It happens all the time. People get arrested. We are used to the sight, whether we see it be as we drive by minding our own business, or watching it on tv or the internet, even from the perspective of someone recording it with their phone or playing back footage from law enforcement. We are used to it. Unless we are the actual victim, instead of being traumatized, we are more often worked up emotionally.
Individuals get executed. We are used to reading about it, following the appeals process, the back and forth legal arguments about drugs used to administer lethal injections, photographs of the convicted on death row. And when it’s over, for many of the curious, their life goes on as usual.
During the time of Jesus, arrests and executions were part of daily life. Although oftentimes cruel, it was nothing particularly unusual for someone who lived in the Holy Land two thousand years ago. A daily walk in and out of the city, along the roads, guilty or innocent, you would pass by dead and half dead bodies hung on crosses. They littered the landscape with billboards displaying what offense they committed. Back then, you would have probably learned to keep your eyes down and move on.
The same was true regarding the slaughtering of animals at the temple and the smearing of blood on the altar. Jewish pilgrims continually arrived in great numbers at the temple of Jerusalem. Some brought their own livestock to be slaughtered and sacrificed as the price of sins committed. Others bought an animal in the temple market. Even when Christ had disrupted the buying and selling of the sacrificial animals a few days before, it wouldn’t take long until they got back to business as usual again. The point he was making was quickly forgotten.
There was even, to all appearances, nothing unusual about Christ’s crucifixion and public execution. Every week leading up to Good Friday and every week thereafter, someone was being nailed to a cross and crucified. Mangled bodies, blood-drenched crosses, hanging corpses. Unfortunately, that was the usual sight people were so used to. If you had seen one, you saw them all.
Our familiarity with the cross, even the figure of the crucified Christ, is today something that we are very much used to. It is displayed on buildings both outside and inside. We represent Christ’s crucifixion visually in art, fashion its image into fabrics and jewelry and adorn our holy places with it. We are used to seeing it.
Historically, there is nothing unusual about a man being arrested, tortured, and crucified to death, be he innocent or guilty. We are used to that by now. What is unusual and unique is that this innocent and sinless man secretly planned his whole life towards the hour of his death by crucifixion by being slaughtered on the cross. Why?
We can easily say, "Because He loved us". But many have and are willing to die for the love of someone. No doubt, during Christ time, many were crucified because they put their family, their nation, their loved ones first before their own lives and were willing to pay the price. We might say that He was doing the will of His Father. And of course, He does. But Christ’s death on the cross was not a lesson for us in obedience, come what may. In fact, the Romans used the cross to teach obedience.
So why is Christ’s cross and His death so different from everyone else’s, so unique in all of history? A clue takes us to what he did a few days back with his arrival into Jerusalem and what he did in the temple that sealed his fate on the cross. He forcefully drove out the money changes and the animals being sold for slaughter. He was telling us in more words than one, “All these ritualistic sin-offerings - this is over. You don’t need to sacrifice these animals any more to be cleansed from sin. I am your sacrifice. I am all you need to take away your sins. I am the sacrificial lamb. I, not these dumb beasts, these burnt offerings, I must be slaughtered in sacrifice because I alone, through my body and blood, can cleanse deep all the sins of the whole world."
For you and me to be cleansed of our sins, it is not simply enough that Christ freely went to His death on the Cross as the eternal Passover lamb. We get that right in our sacred images and spiritual reflections. But in order to be cleansed of our sins, we have to literally be cleansed, and cleansed deeply. That is why Christ’s death was so horrific. To disentangle us from the messiness of our sins, God had to plunge Himself into the sewage of fallen humanity and quite literally pull us out. His precious blood has to mix with the filth of our sin in order to wash it away. If we don’t allow him, we are passive onlookers, observing from a distance without getting our hands dirty. That's now how salvation works. It's messy for you and for Christ.
How does this happen? “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life within you”. Our engagement with the sacrifice of Christ and the cleansing of our sins takes place at this altar every Sunday, the day of hope.
When we approach the Cross of Christ we might say in our hearts “You died to take away my sins. I am sorry you had to, but I am grateful you did. I do not want to prolong your agony as you fight to save me. Rescue me. With your help, I will sin no more.”
Dare to look up.