At the Foot of the Cross 2008

Behold the Man

I am the practical man. I am a trader in spices, caught up in the drama. After the sleepy backwater of my home town there is always something dramatic going on in Jerusalem. And I have to admit that this is more dramatic than anything I have seen on other visits.

There was, for example, a moment of supreme drama just a few seconds ago, more complete in its way than any other scene so far in the sorry story of the trial of Jesus, when Pilate produced Jesus. We see him now, being paraded by Pilate before us, looking like a failed gladiator who has lost a fight but somehow hasn't died or killed himself; and although he retains the trappings of power, Pilate might be a beaten gladiator himself, offering Jesus to us as if we can do anything about it. He says: "Behold, the man!" and for the very first time I begin to wonder whether that is all there is to it; it is the very use of the word "man" that somehow does not work for me, does not encapsulate the whole of what I can see in the face of Jesus as I stand, slightly behind the rest of the crowd, trying to summon up the courage simply to watch, to detach myself from the hysteria. This is hardly heroic but at the moment it is the best I can do. You have to start somewhere, and detaching yourself from the mob, driven by self indulgence and fashion, is a good place to start.

I don't know what I am doing here, anyway, a foreigner, a Gentile, a slave who bought my freedom, a trader in spices.

Let us, then, consider Jesus together; behold the man. Since I cam here there has been talk of little else. This man, whose picture I will still see, even though he has been taken away by the soldiers, has performed miracles, he has made fun of the rather mad, old fashioned laws that the Jews stick to so fanatically; but it's not that. It's the smile behind the pain, the sense that what he is going through, well, was meant to be.

As we stand at the back of the crowd, waiting for Jesus to re-emerge, to be goaded up the hill to Calvary, what do we think about the man? How do we behold him?

In two thousand years of distancing and dispute, some of us have almost forgotten. We can remember the lovely little baby and a teacher in parables, and a risen phenomenon; but the man is more difficult. Perhaps that is why Dan Brown's book, the Da Vinci Code, is so successful because it talks about a man who loved a woman and had children. Is it partly because our society is so sexualised that we are not really human unless we are having a sexual relationship? Well, partly, but perhaps it is more a matter of cultural heritage. At the beginning of the unceasing re-appraisal, there were a great many followers of Jesus who tended to be gnostic, who thought that substance, the earth, bodies, were basically and irretrievably evil; how they squared that with the God of Creation is a difficult question. But the incarnational forces in the church gained the upper hand which explains the rather particular nature of the Nicene Creed. Then, at the Reformation, there was another bout of anti materialism from which we have never really recovered. We associate being religious with being other-worldly; and some of us associate being truly religious with being celibate.

What we know, but Pilate could not, is that this man whom we behold is the Creator's injection of self into creation. Until then there was the Creator and creatures; with Jesus there is still the Creator and Creatures but one of those Creatures is also the Creator. When we behold this man we also behold our God. Yet in recognising this supreme mystery we must not, in awe of God, forget the man.

This man is us; we are this man. Because he bridges the gap between creator and creature, brings God to earth, we are full of the energy which this has released; Jesus lives in us through the power of what we call the Holy Spirit. These are massive doctrinal ideas but at root we have a man, someone with whom we can identify, who laughed and cried, became bored and irritable, who ate and drank with all manner of people. His perfection condemned him to an inevitable death. Wherever and whenever a Jesus had been sent to us he would have been killed; that is the underlying, collective guilt from which we cannot escape as long as we are on earth, it is what not being with God means; but none of this makes any sense at all unless we behold the man.

I have travelled far with my spices, I have seen all manner of peoples; but I will never forget this one man. What was he trying to do? From the story I have heard he said that he has been specially sent by God to recover the world for God. Some people say that he is the Messiah who was supposed to restore Israel to worldly greatness but that seems to be a minority view; most people who know anything about it know that Israel has never been that great compared, say, with the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and, of course, the Romans. A very few people say that he said that he is somehow the Son of God which is difficult for the Jews but not much of a problem for people like me, accustomed as I am to many religious and philosophical ideas. Most people, it seems, just wanted him for what they could get out of him, a spectacular piece of magic, healing powers; they weren't very bothered by the theology, they were only interested in what they saw, heard and heard about. But what was he really trying to do? I think he was trying to bring something back that had been lost. I often think that humanity's greatest fault is to make simple things complicated. Everywhere you look there are people making simple things complicated and it becomes all so involved that you then need somebody with a clear vision to get rid of all the tangles, so that we can start again. But you have to travel far from the conventional and the safe to see that this simplification is necessary.

We, too, have travelled far to be here. We have come from Baptism to the Cross; from that moment when we died to sin and were re-born in Christ we have been on a journey. Sometimes it seems that the journey is a perpetual climb up this hill towards the place where Jesus is about to die. And at other times it is a puzzle that we can't solve. But whenever the journey seems too arduous or the puzzle too difficult, we need to start again with the man because the man is our way to God. For all the complexities of the way in which we try to understand our relationship with the Creator, Jesus himself has taught us always to start with him as he is the great intercessor, through him, through the unique channel of his Incarnate self, we can establish a relationship with God.

If we are to do that, we need to use our imagination, to find a way of living alongside the Jesus who healed and taught; and the Jesus who suffers and is about to die. As he stands, bruised and bleeding, scorned and scarred, scandalously dressed and searingly crowned, let us remember what he told us. The man we are looking at was born to bring us the good news of the kingdom; he uniquely articulates a Gospel of love as he came to live the meaning of God as love rather than as power or judgment. As he stands here, resigned to taking up his cross, he does not stop loving. He never stops loving. He never will stop loving. He does not blame us for colluding in his death. He wants us to know that we can kill God and still be folded back into the Creator, to leave the guilt of our collusion behind.

Pilate is washing his hands. It's all over. They are going to kill this sweet tempered man. As usual, after the drama of the verdict, most people are already losing interest. What is another crucifixion, after all, to people who see too many; they have grown hard; perhaps that is why it is so easy to shout for punishment. Where I come from the people are more relaxed. I think Jesus would have done really well in my home country where people are less rule-bound. Our philosophers say that you can relate the way people behave to the kind of climate they live in and there is something to be said for that; but I think that it takes so long for people to get over fear, to think about things that are more constructive; for it seems to me that in any struggle between love and fear, the fear is always stronger, the love more tentative, more at risk, more vulnerable.

That's the idea I have been looking for when I think of him! Vulnerable. He has given himself to his mission, he has laid himself open, he attracts violence in a way that only the virtuous can attract violence.

If he is a god - and thee is no reason why he should not be - you still have to start with the man to see the god; there's no other way. To that extent at least, Pilate was right. He didn't say: "Behold the God". You can't find the god a man is, or represents, unless you study the man. I've watched all kinds of faces; and the face I know best, because of my trade, is the face of the bargainer, the face of the man who shows no emotion when the dice stop rolling, the man who wants you to believe that he has nothing when he has more than you. I can't see any of that in this face. If this is the face of God, then God is a simple fellow after all, constructive and loving; and constructing out of love, the way people make things just for the sheer joy of the figure emerging from the stone.

We who roll the dice and keep our faces straight, we who know how to say one thing and mean something, not precisely opposite but slightly different, we who exercise power without thinking about it, find the idea of vulnerability deeply troubling. Yet, as we watch him now, let us to try to reverence that vulnerability, the kenosis, the sacrifice of control, the setting aside of power. We who see our incarnate saviour about to die should carry this picture of him as the one above all others which we need in order to live faithful lives.

We have seen the arbitrary power of Pilate and the unbroken love of Jesus demonstrated in his vulnerability. WE are to choose. As long as God is abstract, somewhere else, omnipotent but unreachable, there is some excuse for us to choose power and control, to see our lives as purely earthly, for we know none other; but the reality of the Incarnation, God in history, destroys the defence that God is so difficult, distant and complicated that we might as well just get on with our earthly lives.

He had some followers, I know, but they all seem to have run away. I wonder if his movement will last. Vulnerability doesn't seem like a good core value; love sounds better but without vulnerability what is love?

Later, we will need to answer that question from the trader in spices. Without vulnerability, what is love? But for now, behold the man; and then hold him until death.


Heavenly Father, you sent your blessed son to take flesh among us so that we might better learn the indivisibility of the human and divine; as he stands condemned before us, help us to imitate the perfection of the humanity of Jesus and aspire to be enfolded into the perfection of your divinity. Amen.