There will be many different things about Easter this year. I have missed the annual ‘Stations of the Cross’ Art Exhibition and its provocative, challenging art that engages the story of Jesus as he journeys to death – and beyond. Last year we were able to host a ‘Jazz at the Stations of the Cross’ evening at the exhibition. It was a challenge that was deeply meaningful to me, sitting amidst the wonderful and engaging art whilst playing various Jazz numbers that attempted to reflect the mood and message of the works and the story. There was something personally challenging and deeply meaningful to be able to explore the story of Jesus journey to death in music. The moments of improvisation through the music was an opportunity to create my own response to the story provoked through the art.
The Stations of the Cross has always thrown up new ways of engaging Jesus’ story and entering into deep and challenging dialogue with artists and art, story and faith that always alters my perspective and speaks into life and death. I will miss this annual pilgrimage and its provocation to enter the story in new and confronting ways. I have wandered back through previous years and the art that has left me scratching my head or gasping in wonder. I have sought to hear the familiar story anew and within the strange world we find ourselves in.
I also wandered through the last 8 chapters of Matthew’s story of Jesus today. There is a plethora of material, diverse and strange. Jesus entered the city, hailed as the would-be hero come to liberate the people. He then turned the Temple upside down. Two different actions aimed at the powers of his world – political and religious power and might controlling the lives of ordinary, struggling people. He offered parables of the alternate (original) Kingdom or Reign, he called the Kingdom of God/Heaven. Parables that challenged the powerbrokers and religious leaders, questioning their authority and how they missed the point. The ‘in’ were out and the ‘out’ were in. Those who should know and see God’s Reign all around them were blind to the truth through their lusting for power and control over people’s lives. Those who were lowly and faithful, yearning for hope heard and saw and responded to the invitation of the Galilean Rabbi who proclaimed the Reign of God present for all to enter and experience. Jesus was tested by the religious leaders and came out on top each time. In one encounter the lawyer asked him what the greatest commandment was. Without a flinch Jesus replied: ‘Love God with all your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.’ Do this and everything falls into place for this is the reality of God’s Reign – love!
There was the story of a wedding banquet provided by a King for his son, with everything organised and invitations sent out. When all was ready, he sent his servants to gather the guests, but everyone had an excuse and couldn’t make it. So, the angry King sent the servants out to invite anyone they could find – and they came. There’s a sting in that tail but that’s for another time because the those expected to be first were last and the last, lowly and insignificant entered. And that’s how it is with God’s Reign!
There is more preaching and other parables – the well-known ‘Sheep and the Goats’ that reverses the expectations of the faithful and ‘good’. Those who enter God’s Reign are those who selflessly care and love others, giving food, water, and comfort. This story flows from the Great Commandment and expresses love in action, the way of God’s Reign expressed in the world. As the Passover Week rolls on, the tension rises and there is increasing angst and opposition from those who have the most to lose. The religious leaders plot to get rid of Jesus, whom they see as one who threatens the status quo and the balance of everything. They are good people at heart, well mostly. They are passionate but lost in power and belief systems that lead them away from love for God and neighbour.
At Jesus’ final meal they celebrate the Passover meal, a memorial that remembers the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt many, many moons ago. There is hope and promise in this story of liberation and one that speaks into their own reality of Roman oppression. At the end of the meal Jesus offers bread broken as a sign of his body broken in love. He passes the cup of wine around, inviting them to drink, a symbol of his blood shed for freedom and forgiveness of the world. Confusing words for his followers and more confusing still was the interchange between Jesus and Judas and then with Peter – the former betraying and the latter denying.
A time in the Garden of Gethsemane was filled with pathos as Jesus poured out his pain and desperation in prayer, seeking deliverance from the ‘cup that I have to drink; not my will but yours be done.’ The agonising prayer falls on the puzzled ears of his friends, and the scene escalates when a crowd comes to arrest him. Betrayal with a kiss, swords drawn, a brief confrontation and Jesus was led away. The disciples fled in fear, but Peter followed at a distance, lingering in the courtyard around a fire whilst Jesus was tried in a Kangaroo Court inside. In fear, anxiety and confusion Peter denies being Jesus’ disciple and it feels that Jesus is cut loose from everyone. The one in whom the Reign of God is deeply manifest and who proclaims this rule of love in his life and being, is alone and the world’s powers and principalities circle and close in. Religious and political power focuses its wrath upon Jesus, and he displays the vulnerability and love of God’s Reign. His humility is not weak and wishy-washy, but strong and courageous. He endures the madness, the suffering, his Passion, with faith, courage and strength. He stands tall against the powers in complete trust in God’s love to never let him go.
The Stations of the Cross takes us on an annual journey on this walk of shame and suffering from sentencing to death and then into resurrection. Jesus is flogged and carries his cross. He staggers and stumbles and needs help from Simon the Cyrene, who carries the cross for him. At Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, he is nailed to the cross and then lifted high into the sky, a symbol of Rome’s power and might. It is a warning to anyone who would flaunt their power or challenge the powers – suffering and death awaits.
Death and burial conclude the story. The powers of the world win and the disciples hide away, defeated and despairing. They fear the world and grieve their loss, the loss of Jesus and everything they have hoped in – it is gone. This, as far as it goes, is how we imagine the story. It plays out day-in, day-out, in our world. The powers flex their muscle and overwhelm the dissident or prophet. They destroy those who live a life of deep and profound love, questioning the way of the world and proclaiming a different, more inclusive and merciful life for the world.
As people live out the reign of God they are initially welcomed and praised. Acts of goodness and selflessness are celebrated, so long as they don’t go too far or expect the same of everyone. When someone rises up and seeks a new way in the world, inspired perhaps by the story of Jesus, his life and being, they will eventually be taken down. Such love and grace can’t be allowed to run freely and loosely in our world – the powers won’t allow it! The Reign of God is too pure, too lovely, too real and too threatening to allow to go unchallenged. The greedy and powerful will not allow it, whether they claim some faith or not – money and power speak louder than love. The belief systems of power and privilege hold sway and the ordinary are overwhelmed, beaten into place or lulled into placid acquiescence, distracted by empty promises and addictive lives that thrive on superficial alternatives to the Love at the heart of everything!
And death, despair and alienation course through the collective veins of a world that in its deepest being yearns for something more, the vision of the Galilean Rabbi who proclaimed that the Reign of God was at hand. The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted our lives and thrown us into a confused disequilibrium. Everything is up for grabs as nothing we relied upon seems real or reliable and we don’t know how we will negotiate the new world we find ourselves in.
What will things look like, post-Covid-19, whenever that emerges? How will we re-emerge and what will we hope for? Will we seek to return everything to the way it was, even though we and the world is different? Will we hope for a return to the status quo that was, the one that didn’t really serve us terribly well? Will we listen and learn and live differently, with passion and hope and joy and openness to others in an inclusive just world?
In the darkness of the world after Jesus died, when grief and loss, fear and pain wrestled and whirled within the upper room and amongst the followers of Jesus, there was nothing. It was hopeless and powerless despair. Nothing could or would be the same again and they were utterly lost! I wonder if we feel even a little of the confusion and despair rife in our world, an echo of every deep and dark moment of human (and earth) life? What lay ahead? How would they re-engage life? How could they?
In the gentle pre-dawn light two of the ‘Mary’s’ went to the tomb where they lay Jesus to prepare his body for proper burial. They were challenged by the stone that was laid across the tomb – how would they move it. Matthew’s story contains an earthquake, angels and fearful guards who do a runner. The stone was moved, and the tomb is declared empty – Jesus is not there, but back in Galilee and they are all to meet him there! The women encounter this Risen Lord on their way back and are told not to fear but to tell the disciples!
This is an intrusion of the highest order into the lives of these people, indeed into the life of the world. It defies rational thought and experience and turns everything upside down. It doesn’t make sense and challenges the powers and principalities of the world. The worst the world could do to Jesus could not destroy and overcome love. Resurrection vindicates the proclamation and life of Jesus, that God’s Reign is here and wholly available to all. This Reign is a revolution of love that turns everything upside down, changes everything and transforms the darkness of despair into hope. The hope is that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a love that transcends time and space and is the fundamental and essential love at the heart of everything.
The Reign of God permeates our world and touches our lives in the wondrous and awe-filled moments, through the beautiful melody, moving story, the extraordinary diversity of life and the Earth’s features, an infinite universe beyond, and the sacred moments of life. God is present in and around and beyond these experiences and the love that binds everything into a relational web of being. This Reign is at hand and is an open door to the future.