Two roads converge on the way to Jerusalem, each finding their terminus at the foot of a cross. Two ways of looking at the world, at power, at prominence, and redemption, collide and compete with one another, and one of these will be the road we travel by. As the Lenten season continues, as Christians of various traditions and backgrounds reflect on the way and work of Christ, this post will take some time to look at how we approach and appropriate his suffering in 2021, and will hopefully help us to think about how we travel.
The way of power and fury
In many ways, Jesus was alone in the crowd as he approached Jerusalem. Thousands of people from far-flung places surged into the city to mark the Passover, a journey of faith and tradition reaching back long into their ancestry. Among this traffic were Jesus and his twelve followers—disciples marked by their allegiance to this man.
For the disciples this was the eve of greatness, the messianic moment to which all of their history had been pitched, the consummation of their hopes, long wounded by the politics of larger nations. As Jesus walked towards the cross they watched carefully for the crown; as he laboured under the psychological weight of his coming suffering, they felt a scarce suppressed joy that he was coming as a new sovereign. Finally history would tilt in their favour, and they loaded their expectations on to the man, curiously gripped by a sorrowing sense of foreboding, who walked ahead of them.
The triumphal entry was a bit unorthodox, the optics slightly off. Instead of a steed, their king came into the city on a donkey, and the religious leaders of the day seemed unimpressed. Regardless, they had opportunity to ply him with questions about the coming kingdom, about the advent of power, about the righting of the scales. His response had pointed away from apocalypse now, to waiting, and further world events which seemed to defer a new political dominance.
As the week progressed, as Passover approached, the King seemed to be descending lower, rather than rising higher. Their meal together had been overshadowed by talk of flesh and blood and betrayal, by words of departure and deferral, and by the final insult of Jesus washing the feet of the men he had led all of these years. In Gethsemane, the situation became terminal. Wretched and anguished sleep had been punctuated by Jesus, seemingly nerve-jangled and perturbed, begging for company as he prayed. Then the crowd had come, headed by Judas, seizing Jesus, reducing him to chains, and carrying him into custody. Peter had brandished his sword, a final swipe at the powers of this age, a final parry at the disappointing end of hope and salvation that this arrest brought.
Then the gall of death, the weakness of his body wracked along the beams of a cross, his thirst, and sweat, and blood, and the blasphemy of a crowd who could not only crucify their leader, but do so with impunity. The sun, eclipsed at noon, had set on this whole salvation project, the man from Nazareth a wrecked cadaver flopping untidily into the arms of those who took him to burial. If this was kingship, it seemed to be only over a realm of disappointment and disdain, a nation of powerless fools condemned to death by Roman rule.
For the disciples, their road into Jerusalem was one of ‘now’ not ‘yet’, a faith of entitlement and easy access to the upper hand. The devastation of that first Holy Week is hard to measure, but their perspective is all too easy to mimic. Faith in Christ can be portrayed as an upgrade to the luxury lounge, as a means of finding our place in the world, of gaining traction in society, and gaining access to the corridors of power.
Of all the lament and repentance which might mark this Lenten season, perhaps a frank confession of this should be a high priority. This past year has exposed just how rapacious Christian ambition can be, just how devastatingly locked into politics it can become, of how our expectations can not only fall short of, but run counter to, what Christ came to achieve. Where we have married our hope to the fickle groom of power and advancement, we have not only found ourselves jilted at the altar, but left shamed by his record of debt and destruction.
One road to Jerusalem can be to see in Christian faith a means to our own ends and ambition. To take this line is to see the cross as a shameful impasse, as a dead end in an otherwise strong trajectory of influence and affluence.
The way of pain and victory
For Jesus, expectation and realisation had held a bitter harmony all the way to the city. The weight of his cross was felt long before it was laid upon his shoulder; the ring of hammered nails and the toxic invective that would hound him to the grave, all rang in his heart before they reached his ears. While his disciples bickered about who was first, and bartered for the best seats, the Saviour was envisioning the horror-scape of Golgotha. While they jittered with excitement about a restored kingdom, he trembled in anticipation of being a ruined King. While they boasted of their allegiance to him even to the point of death, he read the signals in their body language, saw Judas fingering the hem of the money bag jealously, saw Peter prattling out his personal loyalty while thinking little of the cost.
This past year has exposed just how rapacious Christian ambition can be, just how devastatingly locked into politics it can become, of how our expectations can not only fall short of, but run counter to, what Christ came to achieve.Andrew Roycroft
The Upper Room had been a parallel world, his words hibernating in the consciences of these men, awaiting the wakening of the Spirit long hence. Gethsemane had been the final tipping of the balance. In earth, sodden with tears and hard wrought blood, he had pleaded and bleated lamb-like for relief from the pain that was to come. Unlike Adam, not left long alone in the garden, Jesus had roused his company several times, only to see them sag into sad slumber again and again. What was to be borne on the morrow, would be borne alone.
The trial, before the Romans and before the religious, had been a mockery and a reduction of all that was right. Justice left the building, to be replaced with the flat-palm blows of soldiers, the pomposity of Pilate delegating everything but his power, and with the baying of a crowd craving a cross with Jesus’ name on it. He had watched all of this, silent, submitted, sorrowing, but certain that the way of pain was the way to victory.
The cross had crushed him, even before the hill. Its brute weight too much for bone and muscles ribboned by rods and flagellation, and then the joggling into place on Calvary, the tearing tension of nails in hands and feet, the casual mockery, the absence of consolation or care for his bloodied brow. The silence was like darkness, the darkness like silence, the Psalmist’s anguished dirge transposed into a key not singable by anyone but him. Death, the final enemy, the culmination of all these other days, came suddenly in the end, like a thief.
This is the true road to Jerusalem for us. Not that of power and fury, but of pain awaiting victory. Jesus is in the underclass, in the underbelly of a world set on winner takes all. Jesus is the loser in the political games of Jerusalem, the seeming victim of victorious religion and impervious Rome. Jesus is in the minority, following a vision of greatness predicated on sacrifice, ruin in anticipation of resurrection, death followed by life, glory preceded by shame. His promise to us as his followers is not that his way along this road provides us a bypass around it, but guarantees that we must follow him into it and through it.
To follow Christ is to lose the franchise, and bear the reproach. It is to feel the sting of being misunderstood, and maligned. Following Christ means receiving hatred in return for our love, rejection in response to our embrace, and enduring suffering on the way to glory. Such words might meet us in our pain and disappointment in this season, they might fortify us afresh not to wrangle against every personal wrong, but to rest in the example Jesus has shown. To accept our trouble is not to acquiesce to it, to sing Psalms in the darkness is not masochism, but the kind of faith that holds to resurrection even as life ebbs away. Perhaps such teaching rips from our hands the laurel wreath that we have been platting with money and influence, and replaces it with a crown of thorns. Such a loss is ultimately our gain.
Two roads converge on the way to Jerusalem, each finding their terminus at the foot of a cross. Two ways of looking at the world, at power, at prominence, and redemption, collide and compete with one another, and one of these will be the road we travel by. As we walk towards this Easter season may God give us grace to trace the bloody footprints of his Son, and to see in him our salvation, and our grand exemplar of how our pilgrimage through this world and into life truly progresses.