From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,
‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
When some of the bystanders heard it, they said,
‘This man is calling for Elijah.’
At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said,
‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said,
‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
Today the Church ponders the horror of the Cross. Despite knowing what happens next we are appalled by this shameful method of execution. Stripped naked, slow asphyxiation killed the victim who tires of the agony of lifting himself up to breathe. A dreadful lingering death – to encourage others to obey the might of Rome.
Chagall’s painting demonstrates this horror but sets Jesus’ death amongst pogrom and persecution. For Chagall Jesus was just another Jew who had been persecuted. We, as Christians, might turn it around and say that Jesus is killed again and again in his people in places where we are persecuted for faith, politics, gender, or sexuality. Still Jesus is hung on the Cross as he suffers with His people.
The Church has always wanted to find meaning in Jesus’ death – to theorise about atonement and make sense of senseless brutality. I must confess many of these theories leave me cold as they seek to explain mystery at the heart of the Godhead. As the Father grieves, Jesus dies, drawing into the life of God’s own self the suffering, pain and inhumanity of our world. In the face of that mystery all theories are partial.
Chagall hoped the Russians would save the Jews persecuted by the Nazis; his hopes, and those of the Jewish people, were cruelly dashed. We hope to find salvation in politics, economics or military might. Today we realise that salvation is found in Jesus’ love, weakness and, seeming, failure.
Saviour of the World, help us to find you when we are in pain, when we suffer and when we feel that we’ve failed.
Help us to see you in your suffering people, and enable us to work for the coming of your Kingdom when all pain will cease, and all tears will be wiped away, and all failure redeemed. Amen
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland’s Southside Cluster