I am going to use imagination, and suggest that the man who walked the stations of the cross, Jesus, is a man in chains.
I am going to look at the characters he passes by on the way. Pilate (first station), a couple of priests from the Sanhedrin (perhaps Annas and Caiaphas) who watch soldiers put the cross on him (second station), an unknown soldier who gets him back on his feet when he falls (third, and seventh and ninth), his mother (fourth), Simon of Cyrene (fifth), Veronica (sixth), the women of Jerusalem (eighth), those who strip him (tenth), the good thief (eleventh), those who stand in darkness as he dies (twelfth), those who take the body down from the cross (thirteenth), and – those who see him in the beyond (fourteenth).
I am also going to suggest that each one of these characters, in each station, is like a chain that binds him to the way, so that he can’t get free. I am going to imagine that he breaks and shrugs off each one of these chains at each station.
I would like to identify each chain-person with a set of emotions in Jesus.
I would also propose that we identify with Jesus, that we see ourselves as chained, chained to particular people in our lives who hold us back from where we need to go, chained to sets of emotion and feeling that don’t let us be who we are and what we need to do….we will walk with him.
This is the last walk of a chained man.
In Sartene, in Corsica, there is a custom for the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. A chained man goes around the stations. This custom comes from the Franciscans of Tuscany, who arrived in Corsica in the 13th century. Later, in the 14th and 15th centuries, penitential prayers were added to it from Spain, from confraternities that originated there.
This is not a procession. We are not spectators. It is the deepest drama of humankind. We are all walking around the Stations. We are all chained – even while we stumble from station to station. We will discover what our chains are. It is a voyage of emotional discovery – towards emotional freedom. We take part in it.
Jesus is chained, entangled….in these chains.
We are, too….
In this first station, the character we look at is Pilate…..with a chain around his neck….sign of his imperial authority…
The first chain around Jesus is human authority…the chain of command – the way authority people put chains around us to keep us in our place….
We might pause, and ponder situations in our own lives which have enchained us in the authority systems around us…systems of control, and micro-management, and macro-domination.
Who were watching? In the crowed, perhaps two members of the Sanhedrin…..temple priests….or temple police, or are they the same people? Perhaps it is Annas and Caiaphas? They are careful not to get too close, or they might be seen as impure…and if they incurred ritual impurity, they would not be accepted at the afternoon’s rituals of Passover and the Seder meal.
They are raising an arm and pointing towards Jesus. They are not too close – they don’t want to seem to be responsible. They did not want to seem involved. They were secretly pleased they were getting rid of a trouble maker.
They don’t want to be splashed by his blood.
They are dirty little men.
The second chain is purity, often called respectability, claimed, traded on, used to get privileges,….by the people who claim they have no blood on their hands.
We might pause, and ponder situations in our own lives which have enchained us in purity systems around us – systems of respectability, of political correctness, of appearing to be nice clean and proper.
Foot soldiers in the Roman army were not usually nice people. They were mostly rough types, often from conquered (barbarian) peoples. The officers in charge were often Syrians.
If that is true of the army, those detailed to be an execution squad were much more so. There was no fixed way of doing it. It was up to them to crucify their prisoner, any way they pleased.
Imagine a weak, helpless human being in their hands. Imagine Jesus in their hands. He is exhausted. He falls.
The third chain is fatigue, people imposing on one’s frailty…. the experience of being pushed around, being made weak and exhausted because rough people make you like that…
There follows a sequence of falls, like links in a chain: the first fall (station 3), then Simon of Cyrene – Jesus must have fallen if the troops forced a passerby to carry the cross (station 5), then a second fall (station 7), then the final fall (station 9). In between these, there are women: his mother (station 4), Veronica (station 6), the Weeping Women (station 8). It is like a chain of events – between incapacity to carry the cross or even walk without it, and inability to receive support from these women….. There is a fall, a woman, a fall, a woman, etc… So it goes in the chain.
He carries his chains in it all… Have you ever felt that in your life there is a chain of events, and a chain of people, and they keep appearing, over and over and over and over….
We have no idea what went on between Jesus and his mother as they met on the way of the cross. But we can say that his mother stands for his origin, for his family, for his background, for who he was, for his historical identity.
In the culture of those days, identity is rooted in family. Simon Peter is Simon bar Jonah, Simon the son of his father Jonah. You don’t exist if you have no family, no father. Jesus was not known as Jesus of someone. He was known as Jesus of…Nazareth…Jesus of a town, not of a father or mother. Now he loses his last link with family….Now his mother can claim him no more….He is free of that chain with family – free with a freedom no one would want….a freedom he did not want.
He goes to Calvary alone. This is not a feast or a crisis where family is involved…He is on his own.
Our emotional chains often involve family…
Cyrene was a city of Libya. Simon is an African. He is a foreigner in Jerusalem. He is, by blood and by religion, a Jew. He has come to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, as many diaspora Jews did. A sort of holiday.
Perhaps he had never come before….Perhaps the first thing he saw on arrival was a man being tortured.
It is obvious that Jesus cannot carry the cross. The cross beam would have been tied, or chained, to his arms…the upright was already in place on Calvary, used for an earlier crucifixion or two or more. He can’t stand up now with the cross beam upon him. The soldiers take it from him and tie it, chain it, to the strong arms of this unwilling African.
Simon has no idea what is going on. He had never heard of Jesus. He has never seen a crucifixion. He has never been chained up before.
Jesus is chained to this man, this African, this foreigner, this ignorant person who cannot know what is going on…
The two are chained into the mystery of it all…
Is Jesus looked on as a foreigner himself? The man from outside the system….
Have you ever felt enchained into a situation or a system where you would not want to go? Have you ever felt chained, and locked into and carrying someone else’s burdens when you knew it could never end positively….that it was a walk to the death?
Jesus is not chained to the cross now. He is chained to the whole situation. He is a man on the way not to, but of the cross.
Veronica is an interesting name. It means the ‘true image’. The name is appropriate for a woman, who in this story goes to the chained up Jesus and presses a cloth to his face. The story is not found in the scriptures.
In psychology, we are told of Narcissus. He looked into still water and saw his own face. He carried that image inside him, and never did anything except in terms of it. Jesus held a cloth, offered by an unknown woman, to his face. He left his image on the cloth, and gave it to her. He cannot see it. He cannot see her. He is blinded by blood and dust. He has lost his last link with the person he might have seen himself to be. He has given his image away. Unchained is un-imaged. He is unimaginably on his own….or is he shackled in a new way to the darkness and aloneness of it all…?
Is darkness and aloneness one of your chains, too?
I have to think here about this road to Calvary – about those who built it (not very well?) and those who walked on it (not very willingly?) Among those who walked it, I think of those who walked it to be crucified….there must have been thousands of them, whose names have not even come down to us…On occasion of uprisings, the Roman authority often crucified a hundred a day for over a week….
I wonder what Jesus thought when he joined that queue….when he was the next link in a seemingly unending chain….of beaten, helpless, unwilling people…..
What did he think of the soldiers who sledged him when he could hardly get up, who pushed and kicked him till he gave it one last effort? Were they too in an endless chain of violent men, some in the military, some not?
Human beings get caught in inhuman situations…like links in a chain.
What human chains are you in? Where are they taking you?
These women of Jerusalem were ‘professional mourners’. They were called out to do public wailing, and singing, and crying, whenever anyone was being taken to death. They were not interested in that person as a person.
This is publicity, no privacy about it – it makes privacy a public thing –without relationship, without humanness…They are hypocrites, play actors, putting emotion on the surface and feeling nothing of it.
They have to be there (and would not be there if society didn’t compel them to be there. They are just links in the machinery that takes a man to the cross.
Do you ever feel you want a lot of people in your life to just go away?
To be impotent is much more than to be weak. Or helpless. Or helped. It suggests utter inability to cope, and even to be helped….
There are no more particular impediments. There is just impossibility.
From the ninth station onwards, Jesus seems to get rid of various ‘chains’ that hamper him.
See him as a life-sized worker plodding through empty space. He is shedding bits of broken limbs as he goes….like links in a chain…It is not the cross, it is a knapsack. It is all the things we carry about physically and emotionally. It is a bag of decisions. It is choosing, deciding, moving forward, shedding life’s baggage, to a point of nothingness that belongs wholly to God (as Merton said)
In our Western culture, to be naked in public is a matter of shame. In the ancient Semitic world, to be naked in public was more a matter of being unprotected. Stripped of clothes meant being beyond the protection of clothes…. Exposed….
We are moving into the final part of the stations. Once again, the stations are linked like a chain. In this tenth station, Jesus is free of all chains, and all clothing. But in the next (eleventh) station, he is nailed (chained again) to the wood of the cross. Then in the twelfth station, he dies, and is free of all links to everything and everyone in his past. But in the thirteenth and fourteenth stations, he is taken from where he has gone, back into the hands of other people, and put in a tomb, and indeed locked into it with a stone on the opening. It is only then, at the unnamed end of the last station, that he is free, free at last, in resurrection, in a new life where there is no chain and can never be a chain.
My heart pumps blood through the memory of you-Hafiz, rendered by Isaac Slater
Every moment.. how, in the dark garden,
The night wind loosened
The rosebud knot of your robe.
Chains are made of metal. Nails are made of metal. To be nailed is more final than being in chains.
There is an immediacy - in the present tense. There is just a sense of immense loneliness. No one is more alone than a crucified man. The two thieves are perhaps already crucified. There is a sadness and a stillness, in the dark of it all. A crucified man, nailed to his cross, is very tiny….in a world of immense otherness….
Jesus, bruised and bloodied, turns and twists on the cross with wide open arms to the good thief. He is confused. The cross puts out green shoots. White doves fly across the breaking light. The sun is egg coloured. You don’t know if it is setting or rising. All the thief can do is ask Jesus, no matter what it is that is going on, can he be there with him? Jesus promises the Kingdom to the good thief
At that moment, that man was not really enchained. He was on the edge of freedom. The nails were holding him, and Jesus, into something utterly new.
Imagine you are there, cheek by jowl with the Penitent Thief as a bruised and bloodied Jesus twists around with wide open arms to confront him – and us. To confront us with the enormity of his promise. Today, this Good Friday, this morning, you will be with me, not just here on Calvary, but, but with him - in Paradise.
Are they lifted up above the kind of world that puts people in chains and nails them to crosses?
We have been thinking about chains, and nails. Here we have something more total – the total eclipse of the sun. There is a total eclipse of the sun…. If you were a painter, and wanted to paint the Calvary scene, it would be an all black painting!
This death is like a total eclipse of Jesus. The historical Jesus is no more. He will not speak again. He cannot do anything again. He has gone into nothing.
It is that sort of death. It has already begun. It has begun on this Friday. It has begun for Jesus, and for us….. Holy Saturday is the Saturday of Nothing.
And if it is all gone, he is not enchained anymore…the chains are gone.
But wait, the black background is the temple curtain… There is a long narrow strip of translucent white, frayed red at the edges, floating inside a black and blue frame….and a sliver of golden light comes through a tear in the curtain…when the curtain comes up, there will be a whole new world…
Briefly, ever so quickly, he is placed in the arms of those who love him. He is placed in a nearby vacant tomb. A stone is placed on the entrance (and exit!). It is one last attempt to chain him in, to nail him in one place, to confine him to one cemetery. The attempt, as we know, will be futile…The grave will be a hollow in the ground. He will not be there any more…