We have heard again the story of Jesus’ death. We have been reminded that he died, as we all must die, but in a manner shocking and terrifying in its pain, its humiliation, its loneliness and hopelessness. He died rejected and abandoned. His friends abandoned him, the crowd demanded his execution, the soldiers mocked and beat him. As he hung on the cross passers-by goaded him and at the end he called out the desolate words from the beginning of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is not a good death. It is a death that plumbs the depths of despair and degradation. Crucifixion was the form of execution the Romans used when they wanted to terrify and to demonstrate contempt. Citizens of the Empire were not subject to it except in cases of high treason.
When we contemplate Jesus suffering this awful fate we remember, as Crossman’s hymn My Song is Love Unknown has helped us to do, who and what he was, and also that he faced it knowingly and willingly, for our sake.
First we recall that as well as being a man, being our brother, Jesus was, uniquely, also God, existing, as the creeds say, eternally. We may struggle to make sense of the metaphors of “coming down from heaven” in a time when we envisage our earth as a location within a material universe in which we can’t find a dwelling place for God, but it is central to our faith that Christ is the one who embodies our creator for us and who does so as an act of that God. In Jesus God chooses to share our created nature, to share our limits and our weakness, to share our death. For him death is not something that just happens, necessarily and because it is our common end. For him death is accepted as the price of our salvation, is willed because it is required.
We remember, too, what kind of man this Christ was, what kind of things he did. He was a healer, a bringer of life. Those who came to him asking for help received it, even where this was the restoration of life to those whose loss distressed them. He spent his time bringing hope and well being to those in sickness and despair. He announced the coming of the Kingdom of God and he enacted it by driving out demons and by giving health.
Those who planned his death, those who called for it, those who carried out the execution, must all, I suppose, have had ways of explaining or justifying what they were doing, to themselves or to others. But we, who have the gospel accounts, read another set of reasons.
His final journey to Jerusalem is announced to his disciples before it begins with an explanation that he has to go there to die and to rise again. He says to them as they set out: “The Son of Man is to be given up into the power of men, and they will kill him”, as they near their destination he repeats his warning, adding “they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the foreign power, to be mocked and flogged and crucified”, finally telling them that “the Son of Man … [came] to give up his life as a ransom for many.”
What is done to him is something he has both foreseen and has accepted. It is necessary, he believes, to ransom many, to ransom us.
As we contemplate the passion, the suffering and death of our Lord, our saviour, Jesus the Christ, we should be appalled at the cruelty and the pity of it. A good man unjustly condemned to this end is an awful thing to think about. But we should also be inspired by his courage and his determination. His prayer as Gethsemane is one that many have turned to as they have sought strength to bear their troubles: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
This story, then, moves us to anger and compassion at human injustice and human agony, it inspires us as we see the bravery and self-sacrifice involved in the knowing acceptance of that injustice and agony for the sake of others. Most of all though it should move us to gratitude and worship. How Jesus’ death frees us from our captivity to death and sin, how his life is our ransom, is a deep mystery. We can try to understand it but I’m not sure we ever will, it, though, remains the heart of our relationship to God through Christ.
My song is love unknown. My Saviour’s love to me; love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. O who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?