This short Good Friday reflection was given at the service in Priestfield Church.
We walked through the streets of Newington this morning, a small band of pilgrims carrying a simple cross made of the trunks of two Christmas trees bound together. While we were on this journey from Craigmillar Park to Nicolson Square, the world around us just seemed to be going about its normal business. There were people selling things in shops; in cafés, friends were meeting for coffee and scones; workmen were putting up a new shop frontage.
It occurred to me that this is how it would have been that first Good Friday in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of people were there for the festival, and the traders would be out selling their wares to all who passed by. The streets would be heaving, barely aware of the little procession passing through as a cadre of Roman soldiers marched a bloodied and beaten man to his execution. They didn’t have far to go, but it took them a while to get there, and he was so weak that they had to commandeer someone to carry the cross beam for him.
And then they arrived at the place. They call it Skull – a piece of gallows humour for this killing ground. It was at Skull they crucified Jesus, and if ever a method of execution was invented for the pleasure of torturing the condemned, it was crucifixion. Men could last for days if they had the strength, and it made it a lot more fun for the crowds. It was also a good warning to those who might have thoughts of crime or revolution in their heads: this is what we Romans do to those who get in our way.
The Place called Skull; the place of crucifixion; the place of greatest paradox and mystery for the Christian faith.
A paradox is holding two things to be true that would seem to conflict. Like, God cannot die; Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross. How can this be?
A mystery is something that we cannot adequately explain: at Christmas we ponder on the mystery of the incarnation – that in Jesus, God became human. On Good Friday, we ponder on the mystery of Christ’s suffering – that through this violent death of Jesus, God deals with the evil in us and in the world, bringing about our salvation. Ever since that first Good Friday, Christians have sought to explain how that ‘works.’ They used many word pictures, from the court, from the slave market, from the life of the Temple – all of them say something, but none of them can convey it fully, for the way in which Jesus’ death ‘works’ to bring about our salvation is, ultimately, lost in mystery.
This leads us to the fact that there is another paradox at the place called Skull: this experience of darkness and suffering was, for Jesus, a time when he sensed the absence of God – ‘Why have you forsaken me,’ taking upon his lips the words of Psalm 22. Yet in this event of cosmic significance, God has never been more present, dealing with the root causes of suffering and evil, sin and guilt – of all that negates our wellbeing – so that we would experience God’s life and shalom, God’s salvation.
It seems that someone unexpected grasped that something very special was happening at Skull that day – the Roman centurion. One didn’t become a centurion by being squeamish. It was the job of a hardened veteran who had seen many deaths in battle, and who had had to endure the vicious cursing of those being crucified by his troops. But this man Jesus was not like that. In fact, he seemed to take this suffering to himself as if it belonged to him. Even the earth was behaving strangely, with noon feeling more like midnight.
When Jesus breathed his last, surrendering his life with a cry at the top of his voice, this man with hardened experience of soldiering bears witness at the end of Mark’s Gospel to the truth of Mark’s assertion at the beginning of his Gospel by saying, ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’
It is this man, the subject of paradox, the centre of mystery, whom we worship as Son of God. It is this man who has, by his suffering and death, effected our salvation – he has borne our sins and carried our sorrows. It is this man we follow, and in following find that we too must take up the cross. But rather than finding only death through the cross, we find life – God’s life of the age to come.