Strange and Alien: Where is the cross?
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A YouGov poll the other year found that only 50% of people in the UK associate Easter with Jesus. If you are under 24 that drops to under 44%. The most important event of history has been reduced to a double public holiday, Easter eggs, and sports events. For many on Good Friday, the Cross of Christ is so far in the distance it can no longer be seen. National news media call the Easter weekend the ‘Great Easter getaway’, as over 1 million people travel from Heathrow airport, and 26 million people get away by car.
Yet we have gathered here today on Good Friday, to draw closer to the cross of Christ. To bring it from the distance to up close. Maybe like me, you have been so preoccupied with work and family, and the affairs of life, that you find yourself suddenly - here. How did we get from Christmas to Easter this year? The speed of life dragging, pushing, us through another year. Or maybe you are falling headlong through your year, with advent in the rearview mirror. Christmas is behind us and suddenly the Cross and Easter right before us.
We sing that song, ‘At the foot of the cross’. We want to be close to Christ, to come to his cross daily. This year, have we been at the foot of His cross, captivated by Christ, listening to every word he has for us? Or perhaps you are like me. The cross is something so often in the distance, something to return to, as life so often pulls us away. The calendar brings us back around to the Cross. As you return this morning, where did you start your journey from? Was the cross already close, or do you have to make a long journey this morning? In your mind's eye, if the Spirit showed you where the cross is, is it small, is it large, is it close or far?
For me the cross is large, on the Horizon, always visible, gigantic in scale, but I find it all too easy to carry on and live as it was not really there, behind me and over my shoulder. I think it is often afar for me and others because it is so strange.
Chocolate eggs, sports and public holidays are closer and more comforting. The brutal execution of the Son of God, next to a rubbish dump, is hard to look forward to, stay close to. It is so ‘alien’ to the aspirations of everyday life.
A few years ago I got close to a rubbish dump in a slum in Kenya. 1.2 million people compressed within 2.5 square miles. Everyday life is full of HIV/AIDS, income less than $1 a day, rape, assault, illness, and where 1 in 5 children die before age 5. No toilets, no water, no beds, no schools.
That slum looms large in my memory. It was so utterly alien and harrowing. But the rubbish dump for this slum was even worse. Standing at the foot of what seemed like a mountain of the waste, it was a pile of death. Dead everything, waste, rot, and decay. I retched and gagged at the smells. Then when I was told part of what I could smell included decaying cadavers I retched some more. This place was on the edge of the slum, close enough to access this necessary space but as removed as possible from the coarctation of the slum.
As I stood at the foot of this mountain of decay, reflecting and praying, I imagined the crucifixion placed upon it. The upright of the cross plunged all the way through the heap of putrescence. Rooted in it, a shadow cast by the noonday sun, making the sign of the cross over it, stretching towards the slum beside it. And at that moment Christ beckoned me to the foot of His cross. Yet to get to there, would be to wade through that detritus. I shivered in the sweltering heat, in revulsion at the thought. The Cross of Christ was located next to the rubbish heap of a city - Golgotha, the place of executions was next to Gehenna, where rubbish and the bodies of those unclaimed for burial were dumped outside the city.
When I am tired, weary, overwhelmed, I want to get away. To withdraw to my study, my motorbike and the countryside, a few days rest on holiday. To meet Jesus someplace beautiful, restful, preferably with wifi and fresh coffee. I want to meet the risen Jesus away from where I am. As I escape, and I look back to what I want respite from, his cross is there, planted in the centre of all I am overwhelmed by.
So on Good Friday, we remember the cross and choose to move towards it. We draw close to where we do not want to go to. Everything in our lives, everything in this world that we would rather escape. Every fear, every loss, every pain, every anxiety. How can this be good,looking at all the bad, stacked up high? If I begin to pile up the execrable of my life, I fear it will overwhelm me. But worse than this, the cross of Christ is not mine alone, it is His, and it is shared with others, with you. The way to the foot of the cross is covered with your rubbish and decay, as well as mine. Thinking of that, I really do want to escape now, to get on my motorbike and ride out into the countryside and fresh air.
I read the gospels and wonder why were the disciples not there, at the foot of the cross, the most significant moment in history. Why did they not cling to the cross, stay as close as possible, as Jesus Christ, poured out everything he had and all that he was for them? The gospel writers tell us little about the cross, or their thoughts as they stood before it. It’s as if they were so overwhelmed with it, the emotions, the blood, sweat, urine, excrement, tears and immensity of it, that all they can report is the bare facts. This is how people who face traumatic events describe things, in clinical detail. An emotional distance kicks in to protect minds and souls that cannot fully enter into a traumatic experience but instead observe at a safe distance.
For at that moment, all the pain and loss, the death and decay of all who are and all who will be, was placed on Him. Everything in my life that makes me wonder where God is, everything in life that separates any person from God, in its ugliness and decay were placed upon and around him. No wonder Christ struggling to breathe said ‘God my God why have you forsaken me’?
The cross was not just a once in history thing, 2,000 years ago. It continues to sit in the centre of and around everything that would separate us and others from God.
And yes Easter Sunday is coming. But….
…the way and the door to Easter Sunday is not by escaping, but by another way. It is through participation. By coming close to all we want to avoid, to wade through the things we are numb to and sometimes can only describe in clinical detail. To stop turning away, and instead to turn towards, and climb over the rubbish and decay of our lives and others. To arrive and sit at the foot of the cross and ask “God my god why have you forsaken me too?”
Then to wait with Jesus as we watch life ebb from his body, as all that takes the life from our lives ends his. To struggle to hear him whisper with his last tormented breath, ‘It is finished’. Then to sit and stay and wait, and see all that comes next, through Easter Sunday and his resurrection.