Good Friday, Year C, 2016 – Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42
Ecce homo, Pilate says as he drags Jesus out before the crowd: Here is the man.
There is a painting by Tintoretto that captures this moment. It is huge, and high; it takes up most of a wall in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. On either side are the events that come before and after this moment: on one side Jesus standing before Pilate; on the other side Jesus carrying his cross. And here, in the middle, ecce homo: behold the man. Jesus stripped and whipped and bleeding, a crown of thorns on his head, hands and feet bound. He is half-collapsed on the steps before Pilate’s judgement seat, at the very centre of the painting.
And from the centre of the painting he looks directly out. Face to face with Jesus, this is where we stand, looking into his eyes.
And this is the point.
In this man who lies at Pilate’s feet bound and awaiting judgement we come face to face with ourselves.
Ecce homo: here is the man. Here is humankind, each one of us and the whole lot of us together, sore at heart and bound in mind and soul and body, carrying around with us all the things we have done that we ought not to have done and the things we have not done that we should have; carrying around like a shadow on our backs our repeated failure to do the good we desire. For I do not do the good I wish, but the evil I do not want is what I do. That’s St. Paul. Even Paul knows what it means to be bound by sin. We all stand under judgement.
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah spoke these words long ago, seeing beforehand God’s purpose, and on this day they are fulfilled. For Jesus is the one innocent man. He is the one faithful man. He is the truth and the grace of God. In him there is no darkness at all. It is not he who stands under judgement. It is not he who deserves to die. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
For we have all gone astray, each of us taking our own way, turning our backs on the truth of God even when he walks among us.
What is truth? Pilate says, as the truth stands before him in Jesus Christ.
It is easy to condemn Pilate for his blindness or his cynicism. But Pilate speaks for us all. There is surely no time and place that is more attuned to Pilate’s question than our own. What is truth? It is a question in our case born largely of a desire to be tolerant—you have your truth and I have mine; I grant you your truth and you grant me mine—it is not a malicious or even a cynical question. But look what it puts at the centre: you and me, your truth and mine. We have turned every one to his own way, I to my truth and you to yours. We are right where Pilate is, asking, ‘What is truth?’
With Pilate, we turn to ourselves. We make our souls small, no room for God or the music of the spheres. And it is the death of us.
It is not just the loss of truth or the occlusion of mystery that is the problem. It is the slow turn to ourselves, away from God.
In the Passion Narrative, this turn, away from God, to ourselves, is writ large. The problem in the Passion Narrative is not just that people do terrible things. They do—They fail in all the ways that grieve us most when we see them in ourselves. For Caiaphas it’s expediency: better for one man to die for the people than for the whole people to be destroyed—never mind that the one man does not deserve to die. For Pilate it is self-interest, with a bit of cowardice thrown in. If you release this man, the crowd cries, you are no friend of the emperor. Peter is afraid. And then there are the rest of the disciples. But where are the disciples? With the exception of the disciple Jesus loves, they are all gone. This is to say nothing of Judas. Judas is not alone in his betrayal of the Christ. Every person there is complicit in the cross, in ways that we recognize in ourselves.
We are afraid, and we are silent, and we value expediency or our professional future over mercy or truth. Sometimes, we deny. And when we stand face to face with the one word of God, we turn away.
This is the core of it all. It is this John’s Gospel would tell us. Each of these ways in which people fail Jesus, these small or large sins, each of these ways in which we fail, these are signs of a large dis-ease. Caiaphas and Pilate and Judas and Peter and the crowds with their violent cry: each of them, all of them fail, this time, the Christ. Each of them turns away, this time, from the Word of God. They have done this sort of thing many times before; they have been afraid or self-interested or ambitious or false. But this time they stand in the presence of the Lord. And so their sin is revealed. It is the Word from whom they turn away now, in the flesh, as so many times they have turned away before.
In the crucifixion of Jesus the whole world’s wandering is seen. This failure, each of our failures, of courage or truthfulness or friendship or faith, is the sign of a greater dis-ease, a lost world, the abandonment at the bottom of our hearts. It is this that the Passion of Jesus makes clear. We have all turned away, each of us to our own way. And so Jesus hangs upon the cross.
In his abandonment there he is the sign of our abandonment of God. What is truth? The cross is the truth about the world that has turned away from God.
This is the first thing that Good Friday proclaims. But it is not the last thing.
For the cross is also the truth about God.
And this is our hope. God does not leave us alone, even when we seek to leave him. We may turn away from God’s Word when he walks among us, in truth and grace and love. But God does not turn away. He is with us in his Word, with us in the Scriptures, with us in the Christ. He walks with us in the world we have created, of Holocaust and civil war and the many smaller failures in each of our own lives. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. We who dare not speak truth have seen the truth of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We who cannot find the grace to love have known the love of God in the hands of Jesus Christ.
If we have made of our world a cross, Jesus is with us even there.
Jesus stands where we should stand, condemned and bound and battered. Ecce homo, behold the man. Jesus takes our cross on his shoulders and lifts it up to God. Sorrow and love are met on this cross: our turning away, with all its cost, and God’s unfailing grace. Together there they rise, our sin and God’s love forever, God standing with us forever where we are most alone.
It is finished, Jesus said. On the cross it is finished: for the Word dwells now among us even here, in the place of our turning away.
So Good Friday is finally a day of joy. If when we look at the thorn-crowned face of Christ we see our own worst selves—ecce homo, in the nail marks our turning away—yet it is precisely there that we see too our hope.
For God loves us, even here. The cross that we have made is not after all our end. God’s grace is greater than our turning away, and God’s love is stronger than our death.
We sing today a love beyond our knowing, and it meets us on the cross.
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love for me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
Oh who am I, that for my sake,
My Lord should take frail flesh