The image above looks simply like the shadow of a power pole, projecting as a cross on to a brick wall and that’s really all it is. But its context infuses it with meaning. It was taken in New Orleans during the aftermath of cyclone Katrina in 1995. You’ll notice that the streets are deserted that’s because people have been evacuated. The caption that went with it said that it was a photo of a cross taken on the wall of a building in the deserted 9th ward of New Orleans as aid workers waited to hear if the disaster was going to be as bad as they had feared.
Depending on how you look at it the image could mean many things.
It could be foreboding, the shadow of death awaiting the aid workers. Crosses are synonymous with death in our western culture. Be it rows in a military graveyard on a past battlefield or white crosses marking fatal road crashes on our highways. In roman times it was also equated with death it was a symbol and a very concrete reality of suffering, shame and death, the iron grip of the ruthless power of the roman empire, and symbolic of torture, violence and the worst of our inhumanity.
It may be a question. Why has this happened? God in the midst of what we are going to encounter are you here with us or have you abandoned us. Where are you God?
Or it could be a symbol of hope. The photographer reminded of the presence of Christ with us; The God who in Christ knows our every sorrow and grief. Who offers new life even in the face of death. They are looking at it as a symbol of Jesus presence able to give strength and guidance in the face of tragedy.
In the end I wonder if, in the emotional roller coaster of those waiting to go into the flooded suburbs and devastated districts, it somehow manages to encapsulate all of that. That’s why I find it a very powerful and evocative image. That’s why I often revisit it on Good Fridays. It sums up for me the paradox’s that we find in the cross and Jesus death. It refocuses me again to sit at the foot of the cross, both in the narrative of the gospels and in the realities of our everyday lives over two thousand years later.
It’s at the foot of the cross that we see the tragedy of our brokenness, and the fallen-ness of Humanity. That no one is right, no one is innocent except for Jesus. The religious authorities had convened a mock trial, with trumped up charges and false witnesses. Jesus was to be sacrificed to keep the status quo, with the Romans. He did not defend himself or cry out against them. Sadly down through the ages in Europe this has been fuel for the fires of anti-Semitism. And we religious people have proven ourselves unable to live up to our ideals and values. The civil authorities in the person of Pilate, when the ball was passed to him, for political expediency was willing to kowtow to the angry mob, even though his wife had warned him of the spirits stirring in a dream that Jesus was innocent. He was willing to release a known terrorist and sanction crucifying Jesus. The cross itself an example of the worst possible torture we can inflict on a fellow human being with death often measured in days of pain and shame, designed to show the dominance of the Romans over their occupied territories, and the futility of active resistance. It could be easy to point the figure at this display of corrupt power and oppressive regimes and without seeing ourselves there. But yes we could whisper a whole list of twenty first century examples. It’s harder to not identify with the crowd who had cheered and hoped as Jesus had entered Jerusalem only days before now willing to cry crucify him, crucify him. We could easily identify with the fickleness of the masses, it may seem trivial but just ask the black caps. But everyone shows their brokenness at the foot of the cross. Jesus own disciples had deserted him and fled. Judas had betrayed Jesus with a Kiss. Overcome with remorse he had turned to the religious authorities for forgiveness and they had turned him away, filled with despair he had hung himself. Sadly he didn’t look to Jesus. Peter had said he would never leave Jesus, if Jesus was going to die then he would die as well. In the garden he couldn’t even stay awake to comfort his friend, and as Jesus faced the powers and powerful denied knowing Jesus three times before the most powerless. At the foot of the cross “God’s searchlight shines in every dark corner of the human heart exposing the sickness in us all- and most of this exposure starts with Jesus followers.”
It is also at the foot of the cross that we see the extent to which god in Christ identifies with humanity.
Matthew’s Gospel starts with Jesus being giving the title ‘Immanuel- God with us’, Joseph is told that this title from the book of Isaiah refers to Jesus. In Jesus John tells us the word became flesh. The question that we ask is how far does that with-us-ness of God go? Maybe we’ve all had experiences of fair weather friends, or seen even loved ones and family bail out when the going gets too hard, walking away in the face of addiction or tragedy. But at the foot of the cross we see extent of God’s with-us-ness and love.
In Jesus birth and ministry we see Jesus identify with the poor and the lowly, dine with the outcast and ostracised, embrace the leper clean. In his teaching we hear the grand invitation that God’s kingdom and love is for everyone. At the cross we see to what extent Jesus will go to make that a reality.
At the foot of the cross we see Jesus identify with our brokenness and sin. Not emulating it but willing to take it’s consequences on himself. In Jesus prayer in the garden he talks of a cup that he will drink, that it is God’s will. The cup he mentions is the cup of God’s wrath from the book of Isaiah and Jeremiah. God will pour out his wrath not in blind rage or as punishment, but to turn the tables, and give the wicked a taste of their own medicine, to in the correct use of the term teach them a lesson, to change their ways, and to set the captives free and to give a fresh start, with the slate wiped clean. On the cross to heal our brokenness and darkness Jesus drinks from that cup.
Now at the foot of the cross in Jesus we see God identify with our shame. Some of you come from what sociologists call shame cultures. You’ll understand this. You are aware of how what we have done wrong or simply where you are from or who your family is can lead people to be ostracized; made to feel not only bad and guilty about something but less than human as well. At the cross Jesus identifies with this. He is shamed, spat upon and beaten by the soldiers, mocked. He is abused by the crowd, even the offer of a vinegar wine is a sign of mockery and identification with the poor believers. In Psalm 69 it says “I looked for sympathy, but there was none, comfort, but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar to drink.” Instead of the glory due to God for his goodness here Jesus identifies with our shame.
At the foot of the cross, we see Jesus also identify with our questions, our search for reason and our feeling of separation from God in the midst of suffering. Jesus only words from the cross recorded in Matthew’s gospel are the ‘Eli Eli Sabacthani’, So etched in the memories of witnesses at the cross that they recall them in Jesus first language Aramaic. We see Jesus identify with the cry down through the ages of wrestling with the why’s and feeling abandoned and separate from the presence of God. “My God MY God, why have you forsaken me?”. Has God left us and deserted us why does this happen to us. It is not a cry of misunderstanding, Jesus was well aware of the purposes of God in this, but the physical pain was less than the ache of feeling cut off from the father, whom Jesus said he was one with. It is not a cry of despair, a falling at this final hurdle, it is still the affirmation of My God MY God. It is like the psalm, Psalm 22 that it quotes a bold assertion of faith in God even in the face of death and the total absence of his presence. A trusting even when God does not respond.
Now at the foot of the cross we see God identify with humanity even to the point of death. Such a total oxymoron, that the eternal should die, that the one who came to give life should lose his life.
But also at the foot of the cross, we see God’s rescue plan at work; The with-us-ness of God and for- us-ness of God at work. We see God’s salvation plan. It would be easy to go away from the cross thinking that Jesus had met with an ignominious defeat. That this good man’ search for justice and righteousness had failed. To think that the taunts of the crowd and gloats of the religious rulers were correct, but Matthew wants us to know right when it seem the darkest, God is at work, Jesus Dearing rescue plan is beginning to work.
AS one commentator (mark Woodley) puts in more eliqently than I ever could.
The curtain in the temple was torn in two, the wall separating humanity from the very presence of God was broken down, and the way for us to come to know God was made. The power of sin and its consequence death were broken. Can I say I find Matthew’s account of the dead rising hard to comprehend? But in the narrative it does go to show how that the power of death has been defeated.
We start to see the effects of the cross for you and I. That our sins are forgiven, the price has been paid, that the shame we find ourselves hostage to is taken away and we are invited into God’s very presence. There is the reality of freedom and new life. Even the boundary of ethnicity is bridged, the gentile centurion seeing how Jesus died is the first to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus. “Surely this man was the Son of God”. The revolution of God’s grace the early church would soon discover would jump all ethnic boundaries, between Jew and gentile to form a new people of God. In Christ we are forgiven and free we are forged in to a new community a new people.
At the foot of the cross we encounter amazing grace, wholeness and new life. Let me share a short video clip that puts that into the real lives of real people, one I cannot watch without tears in my eyes.
At the end how do we respond to this...
When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the prince of glory died
my richest gain I count by loss
and pour contempt on all my pride
were the wole realm of nature mine
that were an offering far too small
love so amazing so divine
demands my soul,
my life, my all.