Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday in Holy Week

Jeremiah 11:18-20 / Mark 14:32-72; 15:1-46

And they forced one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by out coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and of Rufus, to take up His cross.

According to the heretical Gnostic Gospel called the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, as in all Gnostic error, it was not in fact Jesus who suffered the Passion and Death on the Cross, but another. Jesus, according to this view, remained altogether free from harm, to his scornful delight of the wicked and their impotent frustration. Indeed, according to the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, it was not merely that Jesus did not endure the Passion; it was another who did so in his place. According to this dark and damnably misguided text, that person was Simon of Cyrene: But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.

This is, of course, a terrible error, one which would divest the Cross of all of its power. It is also one with a fairly long life, one which found its way into another, far more widely dispersed text, the Qur'an (4:155-157) — And [We cursed them] for their breaking of the covenant and their disbelief in the signs of Allah and their killing of the prophets without right and their saying, "Our hearts are wrapped". Rather, Allah has sealed them because of their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few. And [We cursed them] for their disbelief and their saying against Mary a great slander, and [for] their saying, "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah ." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain. Even admitting that there exists a tradition in the reading of this verse that does not insist that the crucifixion itself did not happen, for most of the Muslim past and present, God is understood to have rescued Jesus from the Cross, and, in a terrible inversion of the Man of Sorrows bearing the sins of the whole world and healing us by his stripes, to have had another, made to resemble him, die in his place.

Although we must reject these claims, Gnostic and Muslim, as grave error, we would do well to consider what would make such kind of error so attractive to people who, at least on their own terms, seek to honor God and Jesus Christ as the one he has sent into the world. How easy is it for us to witness not just anyone, nor merely someone good, not simply someone both good and altogether innocent, indeed not only one good and innocent, but also sent by God to lead us into all truth, but God himself to suffer such petty, vindictive, pitiless, and tragically all to common and routine violence at the hands, in one and the same time, of his own beloved people and of a foreign people who had no reason to wish him any ill?

In the face of such stupefying indignity, we incline to one of two places. We might want God, at the last minute perhaps, or chuckling to himself all along as the Great Seth's Christ is said to do, to turn the tables on the evildoers and mete out upon them the gory horror they had prepared for him. Our sentiment, even if bloodthirsty, has its echo in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah: But Thou, O Lord of Sabaoth, Who judgest justly and triest the reins and the hearts, let me see Thy revenge on them: for to Thee have I revealed me cause, O Lord my God. Let it be someone else — Judas Iscariot made to resemble Christ, Simon of Cyrene, the earthly man whose body had been used for a time but now discarded by the Christ — let it turn out to be anyone else but God who suffered! Let not those hands, the very hands of God, be pierced with nails, nor let the human flesh of the divine Word be torn by cruel scourges. Let it not, we cry out, be God who cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. Or, if it must be the Son of God made flesh who so suffers, let us be able to do something about it. Let us, like one of his disciples, draw a sword and strike those wicked servants who sought to take him with swords and staves as though come out as to a robber.

Jesus, however, will have none of this, and Gospel truth denies us any way around the Cross, the awful terrible, and yet all the more sublimely beautiful love of God himself, bloody and broken upon the wood at Golgotha. We can play our part, of course. We can repent like Peter, slip away reduced to nothing but our nakedness like the unnamed disciple in Gethsemane, attend in tearful vigil with the holy women, or use our riches and influence to promote the reverent devotion to the Lord like Joseph of Arimathea. We may even, like Simon of Cyrene, be forced to help Jesus carry his Cross.

What we cannot do apart from his doing it in us, is die as he did. As close as Simon the Cyrenian came to partake of the Passion, his was ultimately the same role of the others: to witness the glory of God, and to be transformed thereby. The Cross is not simply and indignity suffered by a good man in a wayward world, a good from which we would hope to free anyone we love, and most especially the Lord. Nor is the Cross a moral model writ large, a terrible lesson for each of us to repeat. No, the Cross is most truly what God has done for us. It is God's way of inaugurating us into his life, to die to our old selves by being made one with him, and if one in him in life, then one in him in death and the rising to new life which will surely follow.

May Thy mercy, O God, free us from the least return of our old nature, and enable us to be formed anew unto holiness.

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