On Easter morning, when the women stumble through the pre-dawn darkness with their oils and doubts, their ointments and spiced grief, the angels will ask them, “Why do you seek him here? Jesus is not in the tomb. He has risen.”
Even more so tonight, as we stumble through our prayers of pride and confession, and doubt spiced with hope, they might ask us, “Why do you seek him still upon the cross, and dying? He is not here.” But then neither are they. We come to the cross when even the birds have fallen silent under the darkening sky, and the angels have withdrawn into heaven to weep.
But we come less for his sake than for our own, don’t we? We come to confess. We come to make amends. We come to bear witness to all the times that we didn’t come: when we turned our backs on misery, when we failed to bear witness to pain, even pain we had a hand in. We come, creeping in from the margins of the picture, hoping to pin our sin to his cross rather than to bear it on our own. We come with our what-ifs and what-abouts, our eyes cast down from the reality reckoning with us from the cross. We come with the sin we have no idea how to make clean: the irredeemable loss; the irrevocable injury. We come with our impotent hands, unable to grasp the whip from the soldiers and stop the unholy warfare we elected when we conspired with the empire instead of God’s kingdom.
We come not to glory in his death, but out of fear of our own; and not only, nor even the death of our bodies, may they never endure such pain as his; but the death of our souls, the diminishing returns of our humanity, the erosion of love and the weary wearing away of compassion. On the cross, we see the destitution of our humanity, what it has come to, that we would sacrifice Christ to keep an unquiet peace, and pile on the death of God to weight the scales of injustice. We see where it could all end up, if we would prefer the false peace of unequal empires, an indefensible and offensive defensiveness, instruments of death to a way of life that makes us vulnerable to the demands of love and of mercy.
We come to wonder at the passion, the fierce and uncompromising love that kept Jesus from capitulating to the kind of craven temptations that assault us day by day, tempting us away from the way of love, back from the brink of self-sacrifice. The death of Jesus was the ultimate victory of love over selfishness, and yet we come to the cross to mourn.
We come creeping in from the edges of the picture, our hands full of nails and our hearts fuelled by fear as much as love; we come to the cross when even the angels have fled, and the songs of the birds have been stilled by the cold cloud that has blotted out the light of the world.
Yet even in the shadow of his death, the death of hope, the death of God, we find a table set for us. There is nothing new here. Our meal is of leftovers, the remnants of last night’s Last Supper, crumbs of old grace, the lessons learned long ago: Love one another, turn away evil by doing good, love God. The hope for our humanity rests still in these stale crumbs, moistened on our tongues and turned back into food, remnants of love. Even at the foot of the cross we make our meal out of hope – bread and wine – his Body and Blood.
This is the mystery of faith: God has forsaken the scene, yet still the shepherd leads us. Christ has died, yet still he feeds us. The story has not ended well, but it is not ended yet.