“This is the King of the Jews.”
That was the sign that they put on the cross. The cross on which they killed him. The worst part is their words were true. Their words were true words. This is the King of the Jews. But the distance between the lips that spoke those words and the intentions of their hearts was great. So when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him.
The one they called King of the Jews.
The people’s actions betrayed their belief in, their allegiance to, another King. Herod or Rome or the expectations that they had for Jesus that Jesus wasn’t living up to. Messiahs were supposed to be warriors. God at war for God’s People. Jesus failed that expectation: like a lamb that was lead to the slaughter, so he opened not his mouth. This is the King of the Jews?
Messiahs were supposed to look like Judas Maccabaeus, who, 165 years before Jesus, led the Jewish revolt against the Syrian armies, achieving victory after victory, killing tens of thousands, culminating in the triumphant reentry into Jerusalem and the restoration of temple worship - the festival remembered today as Hanukkah.
Messiahs were supposed to look like Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who, while the Jewish people languished in Babylonian exile, overthrew the Babylonians in 539 BC and restored the people of Israel to their land.
These were warriors, great victors, messiahs! Agents of God fighting for God’s People.
“Behold, the King of the Jews,” Pilate offers. But no one is taking him seriously. Not even Pilate.
To be fair, Pilate tries to release him. Offers the Jews release of one prisoner; wonders out loud if they don’t want this king.
Do you remember the name of the man that they call for? Barabbas. His name literally means, “Son of the Father” - a man wanted for insurrection and murder. In other words, a man not unlike Maccabaeus - a potential war-hero. Suddenly, the people have a choice between kings - both claiming to be sons of the father - one promising the blood of the oppressor through power and force; one giving his blood for the forgiveness of sinners.
Barabbas’ victory over oppression will require that he be more oppressive than Rome. Another word for vengeance. Jesus’ victory over oppression will require the vindication of God - what only God can give - resurrection from the dead: victory over the powers without using those powers, lest the powers that destroy merely change hands. Barabbas’ victory depends on his instilling the fear of death in his enemies. Jesus’ victory over death entails the freedom to forgive his enemies.
This is the King of the Jews.
And in every day after this choice between kings, this fork in the road, we are left to fight the temptation of this moment, Christ on trial before the powers: the temptation to speak the truth in a way that betrays the truth, so vast is the distance between the words of our lips and the submission of our lives to the King who died on a cross. King of the Jews. What can it mean to submit our lives to the King who died on a cross?
Brian Volck, a Catholic pediatrician from Cincinnati, Ohio writes that, as Christians, “moreover, we’re supposed to emulate this king, to pick up our own crosses and follow him, presumably to the point of forgiving the guilty.”
The difficulty of forgiving the guilty is not lost on Brian. He goes on to assert that “[only] lunatics would do such a thing – lunatics like Dom Christian de Cherge’, one of the seven Trappist monks kidnapped and killed during the Algerian Civil War. Though the so-called Armed Islamist Group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and murders, the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remain unclear. Only their heads were recovered.
Brian says that “Dom Christian knew such a grisly death was possible, perhaps even likely, in the increasingly dangerous environment where these Trappists lived as witnesses to Christ, servants to the people as their Lord served them. In anticipation [of this possibility], he wrote a “testament,” to be opened in just such an event.” This is what Dom Christian wrote:
“‘If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?’
“In the last paragraph of his testament, Dom Christian directly addressed his then and still unknown murderer:
“‘And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this thank you and this adieu to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.’”
Happy good thieves. If this Christ is King, then this is our place. The thief on the cross, seeking the forgiveness of the Crucified King, extending to others the forgiveness, the mercy, we find there.
Brian goes on to write that “I never want to face anything like Dom Christian’s test of fidelity to the Crucified King. I almost certainly never will. I expect my trials will be vastly more manageable and infinitely less painful. Yet I tremble at the thought of witnessing even a hundredth portion of Dom Christian’s forgiveness and acceptance toward the several who annoy me and rouse my passions. That, however, is where we are called to go, bearing our considerably lighter and all but invisible crosses in witness to our king.”
What do you think? What if the sometimes abstract idea of taking up my cross begins with the utterly concrete practice of my forgiving the ones who hurt me? Knowing that I am only able to forgive because Christ first shed the cup of forgiveness for me. What do you think?
I remember somewhere far along the dating path with Rebekah a particular day that left us both nervous. We knew we loved one another; we had even begun to broach the subject of marriage - life joined to God and one another - with each other, and to delight in the prospect. But Rebekah had a concern that stopped us both short: “If we keep getting closer,” she said, “and I want to - but if we keep getting closer...” She paused. “I know I’m going to hurt you. And I don’t want to hurt you.”
Thank God that the forgiveness of God means the ability to forgive one another and so also the courage to risk even the kind of love that makes us vulnerable - that hurts. Thank God that the forgiveness of God makes it possible to be truthful and present with God and one another.
What an unexpected gift.
I don't have to tell you that it doesn't have to be this way. One can imagine, for example, what a Barabbas marriage might look like - love without forgiveness - love that hinges on power over, fear of, and back-up ammunition; where intimacy is coerced and guarded and abrupt.
Still, you and I rejoice to have been invited to a different kind of wedding: the wounded King forgives us as he calls us to the feast: the table at which he is both the dinner-host and meal. “Take, eat, this is my body.” “This is my blood; for the forgiveness of sins.” The Crucified is also the Risen King. Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.
Like happy, good thieves.