4.13.14 The cement of divine love
Palm Sunday 2014 April 13, 2014
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s really moving to visit the places where Jesus suffered and died. As I was preparing to preach this Palm Sunday sermon I kept remembering one of these sites.
I’ve been thinking about the site of the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. It’s up on the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Jesus was brought there before Caiaphas to be judged. And he was judged to be a blasphemer. This is the place where Jesus was mocked and where the crown of thorns was put on his head. It’s where his death was first demanded so strongly. This is also the place where Peter was confronted outside in the courtyard by the servant girls and others / and where he denied that he knew Jesus.
But if you read very carefully, today’s account of that one night leaves a gap of time between when Jesus was brought before the high priest and the next morning. Where was he? Where did he spend the wee hours of the night—maybe between 1 am / and dawn?
The Christian tradition speculates that Jesus was in a holding cell or very low pit dug into the ground beneath Caiaphas’ house. In a pit in his basement, if you will.
Now, today, there is a church built on the site of Caiaphas’ house. There are lots of churches in Jerusalem and the Holy Land in general, built over places where important things happened. So this one is no exception.
Its name is / the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Gallicantu—what does that mean? Well a little high school Latin will tell you that it means “singing rooster” or “crowing rooster,” a direct reference to the rooster that crowed, early in the morning, and reminded Peter that he denied Jesus, as Jesus predicted he would.
The visitor to this church is able to go down a long staircase into that pit where Jesus probably spent those dark hours. When I was there with my class from St. George’s College we said a prayer there and we heard a short talk about the space. But most moving was after everyone went up into the church above and I was alone down there, sitting on the floor of that pit. I remember feeling the rock at my back and beneath me. It was hard and it was cold. That pit was deep down in the earth. There was nothing about that place that said “comfort.” And I was thinking about how it was probably dank and smelly down there. Maybe there were rats.
It wasn’t hard to imagine that this was the place where Jesus could have spent those hours of fear and dread, of suffering and of incredible rejection and isolation. Thinking about this pit deep in the earth can remind us of many things:
That Jesus chose to know the depth of suffering
That Jesus stayed there, in that depth, of his own free choice
That Jesus knew what it was to be afraid—really, really afraid. So afraid that you sweat blood.
Undoubtedly this was the height of his humility and his humanity.
And perhaps most meaningfully, this place can remind us that God can enter into the deeps for us and with us, because God knows what it is to suffer. And God knows what it is to fear death—and even to die.
An appropriate response from us is praise for God who gave up his place in the Godhead and came and lived and died with us.
We close with words from the Philippians reading we heard today—because St Paul gives it better than I ever could:
…though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [Phil 2:6-11]
The day I visited this site I was able to walk back upstairs into the nave of the church. And I was moved once again, to see the large mosaic in the apse, up ahead and almost as high up as the ceiling. (There are a few fuzzy photos of the mosaic on our bulletin board in the parish hall.) There is a large cross, held up by 4 angels, waiting for Jesus to be nailed onto it. Jesus stands under the cross, chained up and mocked by a crowd of people on either side.
Now, behind the cross and above it just a little / is the artist’s conception of God the Father, who holds his head in his left hand and who rests his right hand on the top of one of the cross’ arms. This is no disengaged or disinterested God. This is Abba, Daddy, dismayed at how dreadfully bad things had become for Jesus, and suffering right along with his Son.
God didn’t abandon him at all. He was there with him the whole time.
And what held Jesus onto that cross to die? Of course he could have saved himself. He could have obliterated all the people who were torturing him or who had denied him. Could have wiped them all out—just like that.
His humility kept him there. His obedience kept him there. But more than that, his love for humankind kept him there. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Medieval Church, wrote that “Love held Jesus there fast. As the saints say, neither cross nor nails could have held God, had it not been for the cement of divine love.” [Catherine of Siena, quoted in Carmen Acevedo Butcher, A Little Daily Wisdom: Christian Women Mystics, Brewer, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2008, p. 51.]
And today our reading of the Passion culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus—a protracted and painful death by gradual suffocation. But how can we relate that death to the lives we live here and now?
St. Paul gives us a clue. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” [Gal 2:19b-20] The implication is that we, too, have been crucified with Jesus.
What in the world might that mean? I think he’s saying that by means of our baptisms, we’ve echoed the death of Jesus by our own drowning in baptismal water. And we’ve come up out of the waters into a new life—a resurrected life, if you will. So we live, crucified with him, into his new life. And we live this new life by trusting in his promises and trusting that he’s constantly there behind us, holding us up.
Paul goes on to say, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” [2 Corinthians 5:17] We have become new. We are already living our eternal lives.
So may we live like the crucified and risen people we are: with grace, with gratitude, with love, with hope. And may the peace of the Lord, the crucified one who loved us so much that he died for us, be with us always. Amen.