“And so he was raised on a cross, and a title was fixed, indicating who it was who was being executed. Painful it is to say, but more terrible not to say…He who suspended the earth is suspended, he who fixed the heavens is fixed, he who fastened all things is fastened to the wood; the Master is outraged; God is murdered.”
Melito of Sardis (A.D. 180)
Just after Jesus breathed his last breath, one of the Roman soldiers who helped fasten him to the cross uttered the surprising confession, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”
This soldier in one moment forces the nail through the layers of two worlds, staking them together in holy matrimony and pronouncing their union through the piercing ring of crashing metals. But he ‘knows not what he is doing’. He knows nothing of this holiness nor of this matrimony. He knows only his orders: he must kill in order to stay alive. He must destroy Life in order to keep it. He must crucify the ‘King of the Jews’ in order to preserve the kingdom of Rome. He must execute power in order not to be executed by it.
But just a moment later, he knows. In the distance a thick veil has torn in two and an easterly winter wind blows out from the center of the city. Suddenly, he is struck by the cold and terrible truth. Heat rushes up the back of his neck. The death of this life was the death of Life itself. He has just crucified the Kingdom of humankind. He has executed all powers and thrones and dominions. He has executed suicide on behalf of all men. The stone will soon be rolled over the Light and the world will be tucked into an eternal eclipse.
The only remnant of this Man that can now be salvaged is our confession of him—that he was not merely a man: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”
And thus the soldier is the Church of Jesus Christ. His hands are our hands and our confession is his. We regard this moment as the truest image of the Christian standing at the strained feet of the truest image of God. It is too soon, at this point, to speak of the Day after tomorrow, too soon to speak of Life after today. All we know at this moment is that we have just discovered God a moment too late. Nietzsche is the Church’s prophet on this God-be-damned day: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Amen.
Whatever else we are looking for from God today, we must first find nothing before we can find everything. We must remember today that the ground on which our faith rests is utterly void of our faithfulness. There is only here the faithfulness of One, but today–He is dead. Today we remember that our faith is hollow and our sin thick. The final analysis of our relationship with God now pools to the ends of the earth as from the cavernous summit of an over-boiled mountain. The concrete substance of our faith streams into the meadow. Grass withers and sad flowers fade to a bow. The lonely Garden weeps as children settle for sidewalk chalk. A whole world is forgotten. Creation’s groaning is reduced to a sigh, then to a silence.
The dark lord of the city reigns as Life hangs outside its gates (Gen. 3:24; Heb. 13:12).
So we dare not rush past this day, eager though we are to claim Sunday for quick, comedic relief, shaking our fists at the unbelieving world. Today, we are the unbelieving world. We cannot claim Sunday morning until we have been laid deeply down into Good Friday’s night. It is not the strain of the eyes that can see past the horizon into the morning. Morning must happen to us, and only after the night has reached its darkest dark, long after our eyes have failed. We must go to sleep after Jesus has commanded us to stay awake (Mt. 26; Mk. 14; Lk. 21). We must die after the living God has commanded us not to die (Gen. 2; Dt. 30:19). We have to look our sin in the face and acknowledge that we cannot overcome it, we cannot help but hammer away. We must hold our gaze long enough that we begin to believe the Truth of our hands staring at us through the empty eyes of our God, now burning our hope of heaven in the shadow of his gaunt, draping face.
The silence screams from the Creator’s formless mouth to confront us all with the Truth Pilate asked for. This is the Truth: we are looking at our self-portrait. We draw lines around lands with heroic buckets of red. We make violence a virtue while giving thanks for the Bread and the Wine. And so we must embrace the Truth of our cursed confession today: we cannot confess that Jesus is the Son of God without first confessing that we are the son of the Soldier. Our claim of righteousness and God’s claim of our unrighteousness is the same claim. We speak of the cross of Christ as God’s altar, but it never becomes other than a cross. We come to receive forgiveness from the Fount of Life and we are first handed a hammer and an infinite iron stake. We must tap into this fountain with our own guilt, staking our world together with his. The Christian knows that blood spills out from Jesus’ hands before water spills out of his heart. There is no cleansing that is not the cleansing of blood. Pilate’s basin is filled with a warm, dark red dye.
We are Christians, and we sin more passionately than we believe.
And yet, this is not only the True self-portrait of humankind. There is here, in due time, a deeper Truth. There is in this mirror of earth a window of heaven. For this is the only true self-portrait of God. There is, yes, a love that is furious enough to die for another through the hate that is furious enough to kill for itself. The cross and the soldier face the world and show us both who God is in Christ and who he is not in us. He is not a soldier. He has not come to kill us. He has come to kill the soldier in us. His weapons are his wounds.
So hold our gaze we must to this strange image, oscillating without interval between ray and shadow without ever once changing its form, and yet never ceasing to oppose its form. We must allow ourselves to be repulsed by the darkness of this Death if ever we are going to be seduced by its Light. Like a sunspot in our vision after staring into the naked noonday sky, the Man on the cross, whom we so desperately wanted only to be a man, will stain our vision of the world with a dark truth, that the darkness of the sun in our eyes has come from the light of the sun in our eyes. The Truth that blinds us is the very same which has given us sight. But the Light has come to expose the darkness in us. We love the darkness because we could not become ourselves the Light. We are the jealous moon, ever running from the truth that our Light is not our own.
So the Light wrapped himself in darkness and we “beheld his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1). But if we want that grace tomorrow, we must embrace this Truth today.
So today, let us take up our hammer and follow the soldier. Let us march to the summit of history to fill the air with our clanging confessions. Let this Man be the God he is and let us be the soldier we are. For as long as he is who he is and we are who he is not, today will remain for us the day we become something we otherwise could never become:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
“God is dead, and we have killed him! Truly, this Man is the Son of God.”