And they passed by
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Good Friday, April 2nd: Psalm 22; Isaiah 52:13—53:12; John 18:1—19:42; and Hebrews 10:16-25. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is the day that Jesus dies on the cross. Mark tells us that Jesus is crucified at 9AM, that the skies grow dark at noon and that Jesus dies at 3PM. The church building will be open for private prayer and meditation from 11:45am – 3:15pm. Please come by and share in the sacred space of Jesus’ house.
Today’s selected Gospel is extensive. It is John’s Passion account. But today is a day that should be marked with solemnity, silence and acts of piety. It is a day on which spending a bit more time with the Bible is not a bad thing. In this reading, we hear that Pilate places a titulus on Jesus’ cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
John wishes to place all the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion squarely on the Jewish authorities as you can sense when reading the Passion, which means that he attempts to ameliorate Pilate’s role. Accordingly, the titulus is treated reverently as if it were Pilate’s tacit agreement that truly Jesus is the King of the Jews (cf. 18:36-37). This is most definitely a theological colouring of history.
The titulus is the standard practice of listing the charge of the condemned. The Romans abhorred insurrection against their authority, and they made examples of those who dared to challenge the Empire. This emerges and is coopted into John’s Passion account with the accusation of “You are no friend of the Emperor” (19:12), which is used to force Pilate’s hand. If we wash out the theological colouring, what is left is the straightforward charge of Jesus’ insurrection, an insurrection that brewed for the three years since Jesus’ riotous disruption of the Temple – for remember in John this occurs on Jesus’ first Passover visit to Jerusalem (2:13+).
We are told that many read this inscription “because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.” (19:20) Imagine this scene. Jesus hangs in agony, suffering through a torturous, slow, public display of His death. Above His head is nailed the titulus. People passing by pause to read. People on their way into the city to prepare for the Passover celebration pause to read. Gentiles hoping to make a profit off all of these pilgrims pause to read. The soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ last possession, His tunic, and they must have paused to read. The Jewish authorities complained to Pilate because of what they paused to read.
And yet beneath the titulus hangs Jesus, dying. So many people paused to read its inscription and then passed by, then went about their ordinary business. This apathy must have added to Jesus’ suffering. These were the people Jesus loved and dedicated Himself to for a lifetime, and they passed by the extraordinary scene of our crucified God. We have today the chance to right this wrong. People today will continue to pass by, but rather than judge them, why don’t we right this wrong by making the conscious effort to spend time with Jesus today, to consider the ineffable love of Christ for all people when He even accepts the cross?
It is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews that “since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh) … let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Jesus allows us entry before God by opening symbolically the curtain to the Holy of Holies. Mark shares the tradition that the Temple curtain was torn after Jesus died and Luke the same tradition but before Jesus dies. Hebrews adds its own theological colouring to this detail.
The curtain is Jesus’ body. With its sacrifice, the curtain that separated the holiness of God from the profanity of creation is opened. Jesus’ death is the final testimony of Jesus’ life that we are invited to come close to God, that we are so loved by God that even the death of the Son is not too high a cost to pay.
We have been invited to “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Let us not merely pass by on this solemn and sacred day. Let us today respect Jesus’ eternal sacrifice by the act of remembering.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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