They are the faces in the crowd, some standing on tiptoe to get a glimpse of this condemned prophet or rabble-rouser, take your pick, as he stands mute before the authorities, as he flinches but never complains against the searing heat of the lashes, as he bears the weight of the beam across his shoulder blades and feels the bite of the sheer mass and the splintered wood.
Some are mere spectators, while others have roles to play. The
centurion keeps watch and sneers under his breath about this crazy Jew and his zealous, ignorant followers. A group of women tag along, scuttling and shuffling in the dusty road to keep up and occasionally offer an encouraging word, a tear of compassion or a cloth to wipe his sweaty, bloody face.
A man stands at a distance, wondering if he should or can intervene. Finally, futilely, he dashes to catch the crossbar before it drives this wounded, gentle teacher to his knees yet again. He is rewarded for his concern by being pressed into service by the soldiers to carry the cross the rest of the way up the hill while the bruised and battered rabbi lags behind.
A woman, his mother, is suddenly at his side, her eyes wide at the horror and helplessness of it all. She is inconsolable but his eyes tell her to let it go, to accept the rest of his journey in the very same, faithful way that she accepted the strange beginning of it. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…
He nods “yes” to her and she knows well this “yes,” has lived this “yes” over and over and over. Blessed art you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb…
At the top, he is pushed to the ground and grabbed roughly by the executioners and guards who, it must be said, are just doing a job. They have no dog in this fight. Below, at the foot of the hill, the women and the others can see a hammer raised high, can hear the sickening crash of metal to metal to bone to flesh to wood. She hears the scream, the cry she knows so well and has heard for so long, the Word incarnate and light of the world who has always looked to her for food, for warmth, for comfort.
She longs to hold him now, to soothe his face with her tears, her hands, her cloak. Oh, to hold once more this child, this man, this God-child, man-child. It is all still a mystery, even to her. And yet she believes, knows it is all true somehow.
He is lifted into place and the crossbar finds its notch, jolts him into place. Pain streams through his body and he feels it all, no divine relief available to him now. He must sustain it all, must see this through to the bitter end. His eyes are closed in supplication and in the acceptance of what he knows must be done, what he was created for, what he was formed and named to be. And at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth…
His breath becomes shallow and barely visible, and yet he finds the strength to pray, to think of those faces in the crowd and those who are yet to be born.
To forgive: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
To assure: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
To take care of those he loves: Woman, this is your son. This is your mother.
To cry out, to give us a reason to do the same: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
To be fully human: I thirst.
To complete: It is finished. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
The faces in the crowd now shrink back in fear and wonder, as a glimmer of understanding flashes through and among them. They begin to discern the injustice, the rash political decision, the utter humility and humanity and gentleness of the man.
And for some, for a select and chosen few, they begin to see the reason, begin to feel the freedom and the grace that emanates from the cross. Begin to see in one clear, shining moment a love that will span the centuries and leave those they will never know in the stunned silence of faith, of adoration and praise. And they know, just as we know, that they will never again be the same. Cannot be the same.
Never again alone. Never again trapped in desperation. Never again lost.
All these images are details from the Stations of the Cross at the LaSalle Retreat Center in Glencoe, Mo., where I attended an ACTS retreat last weekend. This is dedicated to all my ACTS brothers, those who walked the way with me and offered to carry the cross.