(Excerpt from “Unapologetic” by Francis Stufford for this Easter)
The evening sees Yeshua and the friends celebrating the festival in a borrowed upstairs room. His mood is strange, and they keep looking at him, perturbed, as they eat the roast lamb and yeastless bread with bitter herbs, and they share the cup of wine, and tell the story of how the one God long ago brought His people out of captivity. He doesn’t seem like a person whose plans have failed; he is not confused or despondent at all. Yet he is full of trembling intensity. Everything he says seems deliberate and effortful, as if this dinner-in-lieu-of-a-revolution were a part of something terrifying he was making himself do, step by step, word by word, action by action. After supper he does something that isn’t in the festival ritual. He picks up one of the flat loaves they haven’t touched yet. This is my body, he says, and he snaps it in half, using both hands. He asks for the wine cup. This is my blood, he says. Do this when you remember me. It’s one of those likeness things again – but the friends don’t think too hard about what he means, because they’re bursting out with anxiety at the finality of the way he’s talking. Remember you? Remember you? Where are you going? We won’t leave you. Don’t worry about today; it doesn’t matter. We won’t leave you, teacher.
But they do. A few hours later, in the dark, on the open ground at the edge of the city where they’re camped out, a patrol of temple guards find them – and the friends, looking to Yeshua for guidance and getting none, hesitate, waver, and run for it, leaving him alone in custody.
For the rest of that night he gets frogmarched from place to place: to a quick convocation of the temple’s law court at the Chief Priest’s house, and then onwards to an equally quick interview with the yawning governor, called from his bed to confirm that the empire’s civil arm agrees with the temple’s judgement. This haste not indicating that Yeshua’s is a particularly urgent or important case, but, precisely, that the city’s two authorities want to keep it minimised, with this minor northern rabbi who’s made a nuisance of himself briskly disposed of before daylight comes. … He gets punched a few times to keep him moving, and worked over a bit to encourage contrition and co-operation before his conversations with power. Maybe he loses some skin, some teeth, has his nose broken, gets a few cracked ribs. It’s a consequence of his new position as an object, a still living being which is already pretty much a thing as power acts on it. This body is already beyond human consideration; it need not be treated gently, or with an eye to its future survival, because it has no future. The whole process is marking it out quite clearly for death, and so it does not matter what happens to it. The only oddity is that Yeshua, who talked so eloquently, who shadow-boxed with words so deftly on occasion, refuses entirely to defend himself. All night long he only echoes back the accusations. You threatened the temple. You say so, says Yeshua. You’re a blasphemer, a Sabbath-breaker, an enemy of the law. You say so. You think you can forgive sins. You say so. You claim to be king. You say so. You are a menace to public order. You say so. All night long, a human mirror-wall, reflecting back what’s in front of it, except that all the while he inclines his bruised head and concentrates on whoever is speaking as if they were the only person in the world. He does not need to ask what they want him to do for them, now, since they are telling him the answer, all the time. We need you to be guilty. We need you to be the mess that must be removed so that the world can work smoothly. We need you to be the unclean shadow of our righteousness, our good imperial order. We need you to be dirt, disease, crime, shame, humiliation, chaos, darkness, so that we can be virtue, certainty, light. We need you to be in the dirt, soon. It’s nothing personal.
Daylight finds him in a procession again, but this time no one could mistake him for a king. He’s stumbling along under the weight of his own instrument of execution, a great big wooden thing he can hardly lift, with an escort of the empire’s soldiers, and the bystanders who’ve come blinking out of the lodgings where they spent the festival night don’t see their hopes, or even the possibility of their hopes, parading by. They see their disappointment, they see their frustration. They see everything in themselves that is too weak or too afraid to confront the strapping paratroopers; and much though they hate the soldiers, they hate him more, for his pathetic slide into victimhood. Word of his loose living, his impiety, his pleasure in bad company goes round in whispers. And just look at him. There’s something disgusting about him, don’t you think? Something that makes you squirm inside. Something . . . furtive. He’s so pale and sickly-looking, with that dried blood round his mouth. He looks like a paedophile being led away by the police. He looks like something from under a rock; as if he doesn’t deserve the daylight. He’s a blot on the new day. Someone kicks his arse as he goes by, and whoops, down he goes, flat on his nose with the cross pinning him like a struggling insect, and let’s face it, it’s funny. Yeshua is a joke. He’s less a messiah, more a patch of something nasty on the pavement. And as he struggles on he recognises every roaring, jeering face. He knows our names. He knows our histories.
And since, as well as being a weak and frightened man, he’s also the love that makes the world, to whom all times and places are equally present, he isn’t just feeling the anger and spite and unbearable self disgust of this one crowd on this one Friday morning in Palestine; he’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human crowd, past and present and to come, and accepting everything we have to throw at him, everything we fear we deserve ourselves. The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets. Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead. Let me carry it. Let me be to blame instead. I am big enough. I am wide enough. I am not what you were told. I am not your king or your judge. I am the father who longs for every last one of his children. I am the friend who will never leave you. I am the light behind the darkness. I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish. I am the ghost of love in the torture chamber. I am change and hope. I am the refining fire. I am the door where you thought there was only wall. I am what comes after deserving. I am the earth that drinks up the bloodstain. I am gift without cost. I am. I am. I am. Before the foundations of the world, I am.
But it is killing him all the same. He never promised that you would be safe, if you tried to live without fear. The soldiers lead him out of the city gate, and, laboriously, slipping and sliding, with crunching blows from spear butts to motivate him, they drive him up the small cone of Skull Hill, where death sentences are carried out. They tie him onto the cross and plant it upright. It’s the empire’s punishment for rebellious slaves, slow and nasty by design, devised to be a spectacle of days-long struggle and gasping to passers-by. On a cross you choke to death, when you’re finally too tired to heave your own weight up to take the next breath. Yeshua’s cross has a sign on it, over his head. HERE’S YOUR KING, it says, in all the languages of the province. The Chief Priest didn’t want it, but the governor has a point to make. And Yeshua hangs there. He twists against the ropes to snatch the precious air, which whistles in his flattened nose.
He cannot do anything deliberate now. The strain of his whole weight on his outstretched arms hurts too much. The pain fills him up, displaces thought, as much for him as it has for everyone else who has ever been stuck to one of these horrible contrivances, or for anyone else who dies in pain from any of the world’s grim arsenal of possibilities. And yet he goes on taking in. It is not what he does, it is what he is. He is all open door: to sorrow, suffering, guilt, despair, horror, everything that cannot be escaped, and he does not even try to escape it, he turns to meet it, and claims it all as his own. This is mine now, he is saying; and he embraces it with all that is left in him, each dark act, each dripping memory, as if it were something precious, as if it were itself the loved child tottering homeward on the road. But there is so much of it. So many injured children; so many locked rooms; so much lonely anger; so many bombs in public places; so much vicious zeal; so many bored teenagers at roadblocks; so many drunk girls at parties someone thought they could have a little fun with; so many jokes that go too far; so much ruining greed; so much sick ingenuity; so much burned skin. The world he claims, claims him. It burns and stings, it splinters and gouges, it locks him round and drags him down.
Because this is not a rich man’s offer of something he can easily spare. This is not some supernatural personage being temporarily inconvenienced. This is love going where we go, all of us, when we end. Yeshua is long past trying to show what lies beyond the limits of the world. He is travelling into limit himself, now, deeper and deeper, and the limits are tightening in on him, tightening down to a ribcage that won’t fill, tightening on him as consequences tighten on anyone. He’s gone to the place our sorrows lead to at their worst: guilt’s dead-end, panic’s no exit loop, despair’s junkyard where everything is busted. There’s nothing to keep him company there but the light he’s always felt shining beneath things. But the light is going. He’s so deep down now in the geology of woe, so buried beneath the mountains’ weight of it, that the pressure is squeezing out his feeling for the light. There’s nothing left of it for him but a speck, a pinpoint the world grinds in on itself, a dot dimming as the strata of the dark are piled heavier and heavier on it. And then it goes out. Of course it does. Love can’t repair death. Death is stronger than love. We all know that. But Yeshua didn’t, until now. This is the first time in his entire life he’s ever felt alone. Now there is no love song. There is no kind father. There is just a man on a cross, dying in pain; a foolish man who chose to give up life and breath to be a carcass on a pole. The yellow walls of the city blur with Yeshua’s tears, and he opens his mouth and howls the news – new only to him – that we are abandoned in a dark place where help never comes.
The friends creep out at dusk and ask for the body, promising anonymous burial and no fuss. They’re allowed to carry it away, wrapped in a tube of linen that slowly stains from inside. Skull Hill sees lots of such corteges. There’s only time to stick what’s left of Yeshua hastily in a rock tomb by the highway. Washing the corpse properly and laying it out will have to wait; the holy Saturday is coming, and no one wants any confrontations.
All day long, the next day, the city is quiet. The air above the city lacks the usual thousand little trails of smoke from cook fires. Hymns rise from the temple. Families are indoors. The soldiers are back in barracks. The Chief Priest grows hoarse with singing. The governor plays chess with his secretary and dictates letters. The free bread the temple distributed to the poor has gone stale by midday, but tastes all right dipped in water or broth. Death has interrupted life only as much as it ever does. We die one at a time and disappear, but the life of the living continues. The earth turns. The sun makes its way towards the western horizon no slower or faster than it usually does.
Early Sunday morning, one of the friends comes back with rags and a jug of water and a box of the grave spices that are supposed to cut down on the smell. She’s braced for the task. But when she comes to the grave she finds that the linen’s been thrown into the corner and the body is gone. Evidently anonymous burial isn’t quite anonymous enough, after all. She sits outside in the sun. The insects have woken up, here at the edge of the desert, and a bee is nosing about in a lily like silk thinly tucked over itself, but much more perishable. It won’t last long. She takes no notice of the feet that appear at the edge of her vision. That’s enough now, she thinks. That’s more than enough.
Don’t be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.
She is weeping. The executee helps her to stand up.