The Death of JesusApril 9, 2004, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
It was now about noon," Luke says, "and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed." It is the fruition of Jesus' words in the garden at the beginning of this terrible series of events: "This is your hour," Jesus had told the crowd of priests and elders and police who came to drag him away after his time of prayer in the garden. "This is your hour, and the power of darkness!" And so it is: this time is literally the hour of the power of darkness, as even the sun falters at the sight and fails to shine down upon the spectacle of God's Son being executed. It is an ironic reminder of what the Psalmist once said: "The heavens are telling of the glory of God, and the firmament declares his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard, yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." That is what is happening here during these hours of darkness: the heavens are telling of the glory of God, and they are telling that the glory of God, the Light of the World, is being extinguished on a cross outside Jerusalem. There is no speech, nor are there words, but their voice goes out through all the earth: "darkness came over the whole land."
It is hardly the first time that there have been signs in the heavens related to Jesus. Thirty or so years earlier, on the outskirts of a different town, a group of shepherds were huddled against the cold during what had been a typically dark and uneventful night. But suddenly the night was pierced by a blazing light, the glory of God shining down around them, and a noble figure appeared before them saying, "to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." And while they cowered in the fields with that divine light still cascading over them, an army of heavenly beings appeared as well, singing "Glory to God in the highest heaven!" Divine light upon divine light coming down out of the heavens, chasing away the darkness and wrapping these stunned shepherds in the physical reflection of God's presence and purpose, which was entering the world in a child to bring hope and healing and reconciliation. Later, on his first trip to Jerusalem, when his parents took him there to be presented in the Temple, the light of God was associated with Jesus himself. A righteous man named Simeon took Jesus in his arms, lifted him up, and witnessed to the light of God which Jesus embodied in prayer: "my eyes have seen your salvation," he exclaimed to God, "which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." But here, thirty and some odd years later, we have what seems to be a reversal of those glorious, beautiful events surrounding Jesus' birth: "darkness came over the whole land."
Yet the story here is not in the darkness itself, anymore than it was in the visitation of the angel and the heavenly host in the birth narratives. These things are reflections and signs of the central action that is happening in and to Jesus. The point is not the light going out of the heavens, but rather that the heavens both mirror and emphasize the Light of God in Jesus Christ going out of the world. Indeed, the scene Luke paints is remarkable for how withdrawn and spartan everything actually is; Luke takes pains not to let the supernatural elements of the drama get out of hand, and the actual power of darkness isn't very powerful. He makes a special point of attributing the rising darkness to the failure of the sun--an extraordinary event, to be sure, but one that falls under the power of God, not the power of evil. This darkness of the heavens, this failure of the sun's light, is God's handiwork. Darkness has no independent existence or power; its power is negative, the absence of light, and that power evaporates instantly as soon as the light appears. Any child who has ever been afraid of the dark can tell you that. All sorts of terrible things can happen in the dark, but one flip of the light-switch chases away the darkness and robs it of its power.
The human activity seems to mirror that of the heavens: receding back into darkness, quiet and still. The noise and the chaos of torture and trial and taunting have all subsided. The enemies who have flocked all around Jesus since the beginning of this ordeal have disappeared into the shadows, leaving him to his ignominious end on this hillside. The two criminals being crucified with him have fallen silent, perhaps absorbed by their own work of dying. And those who are present (the centurion, the crowds, and Jesus' acquaintances who stand at a relatively safe distance) all stand motionless and mute. The only human activity is a collective and silent watching and waiting, wondering how exactly this charismatic prophet-healer will die. Will he plead for his life? Will he curse his enemies? Will he complain to God? Will he accomplish one last miracle of some kind? But they don't take any steps to either provoke him or comfort him; they simply watch and wait in the wings. In terms of action, Jesus seems to have the stage of Calvary to himself, as the last act of his life plays out in this scene.
But Jesus knows that isn't quite true; he knows that he isn't alone. In the gathering darkness, as he can feel the last threads of his life fraying and falling away, he calls out a prayer in a final burst of energy: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," quoting a Psalm about confidence in God's redemption from one's enemies. And having said that, he does it: breathing out his last breath as if literally expelling his spirit, trusting God to the last to receive it. There is no alienation between Jesus and God here, no sense of abandonment. Jesus' enemies do not get to take away his life, much as they have dedicated themselves to do exactly that; Jesus gives away his life, placing his death in God's hands just as he placed his whole life in God's hands. God is not distanced from, unaware of, or indifferent to the terrible events occurring on Calvary. Rather, God is directly in their midst, hearing and answering Jesus' prayer of self-commendation as he breathes his last.
And with that, everything begins to change. There, in the unnatural twilight, it is as if some kind of switch has, in fact, been flipped; those figures and groups who have been passive, while God has not, begin to move and respond at this very moment. Even in this darkest hour, the darkness has not eradicated the power of the light, which is suddenly refracted into the hearts of those observing the scene. Right here, right now, on the dark slopes of Calvary, before Jesus' body has even been removed from the cross, much less before the empty tomb will be discovered in three days, "the light for revelation to the Gentiles," of which Simeon spoke, suddenly dawns upon the centurion who has watched all these things happen: he responds to what he has witnessed by praising God and saying "certainly this man was innocent." This centurion commits treason on the spot, publicly declaring that his government has just executed an innocent man. But he does more than that. The word he uses really means "righteous" or "just," which is something much more positive, much more substantive than mere absence of legal or moral guilt. He suddenly knows that this man embodied God's righteousness, and he glorifies God because of it. It's an extraordinary scene: there, at the foot of the cross, with the sun still blotted out and Jesus' body still hanging limply in the shadows, this centurion looks up, raises his arms to the heavens and praises God for the life of this Righteous One whom he has just helped to execute.
He does not respond alone. The crowds who had gathered to watch Jesus die have a similar reaction. Contrary to our own day, executions in the Roman Empire were quite intentionally open to the public, and they were a kind of macabre spectator sport for the people of the land. Much has been made this year of the brutal violence involved in Christ's torture, crucifixion and death as it has been painstakingly portrayed in the Passion movie. Stories have quickly become legion of audiences overwhelmed by the horror of such unrelenting violence, with theaters filled with sobs as the credits rolled. That is patently not what is affecting these crowds as they return home beating their breasts; they were quite used to such displays of violence, for death by crucifixion was an all-too-common sight. Rather, the crowds, too, have seen the light, and like the centurion they are recognizing not only Jesus' innocence and righteousness, but also their own complicity in helping execute him. Now they are beating their breasts, a sign of extreme contrition, for not having recognized him before as innocent and righteous, as the light sent "for the glory of God's people, Israel."
And finally, there is this collection of all Jesus' acquaintances. From them, strangely enough, there seems to be no reaction at all. They continue to stand in the shadows, silently watching and waiting through the entire process. But that, in and of itself, is a kind of repentance. If this group truly is all of Jesus' acquaintances, then it includes those who fell asleep on him during his hour of need in the garden; it includes those who wanted to mount an armed defense of Jesus when Judas and the authorities came to arrest him, provoking Jesus' anger when one lashed out with a sword and wounded a servant; perhaps it even includes Peter, who followed Jesus at a distance when he was led away, yet repeatedly denied knowing him when questioned. All of these actions were ways in which his disciples put their own needs and desires ahead of Jesus, in contrast to what Jesus really wanted from them: simply to remain with him and to follow him, bearing witness to what he had to accomplish. And now, finally, that is what they do, like family members who, after every attempt to bargain and cajole and resist and run away as a loved one wrestles with an inevitable death, somehow manage to bring themselves to the bedside and simply bear witness to the painful passing away of life. That, in and of itself, is a kind of enacted repentance.
For all of that, Easter has not dawned yet; Jesus' body continues to hang on the cross, unmoving and unbreathing, in the shadows. The darkness may not be total or very powerful, but it is real. Yet, it is this juxtaposition of darkness and light, the confrontation with the reality of the Righteous One executed unjustly, that provokes a change in everyone who is present, and prepares all of them for that dawn when the darkness of death will be finally overcome, when the power of that light will be truly recognized. So, the question is: where do you stand on this Friday, in this time of shadow? Are you there at the foot of the cross, suddenly aware, as never before, of what kind of man this Jesus was, innocent and righteous, faithful and trusting in God to the very end? Are you in the crowd that came out of curiosity, not expecting anything extraordinary or different from other similar experiences, but now aware that something powerful has happened and you are involved in some unforeseen way? Or are you already well acquainted with Jesus, and here simply to bear witness to what Jesus needed to accomplish for you and for all of us? Look and see, for there is a place for you here. Claim it, and watch, and wait; for even in this time of darkness, it is but the end of the beginning, and God is not done with Jesus or with any of us yet.
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