but it is my cross.

Lord,
you carried your cross,
give me the strength
to carry mine.
Amen.

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