At the Foot of the Cross 2009

The Lance - The Turning Point

Does it matter if Jesus' bones are broken or his side pierced? After all, from the soldier's point of view, Jesus is dead or very nearly. Yet for us the pathos is overwhelming because of the piercing recalls the Old Testament (Zechariah 12:10) and because the drops of blood and water pattern Baptism and the Eucharist. In one gesture we take in the history of Word and Sacrament.

"History" might sound like an odd word but the whole point of Christianity is that incarnation is part of our earthly history; we worship the Creator, the timeless God, but we worship the Jesus of history. This is why there are occasions, on the one hand, when the Old Testament can look unnervingly out of focus. "What," we might ask ourselves, "has all the regulation in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy got to do with us?" The answer is that the Old Testament is the record of the struggle of the Chosen People to come to terms with God the Creator with very little to go on. There is a deeply puzzling issue concerning the operation of the Holy Spirit prior to the incarnation which can be partially solved by the idea that The Holy Spirit is, in essence, our incarnational perception, the aspect of God which allows us to understand the essence of Jesus.

On the other hand there are occasions when the Old Testament is unnervingly prescient which explains the tendency of some to see its pronouncements as foretelling the future; "They looked upon him they pierced", the whole burden of Psalm 22 and passages from Jeremiah and Isaiah, bring us up short; these are, however, less startling if we see the life and mission of Jesus growing out of the Old Testament, of fulfilling its hope, rather than fulfilling its detailed specifications.

This is a moment in our salvation history which began when the world began but which was given particular, concrete form in the historical incarnation of Jesus; and the more we look at this final scene, the more unlikely is this climax of a human life. If we were to write an account of a divine visitation to our planet it could hardly end like this. The soldier of an occupying power, in an act of perverse health and safety box-ticking, will not break the bones of the murdered divinity but will pierce the body with a lance; for nothing; for no-one. And yet, because of the echo of Zechariah and the Psalms, we are left with the sharpness of the whole narrative of struggle, of faithlessness, repentance, setback and liberation which comprises the Old Testament. But the incident also sums up the story so far in the New Testament; the narratives of the Evangelists all describe the same trajectory from hope to despair; the history of Jesus Christ, God made man, is over.

But, of course, it is not over. The Sacramental life also has a history represented in the blood and water which issues from the still warm corpse of Jesus, the history of Baptism and the Eucharist; and here, again, we are not left to live through the history, we are living in the power of the Spirit who not only gives us incarnational perception but also the capacity, as humans, to behave sacramentally. There is a lively debate in Acts about the Holy Ghost in Baptism but there is something altogether more settled about the status of the Eucharist; our capacity to live in sustained sacramentality through time attests the Spirit.

The link we most easily make is between the Eucharist and the Crucifixion which we describe as one and the same sacrifice. How can we do this? There is the conventional explanation of sacramentality, that what we say and do, what we execute in word and in gesture, gives effect to the reality of what we are invoking. That clearly works in an understanding of the Institution of the Eucharist but could we properly understand that Eucharist without the Crucifixion? Could Jesus simply have said: "This is my body. ... This is my blood ... given for you"? Well, to the extent that he is God, he could have said or done anything; but the point is that, without the Crucifixion, the meaning of the Sacrament would be obscure. Baptism we can almost intuitively understand, but the giving of a body in sacrifice makes no sense simply in the context of the Last Supper. The story of the Passion and Death is searingly illustrative of the gift we are being given; that it is a gift given at extreme human cost; that it is, literally, priceless, that it is given in the teeth of the most outrageous human provocation not to give it. This is not simply a variant of the theme of sacrifice running through the Old Testament; as the Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, this new dispensation is made in supreme love, over-riding all other considerations. There is a paradox in the language, of course, because love, being unlimited openness to possibility, does not actually conquer anything, but this love, if you like, clears away all the obstacles between God and us so that we live in the open space of love and apprehend it well enough to try to replicate the space in the way we deal with each other. This sacrifice is the only way we could know how unequivocally God loves us. I have said it before but it bears repeating from a slightly different perspective; the significance of the cross is that it tells us that we can do nothing that will in any way inhibit God's unlimited love for us; that is the ultimate mystery and wonder of it, more wonderful, more embracing, more generous, than the mechanics of Penal substitution or of celestial accountancy.

The Eucharist tells us that the God who is with us, literally within us, cannot fail and that, therefore, we will not fail. The Crucifixion, considered simply as an ultimate confirmation of our fallenness, of our brokenness, could only say to us that we are helpless in the face of choice, that we are ciphers, that it simply put right what was wrong; but this is not reconcilable with the reality that we were created in love, to choose to love. We are broken, it is part of our condition; but in the brokenness of Jesus, in the bread and on the cross, in the cup and in the blood and water, we experience the solidarity of our divine and human brother with us. For to say that we are recipients of the Grace of God is not enough; nor is there any grounds for saying that the Cross is a gift for the Elect. What the Cross says to us, in its historical starkness and in its sacramental beauty, is that we are all - every one, every one who has ever lived - we are all partners in our own salvation. There is no point in pilgrims whose salvific faith is  predetermined; there is no point in pilgrims who are either the passive recipients of grace, or not; there is no point in a pilgrimage where stewards are in place to choose who may journey and who may not; such an arrangement would put the stewards in the place of god.

The key point is that the Eucharist is not a symbol of grace, an esoteric metaphor, it is our food for the journey; and because we take this food, the very body and blood of God, in the full knowledge of the Passion and death, we are clear about what we are taking. We are clear about the pain and the loneliness, the sacrifice and the squalor, the promise of love and the utter hopelessness of ever living up to our aspirations.

But brokenness is our life's condition. The terrible heresy of those who believe in "The Fall" and the essential corruption of humanity, is that they presume to compare us with the perfect God instead of celebrating our createdness as seekers after God.

I think that there is something deeply symbolic in the almost empty stage when Jesus dies and just afterwards. I like to think of the women standing nearby and the young Apostle John. I like to think of the soldiers, clearly in a hurry, who wanted everything to be over. It had been a hard and very nerve-racking day. There had been a series of portents and strange happenings, the Roman and Jewish authorities had been very edgy; there was something preposterous in the use of the death penalty to deal with this lovely man. But now the women are quiet and the soldiers hurry away; and there is an empty space which is the ultimate symbol of love.

Which brings us back to the beginning of our meditations, to the thought that this broken body was broken in Sacrament and in human suffering, for us all. It is preposterous for us to presume to say for whom it was not broken; moreover, we can infer the precise opposite from the life and teaching of Jesus; this body was broken in Eucharist and on Calvary precisely for those who would appear, in human logic, to be beyond redemption.

But the thought goes further than this. The brokenness of Jesus is particularly congruent with the brokenness of the tortured and the exiled, the abused and the incomplete. Good Friday is the festival of brokenness, it is the affirmation of the incomplete; it is the day when pride falters, when language thins, when the comfortable orientation of human endeavour seems fragile. We are all weak; and so this day is for us; it speaks to the brotherhood of Jesus; how could we think we were anything but weak beside his weakness? He has come from the stable to this; from the manger to the cross, from the straw to the thorn; it is the day of the weak, the day of the broken.

We shall understand this best if we understand our own brokenness and its necessity. Today is indeed the festival of our brokenness but it sits between the festival of our nourishment and the proclamation of universal salvation. To live on Good Friday is a microcosm of living in the pilgrim world, nourished for the journey but still in want of the ultimate prize, that Resurrection of the body or the proclamation of the Kingdom here on Earth.

The language thins into nothing, like a tune that has broken up on the wind and left a slight, shrill note behind. The light which has been uncertain all through the day, hovers between its recently lurid renaissance after a period of unaccustomed darkness and the onset of night. We are living in a twilight zone between the promise and the realisation, between the hope and the fulfilment.

The light thins and the sound thins; the density of the Old Testament thins to this one moment of ultimate truth, the hinge on which all Word and Sacrament turns; we have now reached the point of ultimate simplicity, the fulcrum of history and divinity; we have finally reached a point of silence, the silence which better honours love than a torrent of words, the silence of love which speaks eloquently of how we have failed and how we cannot fail; of how we have chosen not to love but cannot fail to love; of how we have planned so many fences but how The lord has torn them down. This death  loves our brokenness and scorns the pride of our completeness. What we see when we look up at the Cross is a sacramental declaration by Jesus of human brokenness, grounded in the Word and alive until the end of time in the Eucharist.

Prayer. Lord Jesus, it is only at this point of contact between the soldier's lance and your sacred corpse that we can bring ourselves to shudder at what we have done to you and what you have done for us; give us the grace to live in Word and Sacrament so that we may live holy lives in our imperfection.