The Seventh Station – Jesus falls the second time

To be honest I’m not very good about getting regular checkups in my diary. I know that I should go to the dentist twice a year; I know that I should go regularly to get my eyes tested; I know that I should have my blood pressure and cholesterol level checked, and of course, if I’m summoned by the doctor I go, but those things are not high on my agenda. So I suddenly realised that my reading glasses were less effective and scratched! So I went to the optician. It turned out I hadn’t been for five years! To cut a long story short I came out with glasses which I have to wear all the time. In those five years my sight had deteriorated so much that that was thought to be necessary.

I put the glasses on and – wow! – I could see things I hadn’t seen for ages. But I hadn’t really noticed that the distance was no longer in sharp focus. I had got used to how things were.

And what about my soul? What about the state of that? I fortunately have a good Spiritual Director whom if I haven’t seen him for a while will call me – ‘Shouldn’t we meet?’ Of course we should – I just hadn’t made that check-up a priority either. So I go along and we chat about what has been going on in my life and in my prayer and seek to refocus both. And the truth is that without that refocusing, without that realisation that not all in the garden of my soul is blossoming, I could lose the focus of my life altogether – and not notice it. The conversation and making my confession are as important as any other health check that I may receive, its another and vital dimension of the whole me.

There is always some confusion about sacramental confession in the Church of England. Mention it and often people will say something like ‘I thought that’s what Catholics did?’ or ‘Can we do that in the Church of England?’ But the simple answer is, we have never lost it from the church. Archbishop Cranmer located it, or hid it, depending on how you see it, in ‘The Visitation of the Sick’ in the Book of Common Prayer, so you have to hunt it out but there it is and those powerful words, words which we all, from time to time need to hear

OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Yes, I know that in my own prayer I can repent and know the power of God’s forgiveness; yes, I know that in the Eucharist I can recall my sins and hear the words of forgiveness but sometimes, sometimes, to hear these direct words, to me, from a priest, is an assurance that I am reconciled to God; words and assurance like no other.

There is a great and simple statement about sacramental confession and Anglicans

‘All may, none must, some should.’

Even Homer Simpson needs to confess!

Even Homer Simpson needs to confess!

The big question for us is how we know if we are part of that third group, the ‘some’ who should. All I know is that there are some things that I need to talk through with another priest, there are some things that I cannot quieten my conscience about, there are some things that I need to say out loud and out loud hear those words of forgiveness, just as those who came to Jesus heard those words of forgiveness.

When Jesus was confronted, in John 8.1-11, with the woman caught in the very act of adultery he won’t participate in the condemnation of her that is going on. Instead he challenges those self righteous men who are dragging her outside the walls to stone her to death with the fact and relaity of their own sinfulness.

‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (v.7)

Of course, one by one, they leave. There was not one of them there who could honestly throw the stone. And so Jesus turns and says to the woman.

‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ (v.11)

In a similar way that is what the priest says finally to the penitent at the end of confession. The words of forgiveness have been spoken, baptismal grace has been restored, it needs to be retained. So why do I keep having to go back to make my confession again?

We are following Jesus on the way of the cross and this, in terms of the Stations of the Cross, is the halfway point. Though Jesus is no longer carrying his cross – Simon is doing that – scripture doesn’t tells us that, unlike when we are carrying the cross on the Via Dolorosa we take turns, hand it back, hand it on, Jesus took the cross back from Simon – though he may have done. Nevertheless, Jesus is weak and exhausted.

Jesus falls for the second time

Jesus falls for the second time

As we walk the Way of the Cross today we notice that we are going uphill. At various points the cobbled streets are quite steep. They are stepped, to help us manage the climb. But perhaps they weren’t for Jesus; it wasn’t made easy for him. Instead, he is being dragged, pushed, beaten, jostled, abused as he makes his way along and inevitably he falls again, flat on his face, flat on the floor. He falls for the second time.

I fall continuously, I fall constantly. As Jesus said to Peter he says to me

‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Matthew 26.41)

Peter denied the Lord three times, he fell, and fell and fell. And I fall and need picking up, restoring, forgiving and set on my way again. How many times? Seven times? Jesus says

‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18.22)

Jesus gets back up and so do I. The journey continues for him and for me and for you.

Lord, forgive me.
As many times as I fail you,
forgive me.
Amen.

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The Sixth Station – Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

As you follow the cross along the Via Dolorosa, with your pilgrim group, with your friends, perhaps from your church, people you know and know well, you will be passed by so many people. There will be shopkeepers and shoppers, people walking to their next appointment, women with children, men sitting drinking tea together, smoking a cigarette. At some of the junctions in the road you will find groups of soldiers, on the lookout, not for you, but for others. Children, youths, young and old women, young and old men, a Franciscan priest, an Orthodox nun, they will all pass you. And you will see their faces but you won’t know them.

Living in London I’m surrounded by people I don’t know. Sitting on a bus or the Tube, crammed into a rush-hour compartment, squeezed almost intimately against someone I have never met, and will presumably never meet again is an almost daily occurrence. And when I’ve flicked through the free paper lying on the seat, sometimes I look up and look around and see the people sitting, standing there and try to imagine who they are and what their story is. Each is a fully rounded person with a real life, not just there to add colour and context to my world. Each is as real and complex as me, with their joys and their sorrows, their anxieties, the stresses of the day, a home life, a hinterland of family and friends. And very rarely and especially in London do you get to speak to any of these strangers. There is an unwritten set of rules of behaviour on public transport in London and we abide by them.

'Mind the gap.  Move down the carriage.'

‘Mind the gap. Move down the carriage.’

I remember the agony of childhood and standing at the bus stop with my mum or my grandma. All of a sudden she would talk to the person next to her in the queue. ‘Nice weather’. ‘Have you seen the price of beef?’ ‘I was hoping to get my washing out today.’ They didn’t know each other but a conversation would develop. The unknown person wasn’t so unknown any longer and points of connection were made. ‘Oh, you must know our Fred’. ‘Yes we used to work in the factory on the High Street.’ ‘I remember; you’re Mabel’s girl aren’t you!’ ‘Yes, were you at school together?’ I listen on in amazement. What do they say? There are six degrees of separation in the human nexus. It was a theory arrived at by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy back in 1929. In most situations you only need to go six moves to find a relationship and realise that the stranger is no stranger to you and you can give them a name.

Jesus was an ‘out of town’ man and so apart from those who had arrived in Jerusalem with him he knew almost no one. He was stumbling along, being beaten by the soldiers to make progress. Simon was carrying his cross, he could see him in front, but the crowds to the side were a blur of faces, of unknown faces, watching, ignoring him. He was used to unknown faces. For three years he had been moving from place to place preaching, teaching, healing. He would enter a town and meet a crowd but quickly those who were unknown would become known to him – Zacchaeus up his tree, blind Bartimaeus, Simon the Pharisee. He could name them all, remember them all. Some had become friends – Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom he had been staying. But many people remained faces, unknown to him, though he was known to them. Faces, faces, people, people, nameless.

A woman steps from the crowd. He doesn’t know her. She takes a cloth she is carrying and wipes the blood and the sweat from his face, from his brow, from running into his eyes and making them sting. He looks up and their eyes meet – kind eyes she had, young eyes, clear and sweet. She continues to wipe him clean and the image of her is imprinted on his memory and the image of him is imprinted on her heart.

It was a brief encounter, a chance meeting, a hasty gesture and over as quickly as it began, and then he was moved on and the soldiers pushed her back into the crowd and she was left there holding the cloth.

Veronica's veil

Veronica’s veil

This is one of those stations that is part of tradition rather than drawn scripture. The woman had no name but the cloth was venerated by the church and still is in art and literature and she was given a name, Veronica, which perhaps means ‘true image’ because the tradition is that the face of Jesus was not just implanted in her heart but on that cloth.

And each nameless person that we see is a true image of God, and you and I are true images of God. Remembering it changes how we see people, changes how we see our self. Look around you at the unknown, unnamed faces, they bear God’s image, pray for them, perhaps they are praying for you, the unknown person to them.

Lord, you know me
and you love me.
May I love
even those I don’t know
for they bear your true image.
Amen.

The Fifth Station – Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross

It is not just we who are recognising that the prisoner, Jesus, is finding it hard on this journey from the place of condemnation to the place of crucifixion, along this road of sorrows. The journey has just begun but already he has fallen. The weight of the cross beam is bearing down on him, the sun is rising and the heat is building in the close streets that make up the city. The crowds are building as people emerge from their houses.

And there are more people around than usual. This is Passover and people have come to Jerusalem to share the greatest of the festivals with family and friends and amongst them are those who have come as pilgrims from the diaspora. There are many in the Jewish community who live outside of the country. Travel and communications were much more sophisticated than sometimes we give credit for. Boats plied the Mediterranean, ships loaded with goods for sale in foreign markets, news travelled fast, in the Roman world troops were being transported to the next hotspot where a rebellion had to be suppressed. New ideas found their way into communities, people moved to follow work, there were celebrities, writers, actors, orators, teachers, all on the move. There would be many features of life with which we would be familiar.

So it was right that people would make the pilgrimage back home, at the significant time of the year. One of my favourite Christmas songs is that sung by Chris Rea, ‘Driving home for Christmas’ and the verse

It’s gonna take some time
But I’ll get there
Top to toe in tailbacks
Oh, I got red lights on the run
But soon there’ll be a freeway
Get my feet on holy ground.

There is something religious in this journey that the singer makes, that sense of the pilgrimage, the purposeful journey with a spiritual intent, even if that intent is being with family. But that line ‘Get my feet on holy ground’ brings us to the crowds who are thronging the streets of Jerusalem through which Jesus is struggling.

We recognise his pain, his agony. But we are not alone. His mother, Mary, has seen it and it was like a sword through her heart, through her soul, to see the child she bore, the son she loves, the man she follows in such pain. And one of the soldiers recognises it as well.

St Mark tells us

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15.21)

Were the soldiers feeling compassionate, were they feeling frustrated, were they bored already, wanting to get there and a non-too pleasant job done and ‘another one’ dispatched? We are told nothing of their motivation and it could have been that the better side of human nature was winning through – it does happen and we shouldn’t be cynical about what happens here and in other situations where help is given – the ‘what’s in it for them’ kind of question.

Whatever their reason, the guard around the prisoner look for help. Carrying the cross is not their job, so they look for someone else. They see someone from out of town, a black face in the crowd, and they pull him out to give the prisoner a hand.

Sharing the weight, carrying the burden

Sharing the weight, carrying the burden

The one they fix on we are told is Simon. He is one of those who have arrived in Jerusalem, presumably for the Festival. We don’t know why he was there, just that he was. But it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility to suppose that he had come in for the festival.

Mark tells us his name and where he comes from. He’s from Cyrene, which is part of modern day Libya. Cyrene had been settled by the Greeks but by the time of the crucifixion was home to a larger number of Greek-speaking or Hellenistic Jews. Simon could have been born there of Jewish parents, he could have been a convert, he could have been a North African, he could have been black. All of this is speculation of course. What we do know that he was out of town and that he was forced to help.

I can’t imagine he was eager. Criminals carried the cross to the place of execution; Simon was no criminal. He didn’t know the prisoner, had no connection with him. Why should he do it?

Of course the simple answer was that he was forced to do it, he wanted to avoid the lash that would have followed refusal. He had no choice really and we mustn’t romanticise this event, that isn’t fair to Simon and it isn’t honest. What is honest is that taking up the cross for Jesus had a profound effect.

The reason we can say that is because of the information Mark gives us. Mark is not normally big on unnecessary detail. He is so eager to get on with the story that he doesn’t want to be held up by embellishments in the text. But he gives us more information than Matthew and Luke who also record this episode on the Via Dolorosa that we remember at this station.

Mark tells us that ‘he was the father of Alexander and Rufus.’ The fact that he says this must mean that they were known to the first audience, the first readers of the gospel. The sons of Simon must have been significant members of the early church. Was this Rufus the same one that Paul greets in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 16.13), whose mother, perhaps Simon’s wife was ‘a mother to me’, to Paul?

Was Simon still in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost part of the crowd wanting to hear Peter, one of those on whom the Holy Spirit fell because Cyrenians are mentioned as those who heard in their own native language? Was Simon a member of the Synagogue of Freedmen, mentioned in (Acts 6.9) which contained, as we know Jews from many other provinces?

All we can say with confidence is that the sons of this press-ganged man were part of the early Christian community and so well known that it was worth halting the account to mention them. And that says to me that carrying the cross, even reluctantly at first, was a converting experience for Simon. He was not the same again, this was his ‘Damascus Road experience’ but on another road, a road paved in sorrow.

I often act out of a sense of duty, I’m just not as good as I should be or pretend to be. But duty, my duty as a Christian, my duty as a priest forces me, compels me to do the right thing, the better thing. Perhaps as I continue to grow and deepen as a Christian, things may be different, but perhaps they won’t be. But my reluctance doesn’t alter the efficacy of my actions and doesn’t stop me from serving Christ in my neighbour, it’s just that …. sometimes … I am reluctant. And then I meet Christ!

Lord, may I recognise you
in the face of my brother, my sister, in need.
And, however I am feeling,
may I respond with compassion
and bear the weight
of their cross.
Amen.

The Fourth Station – Jesus meets his mother

The streets were crowded. People were going about their business, doing their shopping, meeting their friends, getting on with their life. It would have been hard to make out faces in the crowd and for Jesus even more difficult as he goes with head down, straining under the weight of the cross beam that had laid upon him. He was heading from the Fortress where his trial and flogging had taken place to one of the gates in the city wall that led out onto the area where the rubbish was dumped and the gallows were set up.

He had hardly got the strength to lift one foot in front of another, let alone to lift his head and look at those who were looking at him. And yet, he did, at one point he did and there she was. It was his mother, it was Mary, there amongst the faces, looking, watching. And it was enough to break his heart for she looked as though her heart was breaking.

It is incredible how elastic time is, or how compressed it can be. I can hardly believe that March is almost over and that that means that a quarter of this year has already passed, it seems to have flown past. And people reassure me, ‘As you get older time passes more quickly’. Yet though days flash past at other moments time drags. I was flying back from a trip overseas and arrived at the airport to discover that the plane was delayed. I had a book to read, of course, and it was only a 90 minute delay but, goodness, did it drag. I kept looking at my watch, only 5 minutes since I last looked.

And then at other moments time almost seems to stop and we are caught up in a moment, captured, just as an artist can capture a single moment. ‘The kiss’ by Rodin is just such a caught moment, an event captured, that long lingering kiss that makes us move into another realm of time.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin

I’m reminded of a song that hit the charts back in the ‘50’s and has been subsequently recorded by so many people. It’s called ‘Love is a many spledoured thing’. The second verse goes like this.

Once on a high and windy hill
In the morning mist
Two lovers kissed
And the world stood still
Then your fingers touched
My silent heart and taught it how to sing
Yes, true love’s
A many splendored thing.

What look passed between mother and son, between son and mother? What did Jesus think when he saw Mary standing there? What did Mary think as she saw her son walking past, like a common criminal?

Was Mary taken back to that day in the Temple when he was just forty days old. She and Joseph had taken him there to fulfil the requirements of the law. In thanksgiving for the birth of their son they were to offer a sacrifice to God but the unspoken element of this was that they were ‘buying’ back their son who should have been offered to God – a life for a life – two young pigeons and they could keep their son. But they had been met by an old man and an old woman who had been watching for their arrival, though they did not know them and Mary and Joseph did not know this strange pair of elderly people.

But the man took the child from her arms and sang of him and said to her as he handed her baby back

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.34-35)

And those words stayed with her and it felt now as though she was beginning to understand what he had said, begun to understand why she remembered then, why she remembered now.

Or did she remember what happened a few months ago when she went with other members of her family to bring Jesus back and bring him to his senses. She was worried, he was away from home and family and neighbours and she heard all kinds of rumours about him and not all comforting or complimentary. So she asked where he and his bunch of friends had last been seen and headed off there. Like a mother trying to persuade her child back from anything she was there, embarrassed and embarrassing him, but she didn’t care, she had to do it. And he brushed her off.

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12.46-50)

It was no way to treat his mother, but this was how he treated her, she who had cared for him and loved him and could have abandoned him, treated like this and it hurt. And she wants to say ‘I told you so, why did you not listen to me, why did you not come home?’

Jesus meets his mother

Jesus meets his mother

And what did Jesus think as he saw her. He perhaps, in that instance, remembered when he was twelve. His mother and Joseph had taken him to Jerusalem for his Bar Mitzvah. It was eye openingly wonderful. It felt like coming home. The carpenters shop and the village well and their little house all seemed a world away and he breathed the air and he listened to the talk and he grew into the person he was meant to be. And he deliberately forgot about the leaving time, he was so caught up in what was going on, he forgot, or conveniently forgot and stayed listening to the teachers and finding his voice and arguing back and they loved it, listening to this young man.

And the agony when he saw Mary and Joseph reappear. They’d been looking for him, searching for him amongst their friends and were frantic and he could see it in their eyes and their manner as they found him. They didn’t know whether to hug him or hit him. And he says to them

‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49)

And they looked so hurt, as if they simply did not understand. He had to leave then. They didn’t understand and Mary didn’t understand now that ‘I must be about my Father’s business’.

And when they had looked for him again, many years later, when he was again about the business that he knew he was called to and said

‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’

another sword pierced her soul.

It hurt him to say it, but it was true. But she never left him. She was still looking for him and now she had found him and that look…. but it wasn’t anger, it wasn’t hate, or hurt, it was love. She had searched and followed all these years because she simply loved him and he simply loved her. They saw each other and

And the world stood still
Then your fingers touched
My silent heart and taught it how to sing

The moment passes and he is moved on. It had been a second of an encounter but their lives flashed by them in that instance and they realised just what bound them together, that song of supreme love that they had been living all this time.

Lord,
thank you for those who care for me,
are concerned for me.
Protect those I am concerned for,
those I care for.
Watch over those with no one to care for them,
with no one to care for.
Amen.

The Third Station – Jesus falls for the first time

I’m used to it, failing, stumbling, sinning, falling. It has been a feature of my life, not quite living up to the demands of the gospel, not being able to live as Jesus calls me to live. I always need to be put back on my feet, dusted down and sent off again. That is why I’m so grateful that every Eucharist begins with recognition that this is the state that I am in and not only me, I suspect, but all of us. We begin the Eucharist as we are to begin each Office and liturgy with a time of recollection of our sin, our failing and a chance to feel again the loving, healing, forgiving reconciling love of God.

At the heart of Cranmer’s great prayer of confession at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer we say this

Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.

Restore me, put me back on my feet, set me again on the path but this time on that narrow path which leads to you, O my God.

The Third Station is one of those that does not refer to anything that is in any of the gospels but comes from tradition. We’ve already seen how exhausted Jesus is and now the cross beam is laid on him, as the wood on Isaac’s shoulders before him, and he steps from the Fortress onto the street, the buy crowded street, filled with citizens and visitors here for the Passover Festival, here for the holiday. Jostled by soldiers and the crowd alike, whipped and slapped to make him move faster, Jesus stumbles forwards and as he stumbles he loses his balance under the weight and falls.

The weight was too much to bear

The weight was too much to bear

It isn’t that he hasn’t carried wood before. For almost thirty years he worked in Joseph’s carpenters’ shop. He grew used to bringing in the wood that Joseph needed, from the storehouse and as he got older travelling to the biggest construction site in the region, Sepphoris, being built at the time and soaking up all the tradesmen and craftsmen in the area. He would have helped take heavy beams and door frames on to the building site so that work could proceed. But that was different to now; this wood bore down on him. It felt heavier, more difficult to carry, loaded.

I stumble and fall, but Jesus had never fallen as I fall. In the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that in Jesus

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4.15)

Jesus knew sin, he encountered it daily, even among his trusted, closest friends. He had been delivered to this by sin itself, by Judas, yes, but by the sin ‘which clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12.1) to humankind. He had seen sin, but he had not sinned, he could sympathise with those who fall but had not fallen himself.

But it wasn’t sin that made him fall now, on this road, carrying this cross. It wasn’t his sin which made him stumble, it was mine, it was yours. That weight, the unbelievable weight he was carrying – I had made it heavy, my burden he was carrying. As he took the cross he took my burden from me and it was all laid on his shoulders.

I would feel better if I had not sinned again, if I had learnt my lesson. But I haven’t and I have to keep going back to God and saying sorry, restore me, set me on my feet again – and the miraculous, wonderful, humbling, painful truth is that God does it. God lifts me up and sets me on my feet and I go, with every intention of not sinning again and ….

At the beginning of his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’, T S Eliot writes

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

I ‘too much explain’ my sinful behaviour, I ‘too much explain’ why I load Jesus with my sin, I ‘too much explain’ why I stumble and fall.

‘May the judgement not be too heavy upon us’ says Eliot. May it not be.

Jesus is pulled up from the street. The cross beam had fallen and the soldiers pick it up again and set it on his back and whip him so that he moves. The beam is no lighter than it was before and every step is painful. But Jesus is Calvary Bound and so are we. This has been just one stopping place, one station on the way and there are more to come.

God of forgiveness,
let these words answer
for what is done, not to be done again;
forgive me and strengthen me,
so that I may turn from my wickedness,
and live
and not sin again.
Amen.

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.

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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