For this series of three Stations along The Way of the Cross I have chosen to deface several Bibles. I recognise that for some this may be emotionally hard to witness, perhaps even offensive; but my hope is that by doing so we might enter into what may be familiar, caught off guard and so open to a transforming encounter with Jesus.
Station Four: Peter denies Jesus
According to tradition, the Gospel According to Mark is Peter’s last will and testament, dictated to Mark in Rome as Peter awaited his execution. In order to explore Peter’s denial of Jesus, I have redacted Mark’s Gospel, blacking out any record of Peter or of any episode by which he might be identified. This in itself erases several others – Peter’s mother-in-law, for example, the only person whose ministry towards Jesus is equated to that of the angels. And because the paper is thin and the marker toxic, several other passages become regrettable collateral damage.
There are two copies: one at the Station itself, where you might like to kneel in turn; and one to pass around for those who are less mobile. As in silence we turn the pages, and find memories we thought we knew lost, we might reflect on how our own inevitable denials impact not only Jesus but those in whose company we have followed him. But as we do so, ponder this:
Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus will build his Church. And so Peter’s story is foundational for the ongoing story of the Church. The Church is that body corporate who, by word and deed, repeatedly and vehemently deny being associated with Christ … and yet it is this same body corporate that is restored and re-commissioned by the risen Jesus, who takes our failings and weaves them into God’s will.
At times we might look at the Church of which we are a part and shake our heads in disbelief that it could speak and act in such a way we think so clearly refuses to stand with Jesus and be counted. And yet it is this very reality – however awkward, however painful to watch, however painful to bear when our ears are opened – that evidences that we are the Church at all.
Only those who have stood by the charcoal fire in the courtyard of denial go on to sit by the charcoal fire on the beach of new beginnings.
Station Five: Jesus judged by Pilate
Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye to it.” (Matthew 27:24). In order to explore Pilate’s dilemma, I have set a Bible, open at this page, in a basin, into which I now pour water.
You are invited to come forward and pour more water into the basin, drenching, drowning the testimony, as we look on. And, whether we step forward and pour or remain seated, we might reflect on those times when we have done the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons. But as we do so, ponder this:
Jesus is judged by Pilate, and his judgement is: ‘this [is a] righteous man.’ Pilate distances himself from the opinions, the underlying anxieties, and the resulting actions of others. He will not share in their headlong pursuits. Indeed, not only will he do the right thing, but he will be seen to do the right thing: others will have to admit that he does not share in their guilt. And yet the irony that in rightly taking a stand against injustice Pilate ensures that he will bear their blame, immortalised within the Creed. Church, do we not face the same dilemma?
Pilate excuses himself in the face of a rising tumult, presented with a multitude. Jesus stilled the wind and waves with a word of true authority; and had compassion on the multitudes, healing their sick, feeding the hungry. Pilate makes sure his hands are clean; Jesus gets his dirty – bloody, if necessary. Yet in John’s Gospel we are shown that Jesus sees this drowning man as exercising power given him by God.
Church, we are Pilate too. For we are chosen, we are sent – out of our depth, beyond our ability to make a difference. Let us openly pour out our inability to prevail. The very place we find we have prevailed nothing, there God has room to work to save.
Station Six: Jesus scourged and crowned with thorns
The base-level Roman punishment for criminals was a scourging, stripped to the waist, tied to a post, and given thirty-nine lashes of a whip of many leather tails, embedded with bone, stones, metal pieces. Designed to rip a back raw, to sap a man’s spirit, to take a long time to recover from – and even then, to leave deep scars as a reminder. In order to explore this excruciating treatment, I invite you to count with me to thirty-nine as I rip through thirty-nine pages of the Gospels. And then in the silence that follows, you might take up a shred of paper and arrange them in a circle on the floor, a crown of thorns.
As we watch, count, gather, weave, we might reflect on those times when we have failed to understand why we have done what we have done, or fought to keep the truth from ourselves. But as we do so, ponder this:
I wonder why Pilate has Jesus scourged? On the one hand, he believes Jesus to be innocent, undeserving of any punishment. On the other, he has already handed Jesus over to be crucified, a punishment far worse than scourging. Perhaps he hopes that the blood loss will satisfy the crowd, or shock them into stepping back from the brink. Perhaps he hopes the blood loss will sufficiently weaken Jesus as to spare him an overly-prolonged agony on the scaffold? Perhaps it is a message to the prisoner he is forced to release: ‘this is but a temporary reprise’? Perhaps it is a show of strength by a man who has just been forced to do something very much against his will – a message to the crowd suggesting that they might think twice before trying this trick again, lest they find themselves in Jesus’ place?
The governor’s soldiers take things further, adding humiliation to punishment. Perhaps they must caricature the prisoner in their own eyes in order to bear what they must do: you have to laugh, or else you’d cry. Perhaps the noblest soldier, in a cauldron of fear, in the heat of the moment – or of enough charged moments - becomes a war criminal? Perhaps they are just following orders. It is a mockery of worship, a self-mockery of being human, created to represent and delight in God.
We are Peter. We are Pilate. We are this band of brothers. And if at times we are hidden from ourselves by darkness, Jesus is nonetheless in our midst, as king. Our falseness does not negate his identity. Of all present, the one who is outwardly bound is most free. And by his wounds, we are healed – if we allow the Wounded One to wound us, to expertly lay our soul bare, in order that we might be made whole. In order that our false self should die, and our true self might rise with him.