What Do We Live For?

Today, the sun is shining. The bars and cafes are packed with folk who have ditched their thick coats and heavy boots. From wide-flung windows and back gardens, cheerful music and happy voices ring out. A special meal is prepared and a glass of wine is drunk, or two. After a long and cold winter, the people of Scotland are now, just as the people of Jerusalem did then, making the most of their festival, their long weekend away from work.

But not for one young man.

Not for the people whom he loves and the people he is loved by.

For us, this is the end of all things.

The end of what?

What did Jesus come for? What was His purpose? Why did He live? And why on Earth did He not run when he had the chance?

Because it didn’t have to end like this.

At about quarter to midnight last night, I was sitting on a tile floor that seemed to be getting colder by the minute. The sunshine had gone. The friends from the upper room had gone. The meal had long since been eaten and my stomach was beginning to grumble. On that cold tile floor, I had a certain sympathy with Peter and James and John as they nodded off in Gethsemane. And I started to wonder – what are we all still doing here? The garden is open. The road is over there. The people who are going to come to arrest you aren’t here yet. Run. Run, for God’s sake, while you still have the chance. Why can’t we change the story? Why couldn’t He?

He was his father’s son, and his mother’s son, and Joseph’s, too, and they had taught him well, raised him up right, and now, on this darkest of their days, this brave and beautiful boy, now become a man, says, these are the things for which I have lived and they are the things for which I am prepared to die. Not for this man the path of least resistance. Not for Him to betray his principles and his integrity.

For me. For you. For the whole world, even the parts that turned their backs and declared that they wanted nothing to do with it.

For peace. For love. For equality. For justice. For freedom. For fairness.

For truths that I hold to be self-evident, but which led to Him being branded a radical and a terrorist. Truths that He refused to betray and for which He was killed. Truths for which people are still being killed today. As I sat there last night and asked why He didn’t run, I thought about Jesus, yes, but I thought about the ones who came after him. The brave men and women of integrity who said, these are the things for which I have lived and they are the things for which I am prepared to die.

And now he’s gone.

The churches have been emptied of God. The world is cold and dark, the singing voices are silenced, and it feels as though we might never be happy again. The light of the world has gone out.

What do we do now?

What do we live for?

And what would we die for?

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Nails

There were three

To be killed

That day.

Two were thieves,

Strong young men,

Their lives to be wasted

For their crime.

They wailed,

Writhed, sobbed,

Flailing away

Their final moments

Of movement.

It took four soldiers

To hold them

To their crosses

As the hammering began,

The sturdy masonry nails

Driven

Through resistant flesh,

Through inhuman screams,

To their wooden homes.

 

The third man

Was a prophet,

So they say,

A Messiah even,

Yet he did not

Call on God

To intercede,

To save him

From this pitiable end,

This traitor’s death.

He undressed quietly,

Lay down, sad-eyed,

On his recumbent cross,

Only recoiling

As his flogged back

Met rough, hastily cut wood.

 

He was mine to nail.

I chose the sharpest points,

Placed them with care,

Feeling somehow

His courage deserved reward.

Against habit, training,

Professional detachment,

I looked at him,

Met his dark eyes,

Fear-filled yet calm,

Saw his slightest nod.

I took a breath,

My mallet rose

And fell.

He gasped,

Flinched,

Then held himself

Still

As my hammer-blows

Pinned him

To his death.

 

Slowly the three crosses,

Their agonised burdens,

Were levered

Upright,

Away from cool earth

Into the baking, glaring day.

The preacher,

Pale beneath his tan,

Forced words

From his suffocation:

“Father, forgive them,

They know not

What they do.”

And I, stern soldier,

Practised executioner,

Turned away

And wept.

 

SIA 9 iv 2014

 

The cloak

In the grey dawn

They surged through the gates,

Eager

For the Passover treat,

The annual redemption

Of a chosen one

By their appointed lord.

 

Tired Pilate,

His shoulders bowed,

Wearied, weighed

By justice

And conscience,

The chief priests

Puffed out with righteousness

Like challenged cockerels,

And between them

The still figure

Of the preacher,

Calm, accepting,

Modest

Amid the grandeur

In his shabby robe.

 

They called him King,

King of the Jews,

Passed his condemnation

Back and forward

Like an unwanted card,

Until planted men,

Priests’ friends,

Scribes’ cousins,

Pliable hangers on,

Coaxed the crowd

To bloodlust.

 

They howled

“Crucify him!”

Baying this blameless man

To traitor’s agony,

Their prize

Redemption and liberty

For blood-soaked rebel Barabbas.

 

The Romans took him,

Flogged him

Just enough for blood,

Little enough for cross-bearing.

From some dusty chest

Soldiers pulled an old cloak,

Tyrian-dyed,

Forced

Crown and sceptre

Of thorn and reed

Upon him,

Spat, mocked,

Knelt

In this king’s

One earthly homage.

 

Dripping blood

He stepped out

In his imperial purple

Into the morning sun.

The worn cloak,

Given new life

By light,

Shone amethyst

About this battered king,

Transfigured in the dawn.

 

SIA 8-9 iv 2014

wing-held darkness

Zadkiel looked slowly around the crowd. Mary. Mary. John.  Most of the others had fled.  But as his eyes searched he saw familiar faces. The blind man. The woman who had bled. Those who had realised that suffering was not the end of the world.

But this suffering might be, he thought.

Jophiel knelt on the other side of the clearing, tears streaming down his face as he recorded the fugue that had begun with those hard struck nails.

Michael seemed unflinching, but one wing reached out.  Feathers brushed the woman he had chosen, who had done her work so well.

On the edge of the crowd, stood Sariel: his work not yet done.

Michael drew close to Zadkiel and said, ‘It is time.’
‘Must we?’ Zadkiel said angrily. ‘God seems to have gone already.’   ‘No. This is just the beginning. You know what we must do.’

Zadkiel nodded and caught Jophiel’s eye.  Jophiel set down his quill, and called the angels to attention.  One signal, and the circle formed: wings locked to forge a wall around the cross.

The tent of absence, Zadkiel realised.  He raised his wings reluctantly, and darkness covered the whole earth.

Their task was to keep God out.  God had withdrawn himself from himself, and become as remote as the deepest fear of the heart.  God stood on the edge of non-being to create a space where he was not, to allow this darkness, this freedom, this choice.

And we bear the weight of it, Zadkiel uttered, still resisting his task.

The darkness held for three hours.  The angels strained with it, letting love and grief, longing and abandonment bash against their wings.

Then Jesus cried aloud, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’  and Zadkiel’s scream filled the heavens.  Michael and Jophiel flexed their wings around him, absorbing the force of his grief and using it to strengthen the circle.

God’s agony pressed in on them too. The sun stopped; the heavens shuddered, and the whole earth stood on the edge of the abyss.

Jesus cried out again, and Sariel stepped forward.  He curled his dark wings around the cross, gently. Then, as Jesus breathed out, his wings snapped shut: cutting breath from breath; life from death.

Jophiel was the first to break the circle, as anguish overwhelmed him.  Myriad of angels shut their wings as the sky was rent and the veil of the temple torn in two.

‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ Zadkiel whispered, the words now fully his own.

In the Shadow of His wings…

We have sought our way through Lent again, yet it is always as if for the first time, tracing a journey from the desert, from the arid exhaustion of our questions, into a more concentrated space where God’s voice is heard afresh, where we are encouraged to listen… and to be astonished.

So we approach Holy Week, and it is as if entering an intense silence: a slow and introspective journey in our Lord’s footsteps, eyes focussed on the here and now – and not on the glory to come: which is still waiting to overwhelm us, too great to contemplate.

Tentative, dreading the Friday that lies ahead – slow and introspective because that beloved voice asks us also to listen and to hear. For so long we have searched… in books, through preachers, thinking, and reflecting others’ thoughts: absorbed in the question “Who do they say he is?”

And now we hear that voice, gently, insistently; “but who do YOU say that I am?”

At the beginning of Holy Week the time for us to answer …is: now.

We are stripped bare; our everyday lives (found wanting) have been laid aside – old worn-out clothing, patched, inadequate – and we are waiting in the shadow to be clothed in light.

At our most vulnerable, all stripped down to what we really are.     And, at the moment when all is most truly lost, inconsolable … we find ourselves suddenly so utterly loved and protected, so absolutely beloved, so held in the shadow of His wings…

(Psalm 17:8, Psalm 91:4)