For many, the Stations of the Cross reaches its devotional climax at the twelfth station, the point where Christ dies on the cross. It is common for worshipers to kneel in silence at the station, where as on Good Friday, Christ dies and words end. However, it is the previous station, depicting Christ being nailed to the cross that challenges me most.
Here we see one of the soldiers in a pose of total loving compassion to Christ, holding him like a beloved child, while the other soldier hammers the nails into his hand.
I cannot think of a more poignant representation of the calamity of fallen humanity. The double movement of violence and love of two soldiers caught up in the very drama of our salvation. It speaks to all caught up in a web of sin from which we cannot easily extricate ourselves and the repentance in that moment the causes us to show compassion and love in the midst of all that wounds and hurts.
Religion at its worst claims that our choices are easy, that there is always some clearly delineated “good or godly option” available in our decision making. In my experience the reality is that when we find ourselves in the mess of sin many of us are just trying to find the least bad option. Our lives are complicated. Past actions have consequences that often limit our future choices and the options available to us.
Look at the soldiers. Doing a job. My guess is they were rank and file given the relatively lowly status of their role assisting at an execution. Such an execution would have been a common place occurrence in first century Jerusalem but rapidly we note from their changing reactions in the artist’s depiction of Christ’s passion that they become aware that something much more greater is a stake. In that moment of recognition, in that jolt of sudden awareness leading to repentance and the showing of compassion to Christ there is no “magic wand” they can wave to stop what is already in motion. One soldier comforts Christ while the other drives the nails home. They are caught up not just in an act of personal sin, but in corporate, institutional and societal sin. Their previous actions, their role, their status all severely limit what their options in that moment, all they can do is offer small comfort while the momentum of sin hammers the nails home.
There is no doubt in my mind that for many who hear the gospel and epistle for this Sunday the readings will have precisely the opposite effect that their author’s intended. The readings are intended as a call for repentance but my concern is that for many they will just generate the very fear, numbness and spiritual paralysis that actually perpetuates sin.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul lists the serious of punishments that he believes God has previously inflicted on sinners, striking down people in the wilderness along with idolaters and those who “indulge in sexual immorality”. Those who put Christ to the test we hear are “destroyed by serpent” and those who “complain” are destroyed by the destroyer. At the end of these warnings the Corinthian’s are told not to worry as God will not test us beyond our strength and will always provide a way out.
There will be many in our pews that will be earnestly praying that if God does provide a way out of the mess they find themselves in that He made a bit more obvious. Telling people glibly that “God will always provide a way out” and “will never test them beyond their limits” when they are vulnerable and lost is scant comfort. They need help out of the mess and that help begins when we remind people that God stands, not in distant judgement, but as one understands the great precarious complexity of our human existence. As one who understands that often our “choices” are neither clear-cut nor easy to make, nor in some cases “choices” at all.
In Luke’s Gospel while Jesus does not equate the suffering of the Galileans with their sin Luke reports that He goes on to say that unless his hearers repent they will perish as the Galileans did. In the parable of the fruitless fig tree the gardener pleads with the owner of the vineyard to give the tree a little more time. He will try all that he can to make it bear fruit… it has one year left and if nothing happens by then it can and will be cut down. It is a text book, time-bound ultimatum.
Luke’s Gospel is underpinned by the belief that the 1st century world to whom he wrote was so broken that God must replace it with a new age and that this would happen with a cataclysmic apocalypse. Luke believes God has delayed this apocalypse in order to give people time to repent. If they do not repent in time they will be punished. He’s readers are in the position of the tree. They will get pruning and manure for one year and one year only… after that if they do not produce the fruits of repentance they will be cut down.
There are cross road moments when people will be told by a doctor “lose weight or die”. Or a judge “offend again and go to prison”, or a boss “turn up late once more and lose your job”. In these cases fear may motivate temporary “obedience” but love is what generates real lasting change. My concern is that these readings of our lectionary for the Third Sunday of Lent do not communicate God’s love adequately when heard out of the context of the remainder of Christ’s teachings and as a consequence they have little chance on their own of inculcating lasting repentance in those among of us who are honest enough to know that some area of our lives is in urgent need of God's help.
Thank goodness these passages are to be read in the wider context of our liturgy. A liturgy in which Christ’s shares his body and his blood with the disciples at the last supper, disciples who would betray him, deny him and abandon him. To these very fallen, frail, disciples Christ gives His body and His blood for the forgiveness of sins and Christ gives Himself freely to each one of us now. Christ gives us the gift of His grace in the midst of our sins past, present and future because we are loved more than any of us can comprehend or imagine. We are loved by one who chose to share the complexity of our humanity.
Some Christian leaders like to paint Christ as the “model human” who always knew what was best to do – I’m not sure how – in the gospels I read I see Christ as one who wrestles, struggles, fears and even expresses a feeling of abandonment by God.
I see Christ who stands with us as the only one who really “gets it.” The only one to know every motive of our heart, the only one to see with total clarity the full calamity of our fallen humanity, the one who knows first-hand the complex duality of a soldier’s compassionate embrace while a nail is driven into His hand by another and all the while never stops loving either soldier.
We are all of us BOTH soldiers. Hammering nails while hugging with compassion. Sometimes we cannot even tell which part we are playing with any clarity or certainty caught up in the complexity of past decisions that limit future actions. If that is you this Lent please know that Christ is with you in the difficulties of your life, as one who “gets it” and He will never stop loving you.
Repent because you know how greatly you are loved and never let fear of God’s punishment prevent you from holding up to God the full complexity of your situation. It is only when we are honest to God and have confidence in Christ eternal and unconditional love that any real or lasting repentance can occur. So Soldiers, hold up your hammers and your hugs. Christs loves you, heals you, forgives you, and is present with you, now and always. You do not do anything in your own power alone. He is with you in everything.