If I Be Lifted UpFr. Barnabas Powell
The old saying is “There ain’t no way to put lipstick on a pig.” It meant that no matter how hard you try, you can’t make a horrible situation better by pretending it isn’t “all that bad.” It just doesn’t work. It’s like the awkward conversations with those who have had a family member pass. It seems all our words to “make everything OK” just sound shallow and even dismissive.
It’s that way when we talk about the Cross of Jesus and His brutal crucifixion. Especially in this age of shallow sentimentality where everything that is “bad” or potentially “upsetting” has to be recast as either something it isn’t or dismissed altogether so that we don’t “offend” anyone. Well, tough! The Cross is an offense. The Cross is upsetting. The Cross is the crux of human history that divides human history at the very place where God gave His only Son to save humanity. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t pleasant. It is meant to shock and shake you up and wake you up to the horrors of rebellion against God and His greater love for you to overcome that rebellion with love!
no matter how much our childish and narcissistic age tries to soften the blow or hide from the horror, they will always fail to tame the history-changing moment when God in the Flesh ascended the wood of the Cross to battle death to the death! And I’m glad they failed. We should be able to see clearly the ignorant and foolish cowards for who they really are.
Look at our lesson today in John 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, 30:
At that time, when the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called the Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.
But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. Then when Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
This central message of Christ going to the Cross for our salvation is a message that history shows humanity has tried to either dismiss, diminish, or deny. The Jews of the Lord’s day said He couldn’t have been the Messiah because of the shameful way He died. Later Muslim theologians would insist that Jesus didn’t die on the Cross at all; instead, it was, through a miracle, that Judas was substituted on the cross instead of the Lord. In our own modern ages, there are those who run the gambit of denying Jesus even existed to actual theologians (so-called) who insist that the crucifixion of the Lord proved He was a failure.
What motivates such a wide range of reactions to the Cross of Jesus? Well, I’m sure there are many. But the main motivations are Shame, Pride, Hatred, and Fear. Shame, in the sense that if Christ was truly the Son of God then we humans are perpetrators of the greatest crime in history! The crucifixion of Christ displays for all to see the depths of the ugliness of humanity without a life-giving relationship with God. Pride, in the sense that we humans arrogantly turn away from our own responsibility for the darkness in the world. Hatred, in the sense that we humans hate having the mirror of selfless Love held before us and seeing the depths of our own spiritual needs. Fear because the fear of our own mortality drives most (if not all) of our self-centered choices. Our fear of death poisons our ability to take on an eternal perspective. But Jesus, by entering into death, even death on a cross, destroys death BY death!
But the good news is that the Cross isn’t the end of the story. If it were then this would be just another tragic morality tale told to get us to shape up our behavior. But the Resurrection places the Cross in the Light of victorious LIFE, and that changes everything.
Today, let’s abandon the fruitless attempts to take the “sting” out of the Orthodox Christian message. Let’s face the ugliness of the Cross with the Resurrection in mind and forever understand that God loves us so much that He destroyed “death BY death.” In the Cross we see God taking the ugliest of human weaknesses and destroying everything that keeps in that horrid prison. It’s the Cross that makes us Normal Orthodox Christians!
P.S. Lifted up on the Cross by Your free will, Christ God, grant mercies to the new commonwealth that bears Your name. Gladden our faithful rulers by Your power, giving them victories over their adversaries. May Your alliance be for them a weapon for peace, an invincible standard.
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