Friday, 25 March 2016

Meditations on the seven words of Jesus on the cross

I gave these meditations at the Good Friday service at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point.

I. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

There’s an old Chinese man who does Tai chi every morning at the park near my house. Sometimes I stop and watch him for a while. The precise rhythmic gestures, the sudden sweeping of the arm, the powerful, slow pushing of the hand. It’s beautiful to observe rituals that have been handed down for generations. For centuries this man and his ancestors have performed the same gestures. The old have taught these movements to the young. The young have grown old and taught the next generation.

Sometimes when I watch him in the park it’s as if I’m seeing more than just one man. I also see his ancestors. Their movements are still being performed now in him. He continues to play the part of his ancestors. Their gestures move his body. In a mysterious way, his ancestors are still living.

That’s how the Bible sees our first ancestor, Adam. Adam is raised into life by God’s own breath, he is blessed, he is placed in the garden of Paradise, he is a friend of God, his life is crowded with a thousand joys. But he forsakes it all. He betrays God’s friendship. He hides from God. He is driven out of Paradise.

And every day, Adam’s gestures are repeated over and over by all his ancestors. We keep practicing the same moves, playing the same part, carrying on Adam’s bitter legacy. God watches us. We make our choices, we go our way through life, we get up each morning and play our part, and God has seen it all before: it is Adam, over and over again. Generations come and go. Adam’s faithless gestures are handed down faithfully from the parents to their children.

But our Jesus is the new Adam. He is Adam 2.0. He is a new beginning for the human family. He restarts the human story. He goes right back to the roots of the human condition. He becomes Adam all over again – but with a difference. He corrects Adam’s performance. He changes the gestures. He repeats Adam’s performance, but without the flaws.

What does Jesus do differently? Adam turns away from God. But Jesus turns towards God. Even at his darkest hour, as Jesus suffers on the cross, he turns his face towards God. His first word from the cross is not a word to us or to any human being. It is a word to God. Stretched out against the sky, Jesus seems to be reaching up to whisper in God’s ear. “Father,” he says.

The whole of Jesus’ life is summed up in that word. “Father.” God had spoken to Adam, but Adam turned away. He forgot his God. The whole life of Jesus is one long and dreadful correction of that unfaithful gesture. Jesus turns himself fully towards God. Instead of hiding from God, he opens himself to God. With his whole being he is nakedly exposed to God’s sight. He lives only to do God’s will. Even in his death he will not be alone. He dies into God. He dies in trust. He dies in love. He is frightened and rejected and in pain: but he never takes his eyes off the one he loves. He speaks from the cross, he says the one word that Adam refused to say: “Father.”

II. Today you will be with me in Paradise.

Adam is driven out of Paradise. He is an exile. He wanders the earth, restless and lonely. His children build houses but they can never find their home. They ache to return to a garden they have never seen. They yearn to find a peace that they have never known. They make families, they travel the earth, they build cities and kingdoms and empires. But at the heart of everything is a deep loneliness. We are far from home. The gates of Paradise are closed. An angel bars the way. We can never find our own way back. We can never undo what Adam has done.

Stretched out in agony on the cross, Jesus turns his head. He looks into a human face and says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus has found the way back to the garden. His own life is the way. He has opened the gate. His body is the door. He has gone right back to the start of the human story, back where it all went wrong, and he has made it right.

The criminal beside him on the cross has played Adam’s part. All his life he faithfully repeated Adam’s gestures. And it has led to this. A criminal condemned to die. Exiled from society, cast out, rejected and ashamed.

Jesus looks at this poor banished child of Adam and tells him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Human history began with a great migration, our exile from Paradise. And now the great return migration has begun. We are going home, all of us, every last one of us. The gates of Paradise are open.

The journey home begins with the lowest and the least. Jesus starts at the bottom of the human pile. He is salvaging the wreckage of Adam’s children, one ruined life at a time. The first one back to Paradise is a criminal. The last are first, and the first are last. But the great pilgrimage back to our true homeland has begun, and no one will be left behind. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

III. Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.

The Lord God loved the man so much that one day in the garden he put him to sleep and took a part of him and from that part made woman. And Adam loved her and called her Eve because she was the mother of all who would live.

But what a sorrowful mother! Her firstborn son became the first murderer. Cain, the first child ever born into this world, killed his brother Abel. From that day on, the human family has been one long trainwreck, a nightmare of violence and distress. Brother rises up against brother. Parents are alienated from their children. Families divide and turn against each other. Each tribe hates and fears all the others, even though nobody can remember why. The great war machines of the nations consume the mothers’ sons. Young men strap bombs under their clothes and detonate themselves in the presence of their brothers.

The Bible says that the whole human race is one family – but what a family! Poor Eve, condemned to be the mother of a family like this. Poor Eve, carrying such bitter sorrows in her heart. Mother of tragedy. Mother of grief. Mother of a world of sorrows.

From the cross, our Jesus looks down and sees his mother standing with one of his friends. “Woman,” he says, “here is your son.” And to his friend: “Here is your mother.”

Riddled with his own pain and grief, Jesus is thinking of his family. He is thinking of his friends. A woman is losing her son today. He gives her another son. The company of Jesus’ followers are a family now. They are the human family made new. Jesus has gone back to the start, back to the roots where it all went wrong. He has gone back to mend our sad and sordid family tree.

The last verse of the Old Testament promises that one day the Prophet will come who “will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” On the cross, this word is fulfilled. On the cross, the human family gets a brand new start. “Woman, here is your son.” What a terrible joy is in those words! The Blessed Virgin Mary has found a son – but she has had to lose her own son first. She has gained a family – but at what cost! “Woman, here is your son.” In those words, the mother’s heart is shattered and healed at the same time.

Now the human family is restored. Now the hearts of the children are returned to the hearts of the parents. Now poor Eve can find relief from all her sorrow. Now her sons can learn to love one another. Now we can start to live. “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.”

IV. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We have a new ancestor and a new beginning. That is good news. But the good news comes at a great cost.

Jesus has to repeat Adam’s story. He plays Adam’s part. He becomes like Adam in every way, except without sin. The death sentence that falls upon Adam falls also upon our Jesus.

Jesus is exiled so that we can return home. He loses his mother so that we can find a family. He falls down into darkness so that we can rise into the light. All of us now can look into the face of God, naked and unashamed. But Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus doesn’t march triumphantly back into the Garden of Eden to put things right. He has to return to Paradise by the same road that Adam took. If someone ties a very complicated knot, the only way to untie it is to do it in reverse order. Adam has tied the human family up in knots, and Jesus moves backwards through Adam’s story, unraveling the knot of faithlessness, following Adam’s path back to the point where it all went wrong. Jesus suffers his way back into the garden. He walks the road of exile all the way back to our home.

Jesus takes into his own heart all the loneliness of the human spirit from the beginning of the world. He takes into his own heart all our restlessness and bewilderment. He suffers the devastating weight of Adam’s exile from Paradise. He is cast out. The whole world has forsaken him. The earth itself seems to reject him: he hangs suspended against the sky. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

For one terrible moment it seems that even God has turned his back on Jesus. To Jesus, the gates of Paradise are closed.

The criminal beside him is coming home. But Jesus is alone: more alone, more abandoned than anyone has ever been since the day Adam first left the garden. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

V. I thirst.

The human being is “a hungry animal” (Alexander Schmemann). When God makes Adam in the beginning, God makes him hungry. He puts him in a garden filled with food. He tells him to eat whatever he likes. The whole world will be his food. And one day, when he has learned and grown, when his friendship with God has matured, one day he will eat from the tree of life and his deepest hunger will be satisfied forever.

But Adam falls for a piece of fruit. God gives him an opportunity to exercise his freedom. God gives him an opportunity to grow, to respond to God with trust and friendship. One forbidden tree in a garden filled with food. One forbidden fruit: Adam eats it. He is driven from the garden. Now he will never taste the fruit of the tree of life.

Now Adam wanders the earth, forever restless with a hunger that cannot be filled, forever tormented by a thirst that can’t be slaked.

All this is reversed when Jesus returns to the garden. Jesus refuses the temptation to turn stones into bread. Jesus says that his true food is to do the will of his Father. He looks out on the crowd and sees their burning human thirst. And he invites them, “Whoever is thirsty, come and drink.” He tells them that his own body will be bread for them – a bread that’s even better than the manna in the wilderness, because once you taste it you will never get hungry again. He tells them that his blood will be a drink for them – and once you drink it you will never thirst again. No longer does the human heart have to be tormented by hunger and thirst.

But all this comes at a great cost. Jesus retraces Adam’s steps. He feels in himself the gnawing hunger of Adam. He feels in himself Adam’s burning thirst. On a hill outside the city, the second Adam cries out from the cross: “I thirst!”

And from the beginning of the world until the end, no one will ever have to thirst again.

VI. It is finished.

The tragedy of Adam’s story is that human history ends before it ever began. It was all over just when things were about to start. The history of the human family is like a train derailed just as it’s leaving the station. “It is finished.” For all I know, Adam might have said those words as he walked out of the garden and the gates swung shut behind him.

“It is finished.” There is nothing left to look forward to now. Our best days are already behind us. We ache for a home that we’ve never even seen. From one generation to the next, we keep waiting for life to begin. But each new generation is born into a world that’s already finished. Hanging over our sad history is the sign, “It is finished.” We can’t read those letters at first, so we arrive in this world full of hopes and dreams and expectations. But as we grow older we learn to read the sign. We discover the sad truth, that before we ever got here our world was already spoiled. It is not young and new. Our best days are not ahead of us but far behind, and there is no way back.

And now all the sad wreckage of our history has piled up on this day. All our hatred and violence and stubbornness and faithlessness are gathered in a heap: and planted on that heap of rubbish is a cross. Human history has done its worst now. Now we’ve really exhausted all our stupidity and rage. We’ve used it all up and there is nothing left. Our history ends here, on Good Friday, at the cross.

Our Jesus knows this. He looks out on a sad and ruined world. He feels its bitterness coursing through his tortured body. He cries out, “It is finished.” The trainwreck of Adam’s history ends here. No further. No more. Never again. It is finished.

But the wonder of the cross! This ending is a new beginning! Because Adam’s journey ends here, the journey of the new Adam can begin. The whole human story has a new start. Now at last our lives can begin. Old things are passed away, everything has become new.

It is finished: it is only just begun.

It is finished: and now, for the first time, the world is fresh and young.

Our lives start here, where his life ends.

VII. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

The sayings of Jesus on the cross end where they began, with one word: “Father.” With the last breath that he can draw, Jesus wants to pronounce his favourite word. With the last strength he can muster, he wants to raise his eyes to look one last time into the face of God. Lingering on the boundary between life and death, he concentrates his entire being into a single act of trust. His whole life culminates in this act and in these words. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Jesus has lived before the face of God and he will die in God’s presence. Even on the cross he holds God’s gaze, even as he dies he will not look away.

He has done it – he has found the deepest source of Adam’s fall. He has located the root of it all. He has retraced all Adam’s weary steps right back to the first false step. A failure of trust. God loved Adam, blessed Adam, walked with him and gave him friendly promises. But Adam did not trust. He made his heart small.

Jesus, our second Adam, trusts God with every breath. He is naked before God’s sight, totally vulnerable, totally exposed. He keeps nothing back. He cracks his heart wide open to make room for God’s promise.

“Father.” He is dying now, but he savours the word one last time. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Now our lives can begin. Adam has lost his hold on us. Let us put on the new Adam. Let us learn his gestures. Let us imitate his performance. Let us throw ourselves naked into the will of God.

Today the sinner is forgiven.

Today the exiled heart returns to Paradise.

Today the broken human family is restored.

Today all who were forsaken are embraced.

Today our deepest thirst is quenched once and for all.

Today the world has ended, today the world begins.

Today, best of all, God is near, inviting each of us to say, with Jesus: “Father.”


Ryan Dueck said...

Thank you for posting this, Ben. Your words here are good, true, and filled with hope.

Fat said...


Anonymous said...

Do you think the story of Adam and Eve is an analogy?

Elizabeth and John said...

Why must we see the death of Jesus just through the lens of Adam? Or through the alleged fall? It seems that this is a very Pauline lens to interpret a very synoptic story.

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