IS IT NOTHING TO YOU
A paraphrase of a meditation originally written by Archbishop Joost De Blank, and spoken before the people of St. Stephen’s Church, Westminster, in 1952, telling the story of the Crucifixion as if seen from the eyes of the Centurion in charge of the prisoner Jesus..
Every Good Friday Longinus retires to his cell in the monastery of Caesarea in Cappadocia and lives over again the events of the first Good Friday, events in which he took so prominent a part as the centurion in charge of the execution party.
Today we share his mediation with him. It is to be remembered that Christian tradition holds that Longinus was converted as a result of his participation in our Lord’s crucifixion, and that he himself met death by martyrdom. So that our meditation may be applicable to us now in our own circumstances not only do we make ourselves his contemporary, we also make him ours.
My dear friends in Christ,
This is personally a very painful story to tell, but I tell it for only one reason – To Glorify My Lord. On that Day, now called Good Friday, I was on duty and this is my story:
I hated service in Jerusalem, but it was just my luck. Not only to miss Rome, and some leave in the spring, but to be sent to Palestine of all places, the most unruly of all the occupied countries in the Empire. Not only that, but to be in Jerusalem at the time of the Jew’s Passover was really asking too much. But I had served long enough in the Imperial Legions to keep my disappointments to myself. As a soldier of many years’ service, I knew that obedience was the military virtue par excellence, so I kept my mouth shut, but it didn’t stop me from cursing my ill fortune under my breath.
When I think back of that now it makes me smile. Ill Fortune? By sunset on that day, what I thought was ill fortune turned out to be the best fortune that ever came my way. Oh, it wasn’t good fortune like a gambling win that just excites for the moment. It was one growing richer and more rewarding as year succeeds year. I have tried ever since not to be bitter or resentful by what I am tempted to call bad luck or undeserved adversity. The tunnel of darkness is often the door to God’s light, and when that light dawns, it is so overwhelming that we can almost forget the dark road that brought us to it. Sometimes we can even look back on that grim course with gratitude.
I’m getting ahead of myself. You never really knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem at the Jewish Passover. It was rather like pitching your tent on the edge of Mount Etna in Sicily, or by the crater of Vesuvius, and you feel the volcano is going to burst into destructive life at any moment. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t properly prepare for, because you had no idea just how the trouble would start – only that you were pretty certain that it would – and that’s why there was a general “stand to” – – – and no forty-eight hour leaves or thirty-six hour passes that weekend.
I can well remember our frustration in the mess. We all – had things we wanted to do, but there we had to stay, growing more and more bored with one another’s company and longing for the next few days to pass. I was the duty officer, so I was even more tied down than the others, and consequently more bad tempered. I was so tired of kicking my heals that it was almost a relief when orders came through from the palace that the Jewish priests and leaders were raising merry hell about some agitator they wanted to put out of the way.
Pontius Pilate, the procurator at the time was no fool. His policy was always to give the people as much rope as possible, certainly in hope that they would hang themselves, but more particularly to make the task of government a little easier. People get so excited about trivial-ities, sometimes that the more you let them exhaust their energies in these small matters, the less chance of a serious disturbance. It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? But it didn’t work in this case. You see, this agitator was no ordinary agitator. Great crowds of people had hailed his entry into Jerusalem only a few days before, and we thought at that time that he might be planning some insurrection. But apparently the insurrection was directed much more against the sly, mercenary, power-grabbling , ambitious, religious leaders than the occupying power.
Of course I have learned even more of the truth since then: that this man’s revolution begins in the hearts of people, those hearts where all the lusts known to humankind – war within us. Those people who exercise any religious leadership, whether ordained or lay people, are the first objectives of his revolution. If only this man’s values and his spirit was given liberty in the Church of God, there would be no talk of empty churches – and there would be no looking for other, less revolutionary forces.
But, as I say, Pilate’s scheme didn’t work on this occasion because the priests, and all the vested interests behind them, were so scared that they felt that their only security lay in having the man from Nazareth put to death. The sentence of death was to all intents and purposes a Roman prerogative, so the prisoner became a Roman prisoner, and we were called to take over from the Temple Guard – and he was my prisoner until I signed the death certificate.
I was with him as his chief warden for sixteen or seventeen hours. I had no sleep and he had no sleep. But I was virtually my own master, well clothed, well fed, men to run my orders. He suffered all the tortures of the damned, and yet at the end of it all, when I was ready to drop with fatigue, he was still – wholly master – of the situation.
From the first flogging and the mocking, and the journey to Golgotha, to the moments he died – although he was bound and blindfolded and crucified, he was the only person that was free. The rest of us? Well, we all, including Pilate, were pawns in a game being moved by forces beyond our control. I am not making any excuses for myself, but we were Roman soldiers and we learned in a tough school. Those were cruel and crude days. Human life was cheap. Why shouldn’t a crazy prophet who was about to be butchered, serve to make a Roman holiday? So we had our sport with him, as did Herod’s men of war, and those slimy priests as he hung upon the cross. But we were slaves to a whole host of passions: Pilate desperately afraid of his standing with Rome; myself and the other soldiers bound, it is true , by our military duty, but that duty exceeded by a wave of cruelty that can carry otherwise decent people off their feet, catching us all in so many different ways; the priests shackled by their own wealth and status, slaves of Rome but masters of the people; and the ordinary people carried away in a wave of mass hysteria with no thought for the innocent victim . No one on that dreadful day acted freely. We had all given ourselves to evil powers that warped and twisted our consciences.
Only Jesus of Nazareth was free. There was no need to bind him. There was no need to drive him on. He went serenely on his way, the way of his own choosing, and when we came to nail him to the cross, why the nails were hardly necessary. He mounted the cross like a throne. One could say that he embraced the Cross. He was a King, ruling from the tree. It was as if no man could take his life from him, but that he willingly laid it down of his own accord.
I know now that this is true. I know better than those religious leaders that came and mocked and cried, pointing their finger of scorn: “He saved others, himself he cannot save”. But the truth is: To save others, himself he would not save.” – he died freely and was ultimately victorious over those terrible forces to which we were in bondage. Because he who died, on that cross, was the Son of God and was free, as all of us who now share his life, are free.
I sit in my cell today and ask myself: What is my attitude to misfortune? How can I learn to be free to all those passions that hold me in bondage? What is there in my life, and indeed in the life of the world – that drives me to crucify him afresh. What is it in my life that today makes him once again to accept the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross? What is there in your life – that does the same?
For the Reader’s Meditation
- What is my attitude to misfortune?
- How can I learn to be free?
- What makes me crucify him afresh?
FATHER, FORGIVE THEM; FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO
I remember our arrival at Golgotha, and glad I was to get there. It had been a frightful journey from the Praetorium. The streets were lined by crowds, and crowds of Jews, and how I hate the blind fanatic-ism of a crowd! Here they were crying their heads off with rage and shouting `Crucify, crucify,’ and shaking their fists and throwing mud and filth at the prisoner, and I remembered how a day or two earlier the same crowd had been crying `Hosanna.’ The blood lust of people is perhaps the most vicious of all emotions. I hated that journey, and thanked God I was a centurion in the Roman Army and not one of those shrieking madmen.
But the years have, pray God, given me a little wisdom and I have only to look into my own heart to know that I too have cried `Hosanna’ one day and `Crucify’ the next. Perhaps I go to my Communion. The veil that separates this world from the other loses its opaqueness. In its transparent lustre heaven and God, and my beloved, are all about me. The bread and wine are the very Body and Blood of Christ to feed my soul. And the service ends. I come back to my own place, and something somebody says irritates me, or a tiresome message is brought, or I can’t find a book I’m looking for, and the heavenly vision is as though it had never been. I am annoyed or irritated, resentful or depressed; I’m rude and morose. My passions have changed as quickly as the crowd’s. Have I anything to be superior about? I pray daily that I cease to be so fickle as to cry `Hosanna’ and `Crucify’ in the same breath.
But I had other anxieties on the road to Calvary, and the chief of these was the uncertainty whether my prisoner would be able to make it. There would be the devil, and all to pay, if he died before we got there – and for the first time and, God forgive me, entirely for selfish motives, I wondered whether we had not used him too hardly. At all events, when he stumbled and fell under the weight of the Cross, and I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get up again, with the brutish jeers of the crowd making me angrier and angrier, I decided something had better be done at once. So seeing a large burly black man by the wayside I ordered him to come and carry the Cross for the prisoner. Naturally enough he tried to get out of it, and I can’t pretend I blamed him, but I was in no mood for excuses and told him to do as he was told. I rather think this was the moment I first noticed the prisoner – that is to say, saw him as a man and not just a job.
In my life, as I suppose in many others, it is fatally easy to think of people (what shall I say?) entirely functionally and not at all personally; people over whom we have authority, people who work for us, people whom we use in our daily journeying. This man hadn’t registered as an individual in my life, more shame to me, until this moment when I saw the look of gratitude in his face as the man of Cyrene, with a very bad grace, shouldered the burden of the cross. Simon saw it too: the rebelliousness went out of his bearing and he seemed suddenly glad to carry that Cross. The thought of carrying it had aroused his resentment, but to carry it for the prisoner, and with the prisoner, was a wholly different thing. So I believe it always is.
And at last, we arrived at the execution scene. It was nothing new to us; we had done it often enough before. We took the victims one by one, stripped them of their clothes, held them down on the cross, hammered the nails home, fixed the ropes so that the weight of the body would not tear the hands away from the cross-beam, and hoisted the cross into position. We had done it, I said, often enough before. We knew all the types of prisoner, or we thought we did: the sort that whined, the sort that cursed us, the sort that cried for mercy, the sort that shouted obscenities, and the sort that endured grimly, silently, and the sort that blasphemed the gods and the sort that damned the falseness of their cause. We thought we knew them all, but while one man was kneeling on his chest and the other stretching out his arms: this man of Nazareth said quietly, distinctly, and gently: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’
Unbelievable! At a moment like this! But it was so. It was the word ‘Father’ I noted first. To denounce the gods was natural enough, but not this; there was no denunciation, there was no complaint. There was the quiet unbroken confidence of a child in a parent he can wholly trust: `Father . . .’. I know now whom he was thus addressing, but I have never had to endure what he endured, and yet time and time again I have found it hard to say `Father.’ I pray ceaselessly that my faith may be more like his, that instead of whining or becoming resentful or drowning myself in self-pity, I may instead look up and say quite naturally: `Father.’ It doesn’t come easy to a soldier to learn the way of acceptance, of `quiet brave endurance, the childlike faith that fears not pain nor death.’
I think the second thing I noted was his concern for ordinary chaps doing their duty. I have learnt since that some duty is no duty at all, duty that denies humanity, but it came home to me all at once that whereas we weren’t the least concerned about him, he was, even in his agony, desperately concerned about us. It’s hard when you’re a Roman legionary to know just where personal responsibility takes over from corporate activity. And so it is in the world at large. Thousands of people are engaged in daily work; it’s necessary to their livelihood, but what is to be done – if the job raises all kinds of moral problems from the destructive impact of its questions of honestly and fair dealing? It’s good to know – he cares about us; it’s good to know – he has us in his prayers: `Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’
Although his eyes were fixed upon us as he said these words, they looked through us and beyond us; to those whose orders we were obeying, to the chief priests and the elders, and down the centuries to all who are yet to come. His concern was for all, His forgiving love embraces all. And how we need it. How we need to pray: `Father, forgive us; for we know not what we do.’ That to me is the truly dreadful discovery I make year after year and, alas(!) much more frequently, day after day. We are converted in a small area of our lives. There is a small watertight compartment of our personalities which is the religious compartment, and the vast bulk of our life goes on unchanged and unredeemed. We are religious on the Lord’s day; we are wholly secular in our living for the next six days; and the two don’t mix and don’t meet.
There have been times when slavery was never called in question. Devout Christians bought and sold slaves with the rest. There have been times when pauperism in the midst of wealth was never called in question. There have been times when black men have been held down by white Christians. For the sake of Simon of Cyrene particularly, I am sure the Lord prays for all such: `Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’
I had to learn the lesson. For me it meant the end of my military career and the forfeiture of my pension. And I pray that God may open our eyes so that we may, less and less, wound his heart of love – through our blindness and ignorance and stupidity But because we are aware of the sinfulness of the human heart, and because we know that to the end of our days, there will be areas of life where we go on crucifying him. Let us beseech God that we may be included in his prayer that all our sins, negligence, and ignorance may be caught up in the Divine forgiveness.
FOR THE READER’S MEDITATION
- Have I learnt to carry my cross with and for Christ?
2. Have I learnt to call God `Father’ always?
- What about those areas of atheism in my life?
VERILY I SAY UNTO THEE, TO-DAY SHALT THOU BE WITH ME IN PARADISE
As the sun rose high in the sky, it grew hot on the bare rocky mound, we knew as Calvary. My quaternion of men were finding what little shade they could, were eating their rations, were drinking their wine, and were gambling as they always did for the prisoners’ garments. Normally I would have put my senior man in charge while I had a bit of a rest myself, but my interest had been captured by that figure on that central Cross. He had said on our behalf: `Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ And nobody had ever asked forgiveness on my behalf before, and I had never asked forgiveness for myself. That he should have done that for me, made me feel somehow more of a human being, aware of the power of personal choice, that distinguished me from the animals. It had never occurred to me before that there might be anything in my life that needed forgiveness. What I did was the direct product of my job as a soldier, and I suppose also, the fruit of my early upbringing. I was the man I was by virtue, of the moulding power of external circumstances. And here, suddenly, this word of forgiveness gave to my life a moral dimension I had never previously entertained. Ultimately I am responsible. When all allowance has been made for every external influence, I had the power of choice and could set my feet on the road to heaven or to hell.
This needed serious thought, and as I began to think about myself with more interest, I began to think about those three men hanging there in the pitiless sun, with the flies in their myriad’s adding to their torture and their shame. No man could bear this long and remain human. And sure enough, I hear one of the thieves who had also been crucified, cursing; and swearing and attacking that middle figure, whose quiet acceptance of his fate appeared to, enrage him the more. But after a bit the other thief, all passion spent, could stand no more of this. He turned upon his fellow, and told him to be still. `We,’ he said, `at least receive the just reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.’ It was strange to hear an argument like this from men, as good as dead, with the carrion crows waiting to feast upon their flesh. It was quite unreal, and more unreal than ever when he turned his head to the middle figure and said: `Jesus, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.’ We had nailed Pilate’s superscription to the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”; but now for the first and only time in my life I heard him addressed as “Jesus.” But what in the name of all the gods was the thief saying? He must be delirious already; the sun and pain had turned his head. What sort of kingdom was this naked felon going to rule? The funny side of it moved me so much that I slapped my thigh and gave out a huge guffaw. All my serious thinking had been driven out of my head, and I was just going to share the joke with my gambling men when I noticed that he turned his head to make reply. And then in a voice which, wise as I am after the event, I can only define as the voice of majesty, he said: `Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise’ – I stopped dead.
What amazed me first was the strength of his voice. It was clear he was exerting every vestige of such energy as remained to him to bring encouragement to a dying man. His concern for us chaps doing our duty had been startling enough. But what of his concern for a criminal outcast by society? A saint or a hero might conceivably do the former, but the man must be more than human, who out of his own extremity could reach out to bring comfort to this bit of human offal.
I know now that was ever his way. The common people heard him gladly. He had much more sympathy with the penitent Publican than the self-righteous Pharisee. He told the highly complacent religious folk that the prostitutes would get to heaven before they did. And they didn’t like it. `This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them,’ they said, and when they asked who their neighbour was (?) he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. He could forgive anyone their sins except those who didn’t admit they had any sins. He was at home with the honest sinner; he was out of tune with the sanctimonious hypocrite. And the penitent thief upon the cross did not try to cash in on his good deeds, even if there were any. But, like the publican who cried: `God be merciful to me a sinner,’ he cried: `Jesus, remember me.’ And Jesus said: ‘To-day, with me, in Paradise.’
It seems strange now, but as I stood by that Cross and heard these words I had the feeling they were addressed to me as much as to the dying man. They applied to me then, and they apply to me still. Whether I find that recollection specially difficult I don’t know, but it seems as if a hundred times a day my whole life has slipped, as it were, out of Christ’s orbit. It starts to revolve on its own axis instead of his. And again and again and again I cry out of my isolation, so often self-inflicted: `Jesus, remember me.’ And every time I cry that cry honestly and sincerely I know what his reply is: ‘To-day, with me, in Paradise.’ The pain of the penitent thief did not automatically cease, the agony had to be borne until the last breath was drawn, but in and through all the pain and anguish a new, cleansing emotion proved stronger than all the misery and torture; a voice of love had spoken that created confidence, a voice of love that created encouragement, a voice of certainty that created peace – ‘To-day, with me,’ and Paradise is where Christ is and we are. `To turn aside from thee is hell, to walk with thee is heaven.’
That prayer we can pray as often as we need-`Remember me’ – but it may not be long before I have to pray it for the last time. It is good to know that when that day dawns I have nothing to fear. I am glad to know that Jesus spoke his promise to the outcast of outcasts. Not that I am any better than he was, but it reassures me that no one is excluded, that every child of man is of infinite value to God and that the future is safe in his hands. As a dying saint has said with his last words: `The best of all is: God is with us.’ What is more – there is no time-lag, and we are assured of the continuation of the essential personality: ‘To-day thou – with me.’ There is nothing more we can want for ourselves, and there is nothing more we can want for our loved ones. Whenever we find time to pray let us remember those near and dear to us and say: `Lord, remember him; Lord, remember her.’
There is just one last thought. Let us beware of becoming too respectable. The marks of the true Church will always include the membership of men and women cast out by society. How dreadful if those not wanted anywhere else, are not found with us. How dreadful it would be if there were not to-day, a penitent thief among us. He needn’t have been a flannel-foot or one of a razor gang. He may have been a man who made a dishonest income tax return or cheated the customs. He needn’t be clothed in rags – he may buy, for all I know, his suits in Savile Row. The power of Christ’s redeeming love both for this world and the next is dammed up and restricted unless there are penitents who, conscious of their sin and degradation, cry out from broken hearts: `Jesus, remember me.’
So, first as we pray let us tell him why we pray: `Jesus; remember me,’ and then let us be the remembrances of those, who to-day rejoice with us in God’s redeeming love, but on another shore.
FOR THE READER’S MEDITATION
- What makes me forget so that in shame I turn and say: `Remember me’?
- How far am I, and the church to which I belong, reaching those right outside the Faith?
- Do I ask Christ to remember my friends and loved ones, in this world and the next?
WOMAN, BEHOLD THY SON! … BEHOLD THY MOTHER!
NEARLY three hours had passed. It was almost high noon. The sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky. There was silence from the three crosses now. I wondered if the poor wretches were unconscious. I hoped so for their sakes. Certainly the oaths and blasphemies had come to a stop and the other thief, too, had been still since Jesus had said: ‘Today, with me.’
How I loathe the crowds who come and watch crucifixions, who gather like human vultures wherever men suffer or are in pain. We always have a job keeping the crowd back. They want ringside seats, and their faces sicken me, like those who want front row seats at heavyweight boxing or the gladiatorial games. We had a job on that day, I well remember. On a day when even the respected religious leaders came along to crow over their defeated enemy, it wasn’t surprising that there seemed to be more on Calvary than ever before. We drove them back again and again to leave enough space, but whenever we relaxed our attention only for a moment they all moved forward at once. But among all the hundreds of people there were four I saw (there may have been more, but I saw only four) who were different from the rest. They quite clearly had not come to make sport of the victims’ sufferings, and nothing we could do could drive the women away from the central Cross. I knew without having to ask that the most insistent one must be his mother, and though I had no reputation in those days for being soft-hearted, the mute appeal in her eyes made me tell my men to let her be. After all, there was nothing she could do to stay the course of events; what difference could it make? I felt sorry for her. I know I had often enough caused pain to my own mother, but she didn’t then have to stand by to watch me being crucified, with a hostile band of hooligans all around. Not that it entered my head then that there was anything I could do. And then it happened! He wasn’t unconscious, not that central figure, and I remembered he had refused the drugged drink to ease his pain three or more hours ago. His mother had so placed herself, with that intuitive genius mothers have, that when he opened his eyes she was directly in his line of vision. The crowd might jeer, the soldiers might mock, but his open eyes would see a deathless love. And his eyes did open – and I swear there was a smile on his face, a smile of infinite tenderness. He moved his head ever so slightly so that he could see who it was at his mother’s side, and then he said: ‘Woman. behold thy son!’ and turning to the lad: `Behold thy mother!’
That struck me then as amazing, and it still does after all this time. As he hung upon that Cross even now his thoughts were not for himself. His thoughts had been for the soldiers doing their duty, they had been for the men who were being crucified with him, and now they were for his mother and his own intimate family circle. Nowhere in his bearing or his words could there be found a trace of self-pity. And I knew by this time that whatever else he might be, this man was certainly a hero. I might be a soldier, but I had never met heroism like this before. I had been wounded on more than one occasion in past campaigns, and as I lay in pain I reckoned I was all-important. I was the centre of my own picture and I expected everybody else to place me there too. Others could wait on me, others could do my bidding. I could be irritable, bad -tempered, or downright devilish, but others must be sweet and kind and eager to do my will. I had a cast-iron excuse- I was ill! I’ve noticed this in other people too. I have known old people–sometimes take mean advantage of their age; and because they feel they are entitled to service, they have made life hell for those around them.
Oh, how ashamed I have been of all that in my life since the day I stood by the Cross and heard those words spoken. In the extremity of his own agony his thought was first and foremost for others. I have sometimes wondered since then whether self-pity isn’t the greatest of all the sins. It is hard to find anything that more weakens character and conduct.
Mind you, it cuts both ways. There are those that are called upon to serve the aged or the infirm, and they too grow sorry for themselves. Why aren’t they free as their friends are free? Why do they have to run home early to prepare supper and see the patient is tucked safely in bed? I know all about it, but I believe it would make all the difference to their attitude and the quality of their ministry if they could only stand by the Cross as I stood, and hear: ‘Woman, behold thy son! … Behold thy mother!’ I am told that the disciple took Mary away then, though I doubt whether she left until the end, from that day she made her home with him. Peter and the other disciples started travelling around proclaiming the new faith that had come to them, but John never left Jerusalem for twelve years. He never left, until Mary was called home to heaven. He felt Jesus had given her into his keeping, and he was going to discharge that trust wholeheartedly and completely. There’s something fine about that.
Yes, as I look back now this scene by the Cross teaches me so much. I wish I could pass it on. I know all about mother-love and what the poets say, but I must confess I am staggered by that woman’s unbroken trust in her son. He really had come to a dreadful end – an end reserved for the very lowest type of criminal – and yet she believed in him and stuck by him. I have proved for myself since that day, and many others have told me, that they have accepted the faith of Jesus because they know beyond all doubt that he believes in them and will stick by them to the very end. He will never let them go and he will never let them down. He is alway the good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep. Well, if that be true, as I believe it is, it is all part of his mother’s nature. Whether she learnt it from him or he from her I care not, but if the definition passes that a friend is , one who knows the worst about you yet loves you just the same, then I can understand why they called him `the friend of publicans and sinners.’
I am glad, too, that at the end Jesus did not forget the intimate relationships of the family. I knew, of course, even then that he was an itinerant (i tin·er·ant) preacher and had left home three or four years earlier – and when once a man has left home and has got a job that takes all his time it’s hard to keep in touch, even harder still, I think, for this man, because some members of his family thought him crazy and wanted him to come back to his carpenter’s bench at Nazareth. And so sometimes he had to act rather harshly, or so it seems to me, in regard to them. But here he leaves us in no doubt about his love for his mother, for his nearest and dearest. And since then I have been more suspicious of those who are devout and religious in public, but who in the privacy of their own homes are difficult to live with ; charming in church, horrible at home. That’s why I am suspicious of myself and the reality of my own religious profession
FOR THE READER’S MEDITATION
- Where do I put myself when I am in trouble?
- How do I offer my service for others?
- What am I like at home?
MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?
I FIND it difficult to recall the next three hours. It was as if time stood still, as if all life were ‘ its breath. I cannot explain it: I can only say it was like watching a contest which was no Saturday afternoon sporting event, but a life and death struggle. (Perhaps the feeling of Longinus was like that experienced by the people of Kent and Sussex as they saw the Battle of Britain being fought in the skies overhead. They knew their salvation depended on the outcome, and yet they themselves could do nothing except watch.)
Time’s most sacred minutes were marked between the hours of twelve and three. I didn’t understand what was happening, but that something tremendous was happening I had no doubt at all. In some ways it was rather like an eclipse of the sun, when an unexpected darkness comes over the land and nature falls silent. It was like this, but it was much more than this. Nature might be silent, but there was a movement in the atmosphere as if the devil himself were calling up all the legions of hell to assault that figure on the Cross. — Oh, I know I am being wise now that I believe, but I know too – that at the time I was trembling for fear. There were cosmic powers engaged and poor mortals could only crouch terrified.
I wish I could put it far more clearly, but I know this beyond all doubt, that suddenly after the last word there was a complete change, a complete change in the sky for example. The blazing sun was hidden, and an unexpected and frightening darkness covered the land. And with the darkness the behaviour of the people changed. Not now the noisy jeer and the rib-ald jest. Now in the darkness, it was as if dormant consciences aroused them to their treachery. The darkness gave them time to think, as it often does, and the things done heedlessly in the daytime come to torment us in the night. A hush fell over the crowd. I could hear the sound of sobbing, and I heard, too, that sound which you will hear all over Jewry when the guilt of sin strikes home. I heard them beating their breasts.
Beating their breasts indeed! I nearly turned on them in a fury. `That’s right,’ I almost shouted, `you’re sorry about it all now – sorry now – it’s too late.’ Too late! too late! It is possible to be too late. I thought again of the penitent thief upon the cross, and I remembered that in Holy Scripture `there is one death-bed repentance that none may despair; there is only one that none may presume.’
But I realized that we would have no more trouble with the crowd now. Not that we could have done much about it because my own men were as uncertain of themselves as the rest. They no longer gambled; their eyes were fixed too upon that central Cross. None of us knew or could understand, but we stood on a battleground, we stood on holy ground. All was deathly still, and then that voice the sound of which calls day and night in my ears: ‘My God. my God why hast thou forsaken me? He cried the words in a loud voice, and I believe he cried them in Hebrew, but I needed nobody to translate. The tone in which he said it revealed all to me. Blasphemy comes easily to a soldier not deliberate usually, but because it’s part of the lin-gua franca ( frenk·ca) of the service. `My God,’ `Good God,’ these are expletives (ex-ple-tives) used by ‘many with no thought of what they are saying. Job the Patriarch was tempted to curse God and die, and this man would have had all my sympathy had some blasphemy come not only from his lips but from his heart. Crazy he might be, but he had given up everything for his God, and he had come to his death rather than recant. (It makes one think-doesn’t it? – when so many of us are afraid of nailing our colours to the mast, when we think we ought to laugh with the rest at a lewd joke or share in the conventional dishonesties of our society – without protest.) The point is – his God had failed him. Why not shake his fist, nailed as it was to that Cross, in the face of this faithless God? But there was nothing of that. His voice was almost as the voice of a little child who suddenly discovers that he is not alone in the darkness. `My God, my God, why did you have to forsake me? It was almost as if he was for a ‘moment afraid he had let God down, for above all it showed his concern for his God.
Above all else his question made it unmistakably clear to me that his relationship with God was far and away the most important thing in his life. Nothing else really had any consequence beside that. So many of us want God for what we can get out of him. We are bitter about it if God does not answer our prayers our way. People give up religious practices because, as they say, they have never got anything out of it. A woman prays that her son may come home from the wars; he doesn’t, and she never prays again. Whatever else this cry of – de re lic tion – might mean, it revealed the reality of all true religion – that we want God for himself because he wants us for ourselves, and that life without God is not life at all, but a living death.
This was something new to a man like myself brought up the Roman way. There are plenty of gods to choose from, and if the first god doesn’t do what you want him to do, why-try another god. There are plenty more in the pantheon.
Something more happened to me as I stood on Golgotha at that time. Again, I discover putting it into words is an almost impossible task, but all I can say is, I have never felt completely isolated again. I have certainly been through times of black darkness, times when I couldn’t see the sun, times when a heavy insupportable weight pressed upon my soul, but always I reassure myself with the remembrance that he has been through that experience too – that he came out with faith undimmed on the other side, and I hang on. I hang on because he has shared our darkness.
I can’t pretend that I am always conscious of God’s presence at such times – I think then, I should be living by sight, and not by faith – but my faith tells me HE IS THERE, and I can go on. `Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.’
Of course, I have learnt to understand better now what was happening at this time. I know that the darkness that came over the land was the judgement on man’s sin. I know now that the Cross is – the effective action of God’s holy love, and that the darkness and the cry were God vindicating his holiness in his love.
But the world still walks in darkness, and I myself often enough still walk in darkness, the darkness of our own making. Not that God forsakes us, but that we forsake God! I know now that because that figure on the Cross cried that dreadful cry, we can never cry it because we are never God-forsaken. But sometimes when I sin, sometimes when I spit in the face of Christ, sometimes when I deliberately disregard his love, I overhear another cry: `My son, my daughter, why hast thou forsaken me? and I have no answer but to bow my head in shame.
FOR THE READER’S MEDITATION
- Am I still putting off that moral decision?
- Do I trust in the dark?
- Does God ever have to cry about my forsaking him?
I think by now I already realized that the victim on the Cross was no man at all, but that he was a god in a man’s body. No man could have acted as he had. I remembered the calmness with which he had faced this vile death; I remembered the quiet consideration for those involved in his execution, first ourselves the soldiers, then that robber rogue beside him, then his mother, and then again his God. Truth to tell, I believe that I was just about losing sympathy then. He had been as collected and deliberate as a man on his deathbed making the testament-ary dispositions in his will, and it just couldn’t be possible that one suffering all the agonies of crucifixion could be equally undisturbed. It was nothing new to us from Rome for the gods to walk about this earth as men; our poets were always telling us of times when it had occurred, and, of course, because they weren’t subject to the limitations of ordinary mortals they always got the better of those they came up against. I began to think that this was what was happening on that central Cross. Somebody supernatural, somebody from Olympus, was hanging there, and because he was a god and not a man he was really immune to all the pain and suffering of humanity. He was playing a part; it was a bit of wonderful acting, but very likely he was secretly laughing at us for being such `mugs.’
Some thoughts such as these were passing through my mind when quite unexpectedly out of the darkness came that voice. It was hardly recognizable. It was obviously wrung out of a body racked with pain. It came from between parched lips and from a swollen tongue. It was a cry out of the heart of physical anguish and distress — just the two words: `I thirst.‘
I find it hard to put into words the effect they had on me. I felt somehow like shouting for joy, because in them MY embryonic faith was vindicated. I had come to admire my prisoner these past hours and had begun to feel he was the bravest chap I had ever come across-so brave indeed that I was well-nigh convinced that the cause for which he was dying must be worth dying for. But then had followed the horrible suspicion that one of the gods was making sport with us, and that here was a god we couldn’t touch who had dressed himself in a man’s body. Now all those suspicions had been swept away by the cry: `I thirst.’ He was a man all right; he might indeed be more than a man, but that didn’t concern me at the moment. I was quite certain now that the man who was hanging on that Cross was a man like to me. He was a man of flesh and blood. He was a man subject to the same limitations as myself: God he might be, but he was God made flesh and as a man he felt as I did, hunger, pain, sorrow, loneliness – yes, and joy and good fellowship too, I surmised and, as I knew, – “thirst.”
I don’t think I have ever felt more proud of being human than at that moment when that man on his cross revealed beyond doubt and question his full humanity. In the years that have followed since that black, black Friday, which now we call Good Friday, again and again I have found life bearable, I have been able to conquer in its sufferings and sorrows, because I realize that the Christ whom I now worship has shared my pain, and, as I believe, still shares it. We have not one, who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but who was in all points tested like as we are. I would never have put my faith in the Son of God if I had not known he was also Son of Man.
`I thirst,’ he whispered. How glad I was to give the order to offer him drink. I saw clearly at that moment my duty to help those in distress. I learnt later that he had once said that whoever gave a cup of cold water in his name would not lose his reward. I’ve more than had mine. And since that day I have seen him in every beggar who holds out an emaciated (ema·ci·at-ed) arm asking for charity, I have seen him suffering on battlefields, I have seen him in the piteous faces of little children cruelly treated, I have seen him in the despair of homeless refugees, I have seen him in the starved bodies of the thousands still undernourished in God’s world, and I know that it is my duty and privilege to try and supply what is required. There have been times when I have wanted to turn away from misery and suffering. After all, there is so much of it and there is so little I can do, but even as I have turned to go I have heard in my ears the little words: `I thirst,’ and I cannot turn away. It may well be, as others have told me, that these words are to be interpreted spiritually. And indeed, why not? But this is the secondary meaning. The words must not be spiritualized until we have dealt with them severe-ly practically. None of us can stand or sit by the Cross and hear and not do all in our power in the use of our ability and resources to stem the flood of human misery. Maybe this is the place where real religion can best be seen: for did he not say: `Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me’?
So I learnt then, first, that he has shared our pain and, secondly, that we are serving him when we seek to relieve pain. But there were other things I learnt. There was no apology in his cry for water. He gave no sense that it was a concession to human frailty and weakness. I am in fact sure it was not. He had disposed of what remained for what remained for him to do, he had provided for those around him, and now quite naturally and practically he showed his concern for himself and for his own physical needs. I can understand Paul the Apostle reminding us, challenging us; `What, know ye not that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit? and that therefore our bodies have to receive proper attention. We in Syria find already all sorts of queer people who claim to be servants of the Cross, who either indulge their body in its every whim and animal impulse or, alternatively, regard it as a prison cage for their pure souls and treat it shamefully and with disrespect. There is no innate virtue in disease or in disregard of the proper care and consideration of our bodies. Our religion does not mean that we play fast and loose with the laws of medicine and hygiene. It is our duty to keep fit and healthy (as fit and healthy as we can) in terms of food and air and exercise for God’s service. Of course I know the other extreme too: those who are so concerned about their ‘bodily` state that they are everlastingly fussing about themselves, trying first this doctor then that, trying now this medicine then that, and who can do no useful work for God or for society because they are so wrapped up in themselves and their precious feelings and their common ailments.
I have tried to live in proper balance since I stood by the Cross, and when in any doubt I always recall that Jesus refused any personal easement or comfort (such as that first drink he accepted) until he was certain that he had done all that had to be done. When he had looked for and provided for others, then and not till then did he think of himself. He didn’t neglect himself, but he put things in the right order. Do we?
FOR THE READER’ MEDITATION
- Do I let him share my Pain?
- What do I do for those in need?
- What is my attitude to my duty?
The Sixth Word:
“IT IS FINISHED”
AND so we gave him some wine to drink, and it was obvious that he was grateful. It must have soothed his throat and given him back his voice, because immediately afterwards there rang round Calvary’s Hill what can only be defined as a Shout of triumph. You would have thought it one of the moments in battle when after a long and gruelling struggle the enemy standard has been captured or their general slain. But wonder of wonders – this shout came not from my soldiers, nor from the spectators on the hillside. (They had remained strangely still and silent these last hours since the darkness fell.) No, this cry came from that middle Cross, and as he cried it the sun pierced through the blackness and lit up that naked figure hanging there alone except for those two thieves on either hand. ‘it is done. Consummatum est. ‘It is finished.’ This was not the mournful whisper of defeat, this was not a dying complaint of one who had failed. No, he opened his eyes, incredible as it may appear after all these bitter hours, he raised his head and shouted with a loud voice: `It is consummated. It is accomplished. It is finished.’
‘Carth-ago de-lenda est’ was the catchword, the slogan with which Cato the great orator ended every speech. Carthage, Rome’s proudest and grandest enemy, `Carthage must be destroyed,’ and the day came about 180 years ago when the generals could report to the rulers of the Capitol – ‘It is finished’ Carthage is finished. De-leta est Carth-ago. Carthage lies in ruins. That was the kind of cry I heard that day. `Mission completed’ is how a more modern age might put the significance of the words: the work that I was sent to do has been done, has been thoroughly and completely accomplished.
There was no letting up, no relaxation, until the conclusive report could be made, and it seemed to me that this announcement was being made to all the world, to all the world there present, to all the world of every age, to all the powers of heaven and hell. This was a cosmic cry. . . and literally so, because it coincided with or, as I believe, it resulted in, an earthquake. The whole globe responded to the impact of these victorious words. For so long nature herself had been out of course, all life had gone awry, and now we found ourselves involved in the birth-pangs of a new era; a new creation. It was as if God were invading the world in a new way. I heard later when I got back that the earthquake had come suddenly to the centre of the city, and that the veil of the Jewish temple that separates the holy of holies from the rest – the holy of holies is where the Jews believed God’s presence to be in some sense localized – had been torn from the top to the bottom. The hand of man could not have done it; it could only be the hand of God to show that now there was no more a division between God and his people, no more a division between the eternal and the temporal, between, the sacred and the secular. The At-one-ment had been effected, and God and man were now at one. `Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’
`It is finished.’ That cry still resounds in my ears. It surely finished me! As he opened his eyes and raised his head, those eyes were fixed on me and I could not escape the compulsion of those eyes. He opened his eyes and my eyes were opened. Oh, I know that people say my eyesight (because my eyes were bad and I was very shortsighted) they say my eyes were cured that day on Calvary. Perhaps they were, perhaps they were; but that’s not the important thing to me. He opened the eyes of my soul and I know now – condemned, naked, dying criminal though he was – I knew now that I was looking upon the face of my God. What had my Roman gods to offer me? What had the Roman authorities to offer me compared with this man? What has the world with all its hollow triumphs and empty rewards to offer any of us? Here was one to whom without compromise I could give my unstinted, unrestricted allegiance. It is another soldier who has said: `Religion is betting our life there is a God.’ On Good Friday I bet my life that the man on the Cross was God, and never since have I had occasion to doubt it.
I had naturally heard that by trade Jesus was a carpenter. I admired his craftsmanship that day. I admired his concern for a job well done. `The grace of perseverance’ is not easily come by, for it is easy to begin, but so hard to go on. I have met many people who have had the sign of the Cross marked on their foreheads at baptism, or who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, or who at some other time made brave resolve to follow Christ, and they start off with such high enthusiasm, but after a few years, sometimes even after a few months, their love grows cold, their zeal runs dry, and they sink back to a dull, drab, monotonous, pedestrian, monochrome existence. I only pray that I may be able to say with my dying breath: `It is finished.’ – `I have finished the work thou gavest me to do.’ Few remarks wound more than: `This man began to build but was not able to finish.’ Jesus himself once said: `If any man will come after me let him say no to himself and take up his cross day after day and follow me.’ His cross, day after day: that’s the test. It doesn’t look so difficult on a Good Friday when all decent folks’ thoughts are centred on the Cross, but that’s only one day, and the easiest day. Not nearly so easy when we’re busy about our daily work, and the worship of the Church and the life of God’s family seem far away. So I am always grateful that one of the fruits of the Spirit is faithfulness.
I wonder what sort of a job we would make of it if we were carpenters, and we were given two rough beams of wood and three nails. What could we make of that? I know what the Master Carpenter made. He made a royal throne and he mounted that throne regally and freely. That great Dean of St. Paul’s, John Donne, has written: `That man upon Whom the wormwood and the gall of all the ancient prophecies – and the venom and malignity of all the cruel instruments thereof, was now poured out … that man so torn and mangled, wounded with thorns, oppressed with scorns and contumacies, Pilate presents — exhibits so – Ecce Homo, Behold the Man. But in all this inanition – (in·a·ni·tion) and evacuation, yet He had a crown on, yet He had a purple garment on; the emblems, the characters of majesty were always upon Him.’
The Master Carpenter remained master of the situation and he took those two pieces of wood and the nails and he made them a throne, and he took the thorns and wove them into a crown and he used his sufferings to redeem the world. That Master Carpenter was working in the hard, gnarled wood of my soul, too, that day, and still his work goes on. Still he says to those who heed him: `Follow me, and I will make you . . .’ – We the raw material, he the craftsman; turning a man of straw like Simon into a man of rock like Peter, turning the son of thunder into the Apostle of love, turning Longinus the soldier of Rome into the soldier of God. `Follow me, and I will make you…’,
One thing more. It may be that my time is nearly up. They tell me the Christians are being rounded up in this neighbourhood, and my turn to suffer may come any day. How, then, shall I behave? How, then, shall I act when suffering comes? Some there are who whine and moan and shake their fists in the face of their cruel fate. Some with more stoic resignation grin and bear it; they’ll not give in. But some there are who have learnt the secret of taking their suffering, of accepting it, and using it as a means of sharing Christ’s sacrifice to redeem a world that is gone astray.
Measure your life by loss instead of gain,
Not by the wine drunk but by the wine poured forth;
For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice,
And whoso suffers most – hath most to give.
FOR THE READER’S MEDITATION
- Do I give this Man my unrestricted allegiance?
- What about the grace of perseverance in my life?
- How do I react to trouble?
FATHER, INTO THY HANDS I COMMEND MY SPIRIT
THESE words for me sum up a Christian’s life. I have tried to recall my feelings as I stood by the Cross so many years ago and as I have stood by it again today. It is hard to piece together all the reactions I felt during those six hours that he hung a living figure in the central place on that slight mound which, taller than the highest mountain, dominates the whole world and every age. His heroism and courage in the face of pain and suffering – That perhaps was my first reaction because I had been a soldier all my life and had myself been wounded and seen often enough how others endured pain. His consideration for others was my next surprise–for the soldiers, his fellow victims, his mother, and his God. I have yet to meet another person who was so forgetful of self while himself in pain. I confess with shame that it only needs a toothache for me to think first, second, and all the time of my misfortune, and I have no moment left to think of others. And then there was the growing conviction that this dying was no ordinary dying. Here were ‘the desperate tides of the whole great world’s anguish Forc’ d through the channel of a single heart’
But as I drew towards the close of my vigil the fact that still impressed me most was the deliberate behaviour of the man on the Cross. He was working to a divinely appointed willingly accepted cosmic time – – table. It is the calmness of the figure that after all these years most deeply moves me as I think of it. When I recall how people fuss and fume and fret if things don’t go exactly as they had planned. When I recall the worry and anxiety if something unfortunate interferes with our programme, when I recall the way people always seem to think that this life is the be-all and end-all of existence and who bewail the death of any one in the prime of life as if there were nothing beyond; when I recall these things and then ‘when I survey the wondrous Cross, where the Young Prince of Glory died (so the hymn-writer penned it) and see his quiet acceptance of his destiny, I realize how little we have learnt from him.
A great man has often been quoted as saying: ‘I am immortal till my work is done.” That is the impression Jesus of Nazareth made upon me. There was no hurry, there was no complaint, there was no uncertainty, there was no self-pity. The hours passed on. He had shown his care for those around him. He had entered that black darkness for which he had volunteered, braver than the bravest of my soldiers, for the harrowing of hell itself. The thorns that encircled his brow as a crown now shone with greater majesty than on any other ruler. And he had cried in triumph: ‘It is finished. Then immortal till his work was done and now that work accomplished, he relaxed upon the Cross as if he lay pillowed in arms that held him in a tight embrace, and he said with complete contentment and I would almost say in that luxurious weariness which comes at the end of a victorious battle: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ And he bowed his head and gave up the ghost.
I am told that these words are used by the Jews in the psalter of their temple worship ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit, For thou hast redeemed me, 0 Lord, thou God of truth. ‘ But to these words he added the first and the best: Father – ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. ‘ I don’t know if I noticed it at the time, but I have noticed it often since and certainly at every Good Friday meditation, that the first word on the Cross and the last word on the Cross both begin with ‘Father’. To have held on to the Fatherhood of his God from the beginning to the end of his agony is to me virtually incredible. But then he knew his God better than I do. He knew beyond the slightest question, beyond the remotest doubt that his name is Love and all his purposes are Love. Even we can understand that about him now because we know and believe the redemption he won upon the Cross for all mankind, and yet though I believe it for him, I still don’t always believe it for myself. I still grumble and curse, and though I know with my mind, my heart, and will, do I not respond to the most important truth, that man can ever know, that God is Love and all his purposes are Love for every son of man.
Oh, I was glad to see him die, glad because his sufferings were over, but glad, too, because there were at this moment no false heroics. If I may dare to put it so, no false note was struck. This was no pathological fanatic, this was a son going home to his Father. All along he had shown his great concern for others and for his God and for the job well done; now at the end he showed a proper concern for his own soul, and as he breathed his last I have no doubt, no doubt at all, that the eternal God proved his refuge and that he found that underneath were the everlasting arms.
It was the most beautiful death I ever witnessed. ‘Let me die the death of the righteous and let my last end be like his.’
But that was not the end. Now the earth rocked and quaked beneath our feet. The last pillar of light from the sun was extinguished, and there were strange unnatural, supernatural sounds and noises. The people on the hillside moaned in curious fear and terror. My men were frightened out of their wits and crouched upon the ground. I now know the whole universe was bewailing the death of its God. I don’t want to sound a braver man than I am. I have had my moments of panic fear, but this was not one of them, for out of the darkness of Calvary light had shone into my soul. Out of the blackness of the crucifix had resounded in my ears the one word ‘Father’.
Henceforth I knew one thing only, that this man’s God was to be my God and this man himself must be divine. Death could never hold him. And on Calvary I was alone with the Cross. We were the only two on Calvary so I shouted, and shouted for joy of very conviction, because my doubts were at an end, my meaningless existence was finished–for me, already late in life, life was just beginning. I don’t know what I shouted some say I cried: Surely this was a righteous man, others: ‘Surely this man is a son of the gods –but I know I believe to-day as strongly, aye, more strongly than I believed then, because I have had more time– Beyond all shadow of doubt this man Jesus is the Son of God –and God is Love.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
FOR THE READER S MEDITATION
- Do I ever feel frustrated?
- What do I do with failure?
- How do I respond to the Divine Love?
IT really seemed that all was over and his sufferings done, but anyway I wasn’t going to see him suffer any more, and to make assurance doubly sure I took up one of the spears and pierced that sacred body at the heart. Some people say I am called Longinus because of that spear, and so it may be. As I did it I found young John by my side. He had taken the Divine Mother to his home and he was back again for the end. `We couldn’t let him suffer any longer,’ I murmured to him, and he smiled his thanks; and then we saw along the spear from the open wound there poured out water and blood. Down the spear and on to my hand, and John was greatly moved. `It’s his life,’ he said. `It’s his life-pouring into you and,’ he grasped the spear and the water and blood passed over his hand, `into me and into all the world. The water washes and the blood invigorates.’ And there was great confidence in John’s voice as he spoke. I know that he has always s counted this his supreme moment at the Cross, when the cleansing stream gushed forth. I know that he has always taken it to mean in symbol the two great sacraments of the Gospel, the waters of baptism and the most comfortable sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ by which we are united to the Saviour. And why not? It is far the most reasonable interpretation I’ve ever heard: `Let the water and the blood From thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Cleanse me from its guilt and power.’
These hours by the Cross changed my life completely. I knew then that I had enlisted in another army in the service of the Crucified. It took me some time to buy myself out of Rome’s service, and while I remained I tried to get a better name for the centurions. We had been known so long for our brutality and our susceptibility to bribery, but if I were going to follow the Crucified whatever my job, I must be faithful to him, in that job, by my uprightness and by my consideration for others, particularly those in my power. And so I tried. But for me this was no longer my life. There were few who had known the Christ as I had, and I wanted liberty to pass on all I knew, so when I got my discharge I went to the Apostles who had known Jesus some years, and they instructed me and gave me Holy Baptism and let me share in the Eucharistic fellowship.
And now I sit in my cell in this monastery, a soldier of Jesus and no longer a soldier of Rome, and every year I spend again my hours by the Cross. I kneel and think and watch and pray, and the Seven Words come back to me as if to-day is the first occasion I ever heard them uttered, and I find I am asking myself questions:
What do I do to help men in their ordinary, jobs, as he helped us when we nailed him to the Cross? Do I make it easy for others to obey God in their jobs, and do I help them to see that the ordinary job is their place of obedience?
And then what about the outcasts of society The penitent thief and, for that matter, the impenitent one? Do I know what Brother Paul meant by charity, real Christian charity, the charity of Christ upon the Cross? What is my usual attitude, censor-ious-ness or charity?
And in my family circle who comes first? Does it all have to revolve around me? Am I the central, most important person, and even if not always, certainly if I’m a little out of sorts? Would I rather be master or servant in my home?
Nor can I avoid asking myself about God and my relationship with him. Sometimes I really don’t know whether I’ve been forsaken or not, because I don’t bother anyway. They tell me that the one thing that drives God away from our hearts is sin, and often sin is much more attractive to me than God. Why do I care so little?
I hear him say: `I thirst’- the only personal request in all his`anguish, and I ask myself about my own life of self indulgence, my indignation that I cannot have all the pleasures and comforts I had when I was young. Does it really matter? And anyway wouldn’t it be well to practise a little more self-denial so that the needs of Christ’s Church might be more properly met?
And when I come to the end of my life shall I be able to look back over the years God has given me with the knowledge that I have done what he wanted me to do; that the purpose for which I was created has been consummated? Indeed, I find myself asking that question as I go to bed each day. Is it finished, the work thou gavest me to do this day? I remember hearing of a man greeting a friend who was out of church earlier than usual with the words: `Is the sermon all done? and the reply: `The sermon is all said, but it’s not begun to be done yet.’ Do I say, or do I do?
So I go on thinking, but what is this disturbance? I hear the sound of armed men – That clink of metal and armour is unmistakable and they are coming down this side of the cloister. Of course I know what it is. Ever since I refused to burn incense to the Emperor it was only a question of time. And here is the summons. The knock on the door ‘Open in the Name of His Imperial Majesty.’ Yes, I am ready, quite ready. Why, it’s Mercurius who’s in charge. Mercurius who was on duty with me at Golgotha, though he wasn’t a centurion then. And our paths have never touched since. We met at the Cross just like those two thieves at either side of that central figure, when one rejected the Christ, and the other prayed for acceptance and was received, so we stood on either side and he went one way and I the other. I’m sorry for Mercurius; he was a good lad. How important it is when we stand by the Cross to realize that we are faced with a tremendous decision, a decision of eternal consequence, and no one dare say that the opportunity will ever be repeated. To pass by the Cross now, when it faces you as Mercurius did, may mean you pass by it for ever. There are decisions to be made at the Cross that determine character and destiny – and there is no evasion possible, for-evasion is itself a moral decision though a negative one.
Yes, Mercurius, I am prepared. Even now I may have a long and painful road to travel before death releases me, but I am in good hands: `Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’
O Lord Jesus Christ, .
Who hast given Thy life to redeem me,
Thyself for my example
Thy word for my rule,
Thy grace for my guide,
Thy Body on, the Cross for the sin of my soul;
Enter in and take possession of my heart,
And dwell with me for ever. Amen.