At noon darkness came over the whole land till three and at three Jesus shouted in a loud voice "'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'" which means "My God, my God, why did you forsake me?"
- Mark's gospel
"So intense was the suffering of Jesus before and during his crucifixion that the early Christians could not bring themselves to depict it...It will take the early Christians four centuries to bring themselves to portray the crucifixion of their Messiah...
This central fact of Jesus' life, his grisly suffering and death, traumatized the first Christians; and even though it was the central reality they had to contend with, they could not look at it directly."
- Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills
As with the early and not-so-early Christians, so it is with us. His suffering is the central reality we must contend with. Can we look at it directly? Or will we, yet again, forsake him in his passion?
I quote again from Cahill:
"...we have to imagine a grove of huge poles set up in a central thoroughfare, where any day as we pass by we may see fellow citizens pinned to the poles with great iron nails, pierced through their joints, ripped open and left to be drained of blood as if they were animal carcasses...The crucified men, twisted, bloody torsos stripped for all to see, anti-Adonises, writhe and grimace most horribly in their pain. Delicate citizens pass by quickly with averted eyes...Not only their clothes but what John the Elder calls "the pride of life," the rightful pride that every man (especially a man as young as Jesus, in his early thirties) takes in his own body and bearing, has been stripped from these utterly naked men."
I was a young pastor. It was the first Easter I would celebrate with this group of dearly beloved people. We were making preparations for the season. This focusing on the weeks and days approaching Easter was not something they were accustomed to, but they were following my lead. I asked a couple of the men to construct a cross for the sanctuary. My directions were "make it rough." And they did. Their creation was not some gnarled monstrosity, but rather two rough-hewn-weathered planks nailed together. I said "perfect."
It went up on a Sunday morning and nothing much was said. I didn't expect there to be. The cross speaks for itself. And this one must have spoken loudly because I walked into the sanctuary the following Sunday to a surprise. The two rough-hewn-weathered planks nailed together had been entirely covered in artificial Easter lilies. There was not a rough-hewn sliver to be seen.
I was a young pastor. It was the first Easter I would celebrate with this group of dearly beloved people. I was young, but I was not stupid. I left the cross as I found it that Sunday morning - lilyfied. A group of women had gotten up early on the first day of the week and labored in the predawn darkness to make our sanctuary delicate, victorious, something to sing about.
It's tempting now, as it was then, to make that experience about those dearly beloved ladies. It always is, isn't it? In our rabid fascination with the phrase "it's not about me," we abort moments of spiritual transformation. Why? Because the easy thing to do is to say it's about someone else or "that message was tailor made for so-and-so." The hard thing is to wrestle with what it has to do with me. And it always has something to do or to say to me. Because in that young, first-Easter-pastored moment, it was about me. It was about what God's carcass and the rough-hewn planks and the lilyfied cross were saying to me:
I am your central reality. Regardless of what other delicate citizens do, can you look at me directly? Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.