At the end, as at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was subjected to the taunts and contempt of the tempter. The voices that surrounded him invited him to abdicate his position as one of us, Emmanuel, God with us; to become, instead, God without us, without humanity, without vulnerability, without compassion.
At the end, as at the beginning, Jesus resisted the temptation to abdicate his place as the Son of Man, the Messiah, the hope of the nations and the glory of his kingdom. He chose the cross, not, let us be quick to qualify, not to sanctify it, nor the powers of death, but to defeat them; not by taking on the instruments of death, nor even deploying armies of angels, but by denying them.
Even at the end, he refused to collaborate with the ways that punish and oppress instead of working to repent and repair and to reconcile: he forgave them, despite their spite and malice, their perverted power. He wouldn’t even give them credence: “They know nothing,” he said, “of your ways, of what is, of what will be. They know only their own sin and death.”
One of the other prisoners, condemned like Christ, for who knows what, nor whether he was guilty of it all; one of them was angry, contemptuous, understandably bitter. He wanted better from God, from God’s Messiah, from the man hanging next to him, suspended between life and death, heaven and earth, kingdom and empire. He wanted a rescue and a rout, and if not, he could see no point to the man hanging next to him, humanity incarnate, mortal, and vulnerable.
The other saw something else. Astonished out of his sourness, he heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness, and as incredulous as the other, but otherwise, he wondered, “Is that for me, too?”
Jesus said, “Yes. For you, too.”
The first one, he was included in the prayer that Jesus uttered for forbearance, but in his bitterness he failed to grasp it, missed that last taste of grace that might have made death less unbearable. He was still forgiven, by the Saviour’s prayer, but he took no comfort from it, because he could not see the way of the cross, only the way of the crucifiers.
The other saw and understood the lengths that God would go to to confront our violent ways, and to subvert them, to invert them, to defeat them with love and with life.
We make our choices every day, at every crossroads we come to. The way of the cross is not a formula: always go straight, always turn right, or left. It is a series of small decisions. Have you noticed how often, in his ministry, Jesus was distracted and diverted from his intended route by the needs of others, by the demands of grace, and the deliverance of mercy? Whether it was stopping to tell a parable to a questioner, friendly or hostile; or the provision of a miraculous meal when the desert seemed empty of bread (he resisted that temptation on his own account, but he would not leave his people hungry); or the turning in the crowd to find the one who had needed healing, to assure her that he was with her, that his love and his power could not be stolen, freely offered as it was.
We are faced with choices every day, whether to notice the needs around us or to ignore them; whether to assert our privilege, our rights; or the needs and dignity of another; whether to be human, and vulnerable, or to act like little gods.
At every crossroads, the question confronts us: which way lies love?
Take a simple trip to the grocery store. We know the way.
But (if we are able-bodied) do we take the first legal parking spot nearest the door, or leave it for someone for whom the extra steps are more of a slog than a health benefit?
If the cashiers are stretched and stressed, do we huff and puff our impatience, or offer a word of kindness and empathy, a break from the negativity that goes with long lines?
If there’s a two-for-one sale, and we have the means, do our eyes light up with the chance for a bargain, or the chance to relieve the hunger of another, through the food pantry?
Do we bring our reusable bags, for the sake of the planet and our local environment, littered as it is with plastic debris, or complain at the inconvenience of being appointed the stewards of creation by our Creator?
Do we stare at the stranger or step between them and the hostile glare of the other: today, you are with me?
Do we pause in the parking lot for the gaggle of underdressed teenagers running through the rain, or drive past in a swoosh, intent on our own concerns and generational disapproval?
Such small things may not seem to add up to a discipleship, or a way of love, but if we are not faithful in the small things, how will we ever learn how to find the way of love, the way of the cross, when we find ourselves lost at a crossroads, without signpost or a map, wondering which way to turn?
The two criminals on the crosses next to Jesus may not have been paragons of virtue; still, one had enough practice in humanity to recognize, in the pain of his neighbour, a solidarity of suffering that allowed him to hear the words of forgiveness, the words of grace, which were the power of life in the midst of death.
Christ, the king, practised his power through mercy, wielded his authority through healing, effected justice through forgiveness. Is this the kind of king we want for ourselves? Or do we, with the first man, demand rather than God incarnate, the incarnation of our all-too-human pride?
As I wrote elsewhere earlier this week, the crown that Jesus wore beneath that mocking sign was woven out of thorns; but the thorn bushes themselves recognized their creator and their king. Had they not yielded their green suppleness to the hands of the soldiers, they could have made nothing. Creation knows its king, and bows to his reign. May we have the pliancy, the constancy, the love to do the same; to crown him with our very lives, who has loved us into life itself.