You are Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and you’re dying.
The pain—not just from the nails in your hands and feet, but also in your shoulders, your back, your legs—is indescribable. The noonday sun is unmercifully hot. All around you, the soldiers, the religious leaders, the crowds, shout and laugh and chatter. Everything is heat, noise, confusion. . .and pain.
What are you feeling? Fear? Shock? Betrayal?
One thing you’re not feeling is surprise. Somehow, you knew your life would come to this moment.
You had come into the world to save it, to save us. You came to show us God’s overwhelming, everlasting love for us. You came to tell us that eternal life awaits us—that all we must do is follow what you said and did, by loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
But to get your message across, you had to oppose what faith had become. Over the centuries, we had misunderstood God. We had turned God into a strictly partisan convenience, someone who loved only the people we loved and hated the people we hated.
Our faith had become a worship of power, desperate for signs of earthly authority and approval. Our faith kept the privileged in their high places and let the powerless and vulnerable fend for themselves. Our faith had become addicted to rules for their own sake, rules to maintain the status quo rather than to overturn systems of injustice and oppression.
You knew that when you opposed our faith, it would lead to trouble. You think back now on what was virtually your first act as a public minister: you went to the Temple in Jerusalem, the central headquarters of our faith life, and you created a disturbance. You made a whip of cords to drive out the moneychangers and the people selling sacrificial animals. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” you cried.
Right from the start, the religious leaders were indignant. You offered them love, and of course you love them still. But you could see how they felt in their faces: how dare you, they thought. Who do you think you are? We are the ones in charge here.
There were so many clashes between you and them. You brought sight to a man born blind, and they criticized you. You extended understanding to a woman in an adulterous relationship, and they wanted to you condemn her. You tried to tell them you are the Messiah, and they picked up stones to hurl at you. Then, when you confronted them with their desire to harm you—when you asked flat-out, “Why do you want to kill me?”—they acted like you were crazy.
You are a man slow to anger, but thinking of those battles with the authorities angers you still. It angers you not because of pride, not because they wouldn’t listen to the words you spoke. But because their, and our, mistaken understanding of faith was leading people astray: it was creating guilt and despair rather than reconciliation and love. At times our faith was like a bizarre mirror-image of God’s Truth—we got things backwards and brought suffering rather than hope. You even told your disciples, there will come a time when people will kill you, and they’ll be convinced they’re serving God.
Of course, there were some who tried to understand and follow you. You think now of Nicodemus, a leader among the religious authorities, sneaking under cover of night to see you so he wouldn’t be found out. You can picture him, so frightened, so troubled, but with a thirst for knowledge of God that was beautiful.
Despite the pain you’re feeling now, you almost smile as you think of Nicodemus. Poor man, you didn’t make it easy for him. You talked to him in poetic language of heavenly things, of being born in the Spirit, and he blinked and stared and was confused. So finally you summed up for him your entire message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
People always were misunderstanding your words, it seems. Even your closest disciples. You would urge them to strive for spiritual nourishment, and they would think you were talking about bread. Sometimes, you would see the vacant looks on their faces and think, what language do you hear when I speak?
Peter was like that. Always so bold, so impulsive, but then he would stumble and make mistakes and get things wrong.
You think back to your final supper with your followers—was it really just last night?—and Peter’s rash proclamation that he would lay down his life if ever you were threatened. You had to set him straight; you foresaw that not only would he not defend you, but he would say he didn’t even know you, not just once but three times.
As you remember that moment, there is love in your heart for Peter. You recall the hardships he and your other followers have been through: the long, dusty days walking from town to town; the times there was not enough to eat; the moments when the pull of the crowds would make everyone anxious and overwhelmed.
You recognize that Peter betrayed you because his courage failed him, so you cannot condemn him. Instead, your love for him continues.
Still, where is he? As you struggle against each brutal wave of pain and endure the mocking and angry crowds around you, you feel very alone. Where is Peter? Where is Andrew, Philip? Where are Mary, Martha and Lazarus?
These last three are perhaps your dearest friends, the ones closest to your heart. Mary, the passionate young woman who showed her devotion to you by washing your tired, well-traveled feet and drying them with her hair. Martha, so industrious, so blessed with a sense of hospitality, but also so anxious about everyday worries and concerns. You recall the times you had to calm her, to reassure her that she is loved in heaven and so it doesn’t matter if the floor isn’t swept or the stew turned out badly.
And Lazarus. Lazarus occupies such a special place in your heart. When his sisters got word to you that he was ill, there was a moment when you pictured those bright eyes dimmed, that strong young body still and cold; the thought was intolerable. Then, when you and your followers finally arrived in Judea only to find Lazarus was gone and had been laid in the tomb, you were overcome. You had to weep, and you heard those around you say, “See how he loved him!”
You had to raise him to life again, even though you knew to do so would incite the crowds and cause the authorities to call for your death. You had to raise him to life, not only to ease the suffering of Mary and Martha, your beloved friends. You had to raise him because you love him and wanted to see him alive again.
After that, you no longer could walk openly, for fear of being arrested. Yet there still was so much you wanted to do, so many people you wanted to touch with love and healing.
Their faces, the faces of those you healed, come to you now. The man at the pool of the porticoes in Jerusalem, the man whose life had been an agony of illness and pain. You didn’t even wait to see if he would ask for your help. Instead, your heart so moved with compassion, you asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”
And the woman at the well, that dear woman of Samaria. Heedless of society’s rules about a woman’s proper place, not to mention the prejudices against the people of her region, she spoke to you boldly, frankly, in the brightness of the noonday sun. You teased her about her unorthodox relationships (five marriages and a current lover outside of marriage) and admired her thirst for God’s truth. Finally, you told her what your disciples did not yet grasp: “I am Christ the Messiah,” you said, and she believed you.
This man, this woman—these were the people you came to serve, the ones the religious authorities considered lost or beside the point. And again, even your closest followers failed to understand your mission. As the outcasts and ungodly came to you for healing, you could see the embarrassed looks on your disciples’ faces, see them try to hold back the crowds and push people away. “Why do you want to associate with those people, Lord?” your disciples seemed to say. “They are dirty, they smell, they are covered with sores. It distresses us to look at them.”
But you, Jesus, saw the people in need not with human eyes but with God’s eyes. You saw how beautiful they are.
It’s getting harder to concentrate. The memories in your mind become not whole scenes but just quick flashes: the torchlight reflecting off the swords of the soldiers who came to arrest you, the ache of standing with your wrists bound as Caiaphas and other authorities hurled accusations at you, the steely and arrogant glance of Pilate, the crushing weight of the cross as you carried it each weary step.
Your mind reels. It’s getting harder to hear. You open your eyes, the sweat and blood stinging them, and look around you. There, at the foot of the cross, are the small group of women who have followed your ministry faithfully: your mother’s sister, the wife of a court official, Mary Magdalene. They are not afraid; they knew they had to be here. Mary Magdalene, your beloved Mary, is weeping; you can’t bear to look at her.
And your mother. Your dear, dear mother. Her face is a mask of pain—how you wish you could spare her this suffering!
She has grown older, but as your vision dims you see her as she looked when you were a child: her dark eyes shining, the grave beauty of her features, her gentle and quiet smile. She didn’t always understand you, but her love and her encouragement have been unwavering.
Even before you were ready to begin your public ministry, she was there with you at that wedding in Cana. The wine had run out, and the bride and groom would have been publicly shamed. Your mother caught your gaze and pointed out the lack of wine. You put her off at first; you were having too good a time, and besides you were not yet ready to show yourself as divine. But without a word from you, she went to the servants and said simply, “Do whatever he tells you.” What faith, what quiet, perfect understanding.
You look down on her now once more and see that standing beside her is the disciple whom you love. In your final public act, you once again think not of yourself but of them. You give them into each other’s care.
It’s getting harder to breathe. You feel the weight on your collapsing lungs. A sudden wave of panic sets in: No, not yet! There is still so much to do, so many lives to touch, so much love to share.
Still so much to do, but there’s no time now. You ask for something to drink. A sponge with spoiled, bitter wine is lifted to your lips. You drink—the bitterness brings no relief.
You bow your head. You sense your breath and then your spirit leaving you.
But it’s not the end.
It’s not the end.