Meditations on Jesus' Words During His Suffering:
by Priest Symeon Elias (Robinson) -copyright 1996
(This article is an examination of the cries from the Cross, and some of the meanings one priest gives them. Originally written in 1996 as lenten articles and complied and edited for limited distribution in the fall of 2001.)
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
The First Cry From The Cross of Christ:
The First Cry From The Cross of Christ:
In this season anew we prepare for the celebration of the coming of that flash of blinding light, the Divine Light, flashing in the tomb where only angels and God himself observed. This season, as we prepare we call to our memory the vivid picture of events that led to that Glorious Day; we remember his suffering. Without the reality of the Suffering Jesus, we are robbed of the meaning of the Cross; we are left with only a Cosmic Christ - just a sort of Zeus, another demigod unaffected by real human pain and the weakness of mortality. Then it would be easy for us to label Jesus as demigod on the one hand or simply as a "wisdom teacher" wrongly caught up in circumstances out of his control. People still make these mistakes two thousand years later, unable to view the reality of that flash of blinding light. Of course Jesus was a “wisdom teacher” the prototype of all wisdom teachers who spent years teaching the most foundational things. Christendom has a habit of forgetting he was that too. Those of "mind sciences" who like to remind us that Jesus was a "wisdom teacher" tend to forget he was also the Jesus who suffered, who taught - with the ultimate instrument - extreme passion and submission to death. They cannot brook those words, "I AM the Truth, the Life and The Way." They say, "Surely there must be other truths, other ways, life has to be diverse and not singular."
By Faith and Vision we may stand next to the Cross and see these events, in a way suffer with Him, OR, we may stand far away from the events, so as in fact, not to be faced with the mortal fear that Jesus' followers felt that faithful night and day. In fact we can stand so far back that we are not asked if we know Him. How many of us have felt awkward in this secular world when some stranger asks us, "Do you know Jesus?" We can stand so far back that we can be analytical and philosophical and examine the events, study and judge their historical veracity and the "philosophical meaning of the 'myth'." We can stand so far back that the event loses all reality, and like so many, think of God as dead, disconnected to life, to earth, to the events of history, to us. The treatment given these events by Post-Christian "theologians" proves that they have been desensitized to its view, or have never truly gained its sight. They don't have to stand warming themselves with Simon Peter by the fire in mortal fear as Jesus is being abused in Herod's court or need to run into the darkness in shame, as Saint John Beloved and others did. Their attack on the veracity of the Cross is a darkness and shame they are too obtuse to grasp.
We are "blessed" that we can follow these events from a distance of 2000 years. Yet in reality there is no distance for those who believe. There is a reality of the Cross, which is brought to the heart of all those whose hearts are governed by God’s reign, immediacy generated by the power of the Holy Spirit that will carry us to the foot of the Cross, to kneel in the presence of the Suffering Jesus and be challenged and changed again and again by this event. There is a reason we celebrate its wonder annually in Lent, with such intensity in Holy Week, and at other times with the elevation and veneration of the Cross.
For whatever reason, from childhood I could not read the passion stories of the Gospels without them offending me, shaking me to my core, as if it were my own family, my own brother or father who hung there; such was the kinship felt in a young innocent heart. If you can see the Cross, and it touches you in your deepest being, you know what I mean. If this idea sounds strange to you, read on and allow the Holy Spirit to take you on that journey of faith, to the foot of the Cross, in clear sight of the suffering Jesus, to the seminal event of all human history. Without the Power of the Holy Spirit making the event of the Cross real, it would just be the execution a "hero" figure for whom we hold little sympathy. I’ve never felt a tug on my heart for Socrates as he drank the hemlock, for instance, except the common sympathies of humanity, like the sympathy for an abused pet. No, here this event is different. With humility, reverence and devotion, if we choose, we may stand next to the Suffering Jesus, walk with Him and die to our old-selves, one more degree, when He dies and experience the reality and truth of our Christian Heritage.
So Pilate bowing to the wishes of the mob, released Barabas a revolutionary and murderer and in his place he ordered Jesus to be crucified, bowing to the wishes of the Jewish rulers and the mob. And as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, as he was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might carry it behind Jesus. Two things are important here, Jesus was so weak he fell, and Simon “a Cyrenian” was pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross. The early church fathers said that this symbolized Jesus passing the cross to the martyrs.
And a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also were mourning and lamenting Him. But Jesus, turning to them, said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming in which they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs which did not give birth, and breasts which did not nurse!' Then they will begin 'to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us!' and to the hills, 'Cover us!' For if they do these things in the green tree, what will happen in the dry?"
Three men bend under the weight of their crosses, sweating from exertion and nerves. They are forced to carry the instrument of their torture, closer and closer to the hilltop where their humiliation will be complete. This is a form of torture reserved for those of the worst sort and for those who cry for freedom under the yoke of tyranny.
Crucifixion is a very public death, not like public hanging which is over in a matter of minutes, its suffering stretches into hours and for a physically strong man, who had not been beaten and left bleeding, it could last for days. These long hours (days) of suffering on a cross are meant more for a "sign to others" than intent to execute. The person eventually dies, but the agony makes a statement. The Romans learned from experience that there was nothing that humbled the resistance like the spectacle of nailing a person to a tree for a few days of horror and agony.
Jesus walks in weakness, weaker than the others because he has been suffering loss of blood for hours. Do not think that the shock to his body was any less than it would be to any other human? The nature of humanity, calls for the preservation of the body - and it takes extraordinary courage to overcome that "fear for the body" which is its natural self-protection mechanism. Any soldier who has ever shook in foxhole or feared to push the next piece of brush back in a booby-trapped-jungle, or feared to kick-in a Jihadist’s door knows the fear the body can generate. I’m such a weakling, I know the tension I experience just awaiting a dentist appointment! I can’t grasp the fear that sweat drops of blood in the Garden, or experience a prayer so intense that every ounce of nerve energy, gasp of breath, pounding of heart and strain of muscle rejects the content of that prayer, at odds with the human will, screaming for a way out. Nor can I imagine the love that pressed on despite this torment, waited like a lamb for the traitor’s kiss. Yet, I know even in this weakness, sadness and fear, were our eyes to meet it would be too much for me. I look away not wanting to see the welts, the black and blue marks, the swelling from some terrible beating, there under the blotches of blood that is now His forehead, underneath the clots in His hair, underneath the gashes made by the thorns, I know that there is the witness of Eternity, eyes with tears that hold sadness, pity and peace in an anomalous way - - in the confusion of the scene, in the gross violence of the acts, in the ugliness and shame - those eyes are pools of peace, compassion, and love, capable of rending the heart of any man who truly sees. Those wonderful eyes haunt my living in a terrible and wonderful way, I am not ashamed to say.
Boorish men laugh and spit - and not only men but women also, it being great sport to witness the torture and death of murderers, thieves and political dissidents. These sad scenes bring out the animal pack-mentality in humans too quickly. Like wolves surrounding a wounded lamb we have seen the scene repeated tens of thousands of times, at public hangings, the guillotine, the electric chair, modern gangs, klan lynchings, Mohammedan beheadings. In modern times we mistake the absence of the mob for a new civility, but it is not so, for we live in the bloodiest century of all known history, a holocaust of not Jews only, but Armenians, Ugandans, Ukrainians, Cambodians, Ethiopians, Somalians, Serbs, Croats, Greeks, Egyptians . . . the list goes on and on, the Christians lead to slaughter. The "modern" mob, in the West, is crowded around the blinking boxes in their living rooms, having a front-row-seat at the coliseum as humanity suffers genocide after genocide. We have become dulled to it or we would be crying prayers for humanity, for the suffering of the helpless and innocent in myriad places, even now, even this moment, even in our own countries, cities and towns. IF we could see, we might sweat drops of blood. Even now, many are sweating blood; Blessed be the Name of the Lord.
Some of the Priests’ soldiers and some of the Roman soldiers have a sickness in the pit of their stomach as if they are caught in a great wrong. Yet they trudge on, under orders, but they too, feel as if they are walking toward their execution. Some who later became Saints and Martyrs were newly walking towards their own executions, they just didn't know it yet. They are wishing for the day to end, maybe even praying to their pagan gods for the events to be complete. It is the same blank stare that we saw on the faces of the bombing victims and relief workers as they were surrounded by the carnage on September 11th 2001. It is the same shocked look we have seen time and time after natural and man made "events."
The crowd is loud, heaping insult after insult. From our vantage point we can view the faces contorted in anger and derisive humor. We can see the wild-eyed, whose secret selves feed on this carnage, but every once-in-a-while we see a face in shock, a face drained of all blood, lips still and gray, eye blank or quietly weeping; it is the face of those who intuitively know something is terribly wrong. Isaiah saw this scene, the man whose "visage was marred more than any man." This from the Hebrew text; the LXX gives this reading, Isaiah 52:14ff “Behold, my servant shall understand, and be exalted, and glorified exceedingly. As many shall be amazed at thee, so shall thy face be without glory from men, and thy glory shall not be honoured by the sons of men. Thus shall many nations wonder at him; and kings shall keep their mouths shut: for they to whom no report was brought concerning him, shall see; and they who have not heard, shall consider.” Others saw it coming also, including Jesus. But still in the Garden where he was praying before they came to take him away he is the healer, the peacemaker; a man who defies the oppressor, not by curses and attack, but by showing the oppressor the full import of his oppression, a visual - lived example - . . . such example being the Reality to which all true faith leads. We still see it, and in our gut, know its truth, yet - we question what it means - - - and what it means to be human. But this scene tells us what being human means, for in it we see the best and the worst of men, in clear relief and they are us.
The nails are not "nails" but iron spikes almost as large as are used on railroad cross ties; two smaller ones for the wrists and a single larger one through the feet. I will not go into the gory details to describe the particulars of the injured and broken veins, torn tissue and destroyed nerves - but these spikes were driven through his flesh and he was not removed from the pain of it. "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, thus He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation His justice was taken away, and who will recount His generation? For His life is taken away from the earth." But his calmness cannot be read as an "emotional removal from the scene" or a numbness to the pain. Even in the pain, Jesus is "engaged." We know because the sick feelings of the executioners, the shame of their work, the unexplained guilt they are feeling pulled at Jesus' heart and he said, "Father! Father! Forgive them; for they know not what they do."
The Greek word which Saint Luke uses describing this prayer is "elegen" not "eipen." It is the imperfect indicative tense and means He "kept on saying it." I was so disappointed at Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, though I was very proud of Mr. Gibson for making the movie against all odds, against the objections of Anti-Christ abounding in the common culture; what disappointed was how little Jesus said. Even though we have recorded in the Gospels only these “Cries from the Cross” the Greek texts makes it clear he had much more to say, He said, “Father! Father! Forgive them; for they know not what they do – and he kept on saying it.” An accurate translation should say! As the first spike cut through the wrist, one or more soldiers holding his arm in place, another holding the spike, he or possibly another wielding the hammer; and at each blow, just like we pray for his mercy in the Jesus Prayer, Jesus prayed repeatedly, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." It was said to the Mob, to all the people caught in the events, the innocent "actors"; the soldiers, the cross makers, the blacksmiths who made the spikes, the laborer who dug the foundation hole where the cross would stand. That prayer is for all the peoples of this earth who have been caught up in events that are larger than they are. It was said for the foot soldiers of every war. One famous theologian said of this prayer, that "this was perfect Justice." But in this I find a human arrogance, and hear the words, "I desire more than Justice, I desire Mercy." So this first cry is not a statement of "perfect Justice" but of clear and loving Mercy, extracted from Jesus' heart by the need of his torturers. It is the same Mercy shone humankind from the beginning in a mystery; that mystery being Jesus Christ the "Lamb who was slain before the creation all worlds."
If in these meditations we can remind ourselves of the Orthodox understanding that Jesus was Truly Man and Truly God, that he was not present as a "super-man" but as a real man, who really suffered, we do well. I know something of this moment. It is not scriptural, but it is human - truly human - human in our best qualities. Inside the anguish of this moment, inside the pain and humiliation, there is a truth that is shocking . . . Jesus gained "relief" from his suffering when his heart flowed with compassion for these people caught in this event. The second that compassion swelled in his heart for his tormentors, then HIS TORMENT BECAME LESS. There was the flow of love, inside a scene from hell, and that hell was overcome for the moments he was repeating that prayer over and over again. It wasn't Jesus "the God" standing aloof from the suffering that had "need" to forgive. It was Jesus the Man, the Truly Natural Human, the Human without strain of sin, whole, fully compassionate, who could not hold anything against these men. They were innocent actors carrying out the orders of a state government, which God Himself had allowed authority to rule. If Jesus the man had held "account" against these men, it would have been sin! Jesus the man had need to give these men his human forgiveness before he died; fired though it was of Godly energy, the presence of the Holy Spirit. Such Mercy is the Path to Justice. Such Mercy is the opposite of having grievance and holding debt. What a precious lesson to learn that to kill selfishness is the lesson of the Cross, and the road to change. Yet we sit back in our Pride and hold grievance after grievance. We see the entire world through our distorted selfish lenses and demand civil justice, and social-justice. We militantly rant and rave at those we view as our enemies, those who we think hate us, or misunderstand us, or those who in ignorance, or knowingly, hurt us. We in our anger and resentment are putty in the hands of the manipulative politicians and every kind of political action committee. All they have to do is tap into our hatred, resentment, and prejudice and we "act." In this exercise we walk ourselves into a night of bitter darkness, where all life is colored by "the cause" and every man and women is our friend in 'the cause" . . . . .or our enemy, who is opposed to the cause. We have seen this mentality in people claiming to have "the cause" of Orthodox-ism, or Romanism, or fundamentalism, liberalism, or conservatism or pro-life-ism, or social-political rights-ism, ethnic rights-ism, feminism, and those with agendas for homosexual-ism. Unless an individual is willing to forgive his oppressors, his tormentors, even his executioners, he can have no sympathy for them. Without sympathy for one's "enemy" the chance of changing him or ameliorating his behavior, tempering his prejudices, or any other positive step toward peace and understanding is impossible.
Had Jesus cursed his tormentors - derided their politics - railed against the injustice of his death, these soldier would have felt totally justified at causing his pain, suffering and death. It would have been all in a normal day's work, they would have been just conquering another deserving enemy. In this lesson from the Cross, Jesus underscored the truth of the positive prayer he taught us to pray, "AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US." "AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US." "AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US." "AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US." "AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US." "Forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors."
To the soldier who struck him in the face - to the Jewish mob - to the solder who draped him in purple - to the artisan who scrawled the sign KING OF THE JEWS - to the artisan who formed the cruel crown of thorns - to the people who taunted him - to the people who took pleasure in his suffering - even to those who cooperated with the negative force of this world and actively set in motion the event that would kill him - to Pilate - to Herod - to Judas, to the Pharisees and Sadducees - even to these he said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." They thought they knew. They each had their "cause" that had led them into that dark night of bitterness, but in truth they were blinded by their "causes" and they did not know what they were doing. And to us, who two thousand years later still think we know, and in our state of arrogant ignorance still cause the circumstances of conflict, persecution and war, He says even to us, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord" John the Baptist said as way of introduction to this story. Jesus in his life, ministry, suffering, and death showed us how that preparation is done - - - "As we forgive those who trespass against us."