At the Foot of the Cross 2007

Ecce Homo - Meekness

"Blessed are the meek" said the late, great Eric Morecambe: 'For they will inherit the earth". "They won't have the nerve to refuse it!". You know what he means. There are times when the complexities and venalities of our world are so overwhelming that we are lured into escapism; we want to escape into privacy or prayer; we want to imagine a better, simpler world; we want our comforter, our teddy bear; sometimes we even want Jesus to be our teddy bear. 

But meekness is not escapism; and it is certainly not to be confused with cowardice. Meekness is standing in the face of the world's wickedness without flinching but also without introducing one's own ego: the shout, the protest, the intellectual argument, the threat, the sanction, all those things which rely on our ego and power. 

Here we are, standing at the foot of the Cross; Jesus is dying but He is not shouting or arguing. 

Meekness is a very difficult idea because the whole of our activist nature cries out against it. It is in our nature to want to do things but there is a time for being active and a time for standing still; and sometimes, as we are so proficient at doing, we ought to work harder on standing still; as we should stand still now and picture the scenes of the trial of Jesus. 

Let us be clear; this was not the kind of trial where the object was to conduct an impartial enquiry into the innocence or guilt of Jesus. It was a show trial. It would not have mattered how flimsy the evidence nor what Jesus had said; He was bound to be found guilty. The High Priest Caiaphas had quite rationally decided that if he had to condemn Jesus in order to preserve the very delicate triangular relationship between the Jewish religious authorities, local rulers like King Herod and the Romans, then so be it. The Gospel writers, faced with Jewish opposition and intent upon calming Roman fears of an emerging Christian church, were somewhat biased in their accounts of the quasi legal processes between the arrest of Jesus and His crucifixion but the main lines emerge very clearly; Caiaphas was rattled because of events during Jesus' most recent visit to Jerusalem and the Romans were pretty indifferent. 

Jesus understood the politics as well as His accusers and quite deliberately detached Himself from the whole proceeding. He was prepared to admit, to use a legal verb, for the first time that it is recorded in the Gospels, that He was the Messiah; and He was prepared to admit that He was truly and in some way uniquely the Son of God who would judge all of the world; and He knew that what He was prepared to admit would be immediately designated as blasphemy by His accusers. All the stuff about false accusers and the destroying and rebuilding of the Temple in three days was pretty marginal to the trial, though, in the era after the Romans destroyed the Temple, it was significant for wholly other reasons because the idea of the restoration of the Temple was fused with the Resurrection. 

Jesus could have entered into a lengthy theological discussion at any point but chose not to. He accepted what He could not change. But we must remember that the accusers of Jesus could not change either: they were trapped in a mesh of compromise; they could only preserve their direct hold over the Jewish religious structure if they made deals with local rulers and the Romans. And here is our warning: Jesus could preserve His integrity in any argument but as soon as we engage with the world we are in danger of making compromises that we should not make. 

To be meek is not to be silent out of cowardice but to be unflinchingly true to oneself in the face of challenge. There is a time to talk and a time to stay silent. But this is a deliberate choice that adults make. One of the reasons why we have problems with meekness as an idea is that "Meek and mild" is rhymed with "Little child". The way we think about Jesus is far too strongly influenced by high art and low sentimentality. High art, for all its power to dramatise, engages the imagination in the beauty of the scene, often at the expense of the brutality; does Rembrandt's Ecce Homo make us flinch or does it, rather, draw us in. It is interesting how people reacted to the contemporary, much more direct form of depiction, in Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ; people objected to the brutality and, I suppose, wanted to go back to the Renaissance paintings. Which underlines the central point; we can only understand meekness if we have allowed our imagination to be flayed by the brutality; meekness is a response to  violence not an escape from it. This is why the sentimentalising of meekness is so misleading. We have been carried away by the vivid depiction in Isaiah of the lamb being led to the slaughter; and we have remembered the lamb and forgotten the slaughter. The sentimental notion of meekness has also tended to downplay the radicalism of Jesus, to domesticate His message, to make Him a fit occupant of our comfort zone. 

If only on this one day of the year, if only for these two hours at the foot of the Cross, we must walk out of our comfort zone towards the suffering Jesus. We must imprint His pain in our hearts so that we can in turn absorb our own worldly pain and respond to it with meekness. From the imprint of Jesus within ourselves we must gain the strength to respond to pain instead of trying to escape from it. We must recognise that the silent protest is a protest not a failure to protest. We must recognise the courage of the silent protest, the elimination of the ego from the argument so that what emerges is the cause not the promoter. There is a time to talk and a time to stay silent. 

The brutalities which we face are not of the sword but of the pen. WE are not asked to suffer physically for what we believe in but we would suffer great mental and spiritual pain if we were not so skilled at turning away. To ignore the insults hurled at Jesus by most of our contemporaries is cowardice not meekness. On the other hand, to react by trading insults is completely inappropriate. Meekness involves absorbing the pain, conducting a discussion in an appropriate manner while showing the assailant how much we love him. Jesus was not short of a sharp word against the Pharisees when He thought that this was appropriate but that sharpness was used in teaching; He did not use it for His own defence against those very same Pharisees. There is a time for talking and a time for silence. 

It is our time for silence. Jesus is dying without protest; His ego is not engaged. His accusers have had their day in court and, not satisfied with that, they have come out to gloat; some of them are here, now, shaking their fists. Others are protesting that the plaque which styles Jesus King Of The Jews is presumptuous. What might have started as a matter of principle has turned into a matter of personality, a  failing to which so much of our intellectual and theological discussion is prone. 

Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth. There is no other road to Heaven; and however often we have strayed off that road, we are here now, beside the suffering Jesus. 

Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, forgive us for all the times when we have failed to be meek in the face of aggression. Give us patience to resist the provocation of detractors and the strength to elevate your truth over our opinions. Amen.