Alone thou goest forth, O Lord,
in sacrifice to die;
is this thy sorrow naught to us
who pass unheeding by?
Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord;
make us thy sorrow feel,
till through our pity and our shame
love answers love's appeal.
This is earth's darkest hour,
but thou dost light and life restore;
then let all praise be given thee
who livest evermore!
Give us compassion for thee, Lord,
that, as we share this hour,
thy cross may bring us to thy joy
and resurrection power.
Peter Abelard, trans. Bland Tucker
II Jesus is given his cross
He gives himself again with all his gifts
And now we give him something in return.
He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,
Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,
And from these elements he forged the iron,
From strands of life he wove the growing wood,
He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion
He saw it all and saw that it is good.
We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,
We took the axe and laid it to the tree,
We made a cross of all that he has made,
And laid it on the one who made us free.
Now he receives again and lifts on high
The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.
III Jesus falls the first time
He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion
And well he knows the path we make him tread
He met the devil as a roaring lion
And still refused to turn these stones to bread,
Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,
This darker path into the heart of pain.
And now he falls upon the stones that bruise
The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.
He and the earth he made were never closer,
Divinity and dust come face to face.
We flinch back from his via dolorosa,
He sets his face like flint and takes our place,
Staggers beneath the black weight of us all
And falls with us that he might break our fall.
Christianity never blinks at gritty historical facts. Crucifixion was one of the most hellacious and disgusting modes of death by torture invented by the mind of fallen man. It is no wonder that the cross was, says St. Paul, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.
Michael D. O'Brien has a novel called Theophilos set at the time of the early church. It's a bit too gruesome for me to want to read it repeatedly, but one thing O'Brien brings home is the horror of crucifixion. The protagonist, a Greek doctor, is utterly shocked when he finds his servant praying with a crude cross held before his eyes. He asks how his servant could possibly make that an object of reverence. Yet it is by this instrument of torture and death that we are saved. As the proper preface for the Cross says,
[T]hou hast established the salvation of mankind upon the wood of the cross; that, whence death arose, thence also life might rise again: and that he who by a tree had conquered, by this Tree might likewise be overcome.
The "he" who had conquered by a tree is, of course, the Devil. The tree/Tree comparison was beloved of the Medievals and survives into this bit of the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic liturgy.
Jesus' trial(s) and crucifixion also provide several of those undesigned coincidences that help to establish the historicity and eyewitness sources of the gospels. Here is just one out of several from the trials of Jesus alone: When Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, Pilate is goaded by the Jewish leaders to crucify Jesus on the allegation (a lie) that Jesus has been forbidding to pay taxes to tribute and has been attempting to set himself up as a king. (Another note about historical verisimilitude: This is exactly the sort of thing the Romans cared about and would have been a canny accusation to bring if one wanted to get someone crucified. In contrast, the charge before the Sanhedrin in the previous chapter was blasphemy.) Pilate goes to Jesus and asks, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answers, "You said it." In other words, "Yes." Pilate, as recounted in Luke, goes back to the crowd and says, "I find no fault in this man."
On the face of it, this makes no sense. Jesus appears to have confirmed the accusation that he is a threat to Rome.
If we turn, however, to John (18:33-38), we find the conversation recounted at much more length. There Jesus does affirm that he is a king but explains at some length that his kingdom is not of this world. It is after that that Pilate goes out and says that he finds no fault in Jesus.
Luke writes with the unconcern for stopping to explain every little bit that characterizes truthful reportage. The oddity in Luke, explained by the fuller scene in John, is well explained by the hypothesis that Luke was working with a personal source who was very close to the scene but did not bother to mention every detail and that John was either an eyewitness himself or recounting the scene as told by an eyewitness who happened to give more detail of the conversation. The lacuna in Luke, explained in John's account, is evidence of independence between the two accounts and of the veracity of both. It is just so that witnesses of an actual event give their testimony in a court of law and just so that their testimony locks together like a puzzle and completes the picture from independent sources.
Oh, yes, I didn't mention, did I? John leaves out the accusation that Jesus had committed sedition against Caesar! In other words, in John's account, Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" for no apparent reason. Again, these gaps filled in by one another are the mark of independent accounts of the same real event.
I repeat: This is just one such coincidence from the accounts of Jesus' trials alone.
The Catholic theologian Jean Guitton reported a conversation with a physician named Couchoud, who said, "All the Creed is true, except under Pontius Pilate." Obviously, Couchoud meant something rather creative by "true," and his point was to deny the historicity of Christianity. Nothing could be further from the approach Christianity itself encourages us to take. As I have said elsewhere, Christianity, alone among the world's religions, connects the prose and the passion--the deepest desires of the human heart and the sternest demands of the human mind. Christianity affirms, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell, and the third day He rose again from the dead."
There is no separation between the great truths of the Gospel and the prosaic truths of history, between the massive miracle of Jesus risen and the all-too-human, bureaucratic hand-washing of a harassed Roman official two thousand years ago.
A holy and blessed Good Friday to all.