The silence was more frightening than the sounds of the street and the air raid sirens calling the ‘all clear’. One or two buildings had been badly damaged or destroyed. A battered pram remained exactly where a mother had placed it. Was the baby in the air raid shelter or not? Who knows? It was eerie even though I knew that the street scene was merely an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum and that the silence was the result of a failure in the sound system. However, because I knew what I should have been hearing, the silence was all the more poignant.
My mind flitted back to that street scene of the Blitz whilst listening to some songs sung by the incomparable Vera Lynn. At a time when Britain stood alone against Hitler, when people were spending their nights sleeping in air raid shelters and railway tunnels, people sang. It was amazing. Knowing that Hitler was poised to invade and that the Resistance (still a very well-kept secret) had been informed that they had a maximum life-expectancy of two weeks, still, people sang.
What is it about the human spirit that refuses to be beaten down by adversity? What is it that makes some people, in the midst of critical illness, smile and joke about the very disease that is eating its way through them?
Why is it that some people, when they apparently have every reason to feel defeated and perhaps almost annihilated by misfortune, manage to find some final spark of courage and determination, take that one extra step and find themselves on a long and sometimes painful journey that leads to daylight, sunshine and hope, if not for themselves, at least for others?
Today, as we celebrate the appearance of the angel to a young girl in Nazareth, we are talking about a mere child who was able to say ‘yes’ and face the fear and anxiety of having to explain her pregnancy to parents and a fiancé who had every reason to disbelieve her explanation. After all, how many of us would normally believe a girl who claimed that her unborn child was the result of a Divine intervention? Would we not be justified in some healthy scepticism?
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, but it is also a celebration of the courage and determination of so many others across the ages who have not been beaten by the difficulties that they have encountered.
May God bless them!
Monday, March 31, 2008
The silence was more frightening than the sounds of the street and the air raid sirens calling the ‘all clear’. One or two buildings had been badly damaged or destroyed. A battered pram remained exactly where a mother had placed it. Was the baby in the air raid shelter or not? Who knows? It was eerie even though I knew that the street scene was merely an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum and that the silence was the result of a failure in the sound system. However, because I knew what I should have been hearing, the silence was all the more poignant.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
There was a time when, many years ago, I used to help my fellow students in giving hot soup and bread rolls at night to the down-and-outs clustered underneath a flyover in Coventry city centre. The soup was always ‘interesting’ and the creation of a gypsy (a genuine Romany) who, helping out as a cook in the Salvation Army hostel, tried to give the maximum nourishment and flavour with the minimum of effort. The soup was always ready and waiting for us to collect it from the hostel, provided in generous quantities and steaming hot.
Meeting the people for whom the food was intended was something that took a considerable amount of courage for one with no close acquaintance with alcoholism and alcoholics. It was also the first time that I had ever made the effort to speak to the homeless, sleeping rough even in the depths of winter.
Quite frankly, it was a learning experience. Even the dirtiest, most disreputable and incoherent individuals had a story to tell, often one that was humbling as they described their struggles to remain in mainstream society. It was sad to see the care with which bottles of methylated spirits were concealed for later and less public consumption.
Then there was the night when a man, dressed in filthy rags, who was rather the worse for wear, but still sensible, was speaking at length on religious matters, quoting Scripture with ease and at length. Intrigued, I asked why it was that he had such familiarity with the Bible.
“If it were not for God, I would not be alive today. I might be sleeping rough, but it is he who keeps me safe. It is God who keeps me going and gives me a reason to keep on living even when life is like this.”
God is in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people!
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:38 pm
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The young woman, sat beside the farmer as he drove his horse and buggy through the open fields. It was her first time away from the busy life of Boston. Captivated by the unfamiliar scenery, as she was driven past one field in particular, she turned to the gruff, unsmiling farmer, asking him to explain all that she was seeing. “Cabbages? But they’re beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Hmmph! Cabbages is beautiful!” was the disgusted (and ungrammatical) reply of the farmer.
That scene from a film of which I’ve forgotten the title has remained in my mind for about 40 years. During my teens, when I spent many holiday and Saturday hours working on a farm, cabbages were very beautiful…until mine was the task of planting acres of seedlings. They were even less attractive when, hoe in hand, I was required to weed them. (It’s amazing just how much a 10 acre field can grow in the course of a single day!) Then came the cutting of the fully-grown cabbages: row after row after back-breaking, hand-bleeding row. By the end of the day I had convinced myself that if I never saw another cabbage in my life, it would be too soon.
From personal and practical familiarity, I can tell you that Brussels sprouts are a more painful experience than cabbages, because my memories include cutting them when they were caked with frost and my feet had turned to ice. Potatoes cause more painful backache. Carrots are a menace. Beans are much easier than peas, which take forever and still don’t fill the sack. Strawberries are delicious but crawling around on hands and knees for endless hours should earn a medal for those who pick them for the market….
Yet why is it that a treat to myself is to wander around vegetable markets, admiring the beautiful produce fresh from the farms and market gardens? Cabbages really are beautiful…so are potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, aubergines, apples, mangoes… God knew what he was doing when he made the world. He feasted our eyes as well as our stomachs!
This week, as we celebrate the Easter Octave, we are celebrating a horror that became beautiful: Gethsemane became Calvary became Easter Sunday morning and the Resurrection. All that was likely to lead to despair and destruction was conquered. Calvary and the empty tomb taught us one thing: the world can be turned upside down, but the Resurrection makes sense out of the non-sense.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:30 pm
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Why did Jesus fold the linen burial cloth after His resurrection?
The Gospel of John (20:7) tells us that the napkin, which was placed over the face of Jesus, was not just thrown aside like the grave clothes.
The Bible takes an entire verse to tell us that the napkin was neatly folded and was placed at the head of that stony coffin. Early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, 'They have taken the Lord's body out of the tomb, and I don't know where they have put him!'
Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb to see. The other disciple out ran Peter and got there first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen cloth lying there, but he didn't go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside.
He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus' head was folded up and lying to the side.
Is that important? Absolutely! Is it really significant? Yes! In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of that day.
The folded napkin had to do with the Master and Servant, and every Jewish boy knew this tradition. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, and the servant would not dare touch that table until the master was finished.
Now if the master was done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers and mouth with that napkin and toss it on to the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. For in those days, the wadded napkin meant, 'I'm done.' But if the master got up from the table, and folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant knew that the folded napkin meant, 'I'm not finished yet.' The folded napkin meant, 'I'm coming back!'
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:09 pm
Sunday, March 23, 2008
The cock crowed twice. I had betrayed him three times. He looked at me with such understanding and love that it pierced me to the heart, a heart that felt as though it would break. He had been so good to me, putting up with my blustering and my efforts to captain my crew even when we were not on board my fishing boat. It is hard to give up command just because I have moved back on land.
Of course, I had sworn undying loyalty and had been desperately offended when he foretold my betrayal. How could he have thought that I would not stand by him to the bitter end?
My attempt to defend him was so weak and ineffective. What could I achieve by cutting off a man’s ear, and only a servant at that?
I followed him at a distance. I denied him three times and then, as he was taken out of the courtyard, he looked at me and, for the first time in my life, I saw myself as I truly am: weak, boastful, blundering and a coward. I couldn’t bear the sight of myself, but even more, I couldn’t bear his glance of mingled compassion, sorrow and love.
I went out into the darkness and I wept until I thought my heart would break. The other disciples found me. Only John had had the courage to follow the Master to Calvary. Only he and the women had stood at the foot of the Cross. The rest of us had fled, afraid that we might also be taken prisoner and condemned to the same bitter end. From the very early hours of Friday morning, we’ve stayed in this room, sharing our fear and our guilt. We’ve been a sorry pack of miserable, cowardly traitors, full of “If only…” But there wasn’t an “If only…” We were scared and we ran, leaving Jesus alone to his dreadful fate… and I was the first and the greatest of the cowards, for I was the one who had promised to be faithful unto death… …and now, the Magdalen stands before us. She speaks of an empty tomb, a tomb that I haven’t even seen because I didn’t have the courage to escort the women, was to afraid to stand by his mother in her hour of greatest need.
If the tomb is empty and the body of Jesus is indeed stolen, then mine is the greatest guilt. The captain has to take the responsibility, but then I’m taking the responsibility, not only for my crew, but for my own cowardice.
Yet the Magdalen is speaking something I dare not think might be true. She is saying that Jesus lives. How could that happen? He died. John has described every last detail. Jesus died. Nobody dies and comes back to life… or do they? Is Jesus of Nazareth truly Lord? Has Jesus risen from the dead? Is that the truth behind the empty tomb? Can I dare hope…?
Posted by Sr. Janet at 11:25 am
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The room is quiet and I have been left alone with my thoughts, my memories and my pain. The early morning sunlight filters through the window, bringing a patch of pleasant warmth to my aching shoulders. It then travels, laden with dust-motes, to the roughly tiled floor. It is almost as if each tiny piece of dust, borne by the breeze, is a thought, a memory. I am tired, so very tired, more tired than I ever imagined possible.
Yet I have known tiredness before. I have known what it is like to feel unutterably weary at the end of the day and yet know that, as a wife and mother, my day had not ended for there were jobs still waiting to be done.
It is not easy to be a mother. There are abundant joys, but there are also sorrows. A mother takes upon herself the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the highs and lows of every member of her family, for this is what it means to be a mother. Motherhood is a vocation, a calling, in which one woman becomes many people. In a strange way that is difficult to describe, with the arrival of her first child, a woman ceases to be ‘I’ and is ‘we’ for the rest of her life. Yes, a woman and a man make a child, but it is the child who transforms them into a mother and a father. The child creates every bit as much as its parents.
As I lean back on the stone wall, gazing at the pillars, quiet sounds of busy streets filter through from the background to the foreground. Sound. Light. Stone. They are all one, just as the wooden table and the low couches, now pushed back against the wall are also one. They are not needed today, for it is all over. It is the Sabbath, a day of rest ordained by the Almighty, but, to be honest, I do not have the energy to do anything other than rest…and think…and remember…
There was a time, of course, when my hands were busy with all the little tasks of motherhood. I had a baby who needed to be fed, washed and clothed. Many were the hours when I held him closely to myself, thinking those secret thoughts that are not even shared with a much-loved husband. I treasured his tiny hands, gently unfurling his fingers and pressing them closely to my lips. His toes, waving backwards and forwards in unending movement, were always a source of wonder and admiration. Could I possibly put into words my joy when he first used the word, “Mamma”? Could I describe the light in Joseph’s eyes when Jesus first called him “Abba”?
Joseph and I taught Jesus to walk, but even before he could stumble around the house by himself, he would crawl to Joseph’s side as he worked. Even if it were not customary for the father’s trade to be handed on to the son, Jesus would have chosen to be a carpenter. He loved wood and could draw out of it a loveliness that even Joseph, with all his skill, could not equal.
It is customary that a child is considered Jewish because of his mother, and so it was that mine was the first responsibility of passing on to Jesus all of our precious traditions and prayers, but it was Joseph who took hold of Jesus’ hand and took him to the synagogue on the day that Jesus started school.
We were both so proud of Jesus, but Joseph nearly burst with joy that he was known as ‘Jesus bar-Joseph’, ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’. Of course, we knew that there was another story, unknown to the other people of Nazareth, but no earthly father could have loved Jesus more than Joseph.
The day came, all too soon, when Joseph died and Jesus and I had to make a new life without his comfort and strength. Jesus and I both missed Joseph’s humour and his quiet voice. I think that had it not been for the comforting arm of Jesus around my shoulders, Joseph’s death would have been much harder to bear. We were such a happy family.
The years passed and the evening came when Jesus sat beside me and told me that he would be leaving our home and the carpenter’s shop. He “must go about his father’s business” were the words he used, the same words, in fact, that he had spoken when Joseph and I found him in the Temple when Jesus went missing for three terrible, unforgotten, agonising days.
It was, then, with a mixture of sorrow and pride that I helped to bundle up some small items of clothing and food for Jesus as he set out very early the next morning. I probably overloaded him with food, but isn’t that exactly what all mothers do? We give children food as a way of showing them just how much they are loved. Food somehow acts as an unspoken, ‘I love you’ that is common to all mothers.
I stood at the door, watching Jesus walk away from Nazareth until I could see him no more. Life would be lonely without him…and it was. Although I heard so many reports of all that he was saying and doing around Galilee and Judaea, it wasn’t the same as having him at home, leaving his carpenter’s tools around the house in inconvenient places.
…and now, I sit in this Upper Room and look back at one of the very last scenes of his freedom. It was at this table that he sat, on one of these couches that he reclined for the Passover meal with his friends. It was here that they divided up the sacrificial lamb, flavoured with bitter herbs. John, as the youngest, would have asked the ritual question, Why is this night different from all other nights?” Jesus would have responded by telling the story of Moses and Israel’s escape from Egypt.
Yet that night was so different from any other night. John has repeatedly told me of each and every minute… John, young and enthusiastic, is now a son to replace my Jesus. John and I both know that this is a replacement that neither of us wanted. Was it not typical of Jesus that, at the height of his pain and when he was dying, he should think of someone else rather than of himself? Jesus knew that I would willingly have suffered every blow, every insult, every pain in order to protect my beloved child, but even when, I am sure, he could bear no more, he decided to protect me instead.
Peter and Judas. You both betrayed someone you loved dearly and saw, in one blinding flash of recognition, the terrible deed you had done. The difference between you is that Judas could not live with the guilt of this awful realisation. Peter, you will have to live with it at every moment for the rest of your life. For Judas, it was the source of immense despair, for you, Peter, it will be the driving force for the rest of your life.
James, you who follow the letter of the law and hold so firmly to our cherished traditions, you, too, have been forced to take stock of everything during the past couple of days. Will you still be a legislator, or will you find compassion and understanding will season your judgements?
Matthew. You were a tax-collector before you met Jesus. What will you do now? You are educated beyond most of the Disciples. You can read and write. How will you use those skills? You cannot go back to your piles of other people’s money because you met Jesus and were changed forever.
Thomas, the doubter, the questioner. Not everybody realised that your questions were asked because you could see more deeply. You did not seek understanding so much as to understand more clearly. There is a huge difference. You will lead many to grasp what Jesus was actually saying when, at times, he might have seemed obscure and difficult to comprehend.
For myself, I followed my Jesus even to the bitter end. I heard his every word, every gasp as he hung on the Cross. I held him in my arms when he was taken down. I accompanied my Son to another person’s tomb. I watched as the stone was rolled across the entrance.
…and now, I sit here in the Upper Room. I, too, have my life ahead of me. A lifetime can be a very long period, even in one’s later years. I sit here, in the Upper Room, because I feel closer to my living Son, my child. I live, but my mother’s heart and soul are there with him, in the tomb…
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:02 am
Friday, March 21, 2008
The tomb is closed. We can now go home, but where is home now that Jesus has gone? Do I return to Nazareth or do I stay here in Jerusalem? What does John want to do?
John. You are now my son, but I would far rather have my beloved Jesus, the son of my own body, here with me, alive and well. As a mother, I would have spared him even a moment of suffering and yet I could not. The world has not yet seen that Jesus and I were inextricably linked from the moment of his conception, when his life was truly safe within my own. True, I could say that we were together from all eternity, but I am a woman who cannot look back into eternity. My backward gaze sees the visit of the angel and knows the instant when Jesus was present in my womb. From that moment, we lived and breathed and acted as one, even when we were far apart.
I cannot describe the anguish at the foot of the Cross. It is all too recent and my heart and mind are numb with pain and horror. I am glad that I had the opportunity to hold my cherished child in my arms once more before we made our way to a borrowed tomb. Yes, I had met Joseph of Arimathea before today, but little did I know that he would be offering Jesus a tomb just as my own Joseph offered him a home.
My Joseph. If only you were here with me at this moment. I feel your absence more keenly than ever before now that I do not have Jesus at my side. I remember the moment when Jesus and I left you in your tomb, but now that I am also leaving Jesus on a stone slab, I am lonely as I have never known or imagined possible.
Yet even in my loneliness, there are others who are also devastated by the death of Jesus. Mary Magdalen. She met my Son and was transformed. It was a miracle, certainly, for someone of her reputation and experience to suddenly put her life in order and become one of the most faithful followers of Jesus. Meeting Jesus gave her the opportunity to realise that all the powerful love that she held within her and had abused, could be put to good purpose and be life-giving.
Mary, my dear cousin, mother of James and Joseph. Your son abandoned mine and yet you and I stood together at the foot of my Son’s disgrace and glory. I think that James will never forget that whereas he was a coward, afraid for his own life, his mother ignored the inevitable gossip and criticism in an effort to give me the comfort and support that I needed. You did not forget your nephew and covered up for the shortcomings of your son. How can I ever thank you?
John. How did your mother feel when she heard Jesus tell you that I was to be your mother? She was also there as Jesus breathed his last. Her son James had run away and her son John was given to another woman. Did she feel that she, too, was suddenly bereaved and left alone? How will she bear the loss of two sons within such a short time? You were both there for me, but you were not present for your mother… or did you think that you were being torn asunder between your concerns for Jesus, for me and for her? How could you have known what to do?
John, when Jesus died, it was your responsibility as son to find him a burial place. Did you ask Joseph of Arimathea, or was he here on his own initiative? He had stood against the Sanhedrin of which he is a member, and had braved the anger of Herod as he asked for permission to remove Jesus from the Cross. He was brave. He was not always so, but it seems that the death of Jesus has brought out hidden strengths in some people. Whereas Joseph had initially approached Jesus under cover of darkness, here, he tackled Herod in the clear light of day, before the setting of the sun heralded the coming of the Sabbath.
We have not had time to properly anoint Jesus for his burial. That is something that will have to wait until after the Sabbath. We must return here early on Sunday morning.
Jesus, I bitterly regret that we have had so little time to prepare your body. You deserve so much honour and yet you have received so much hatred and rejection.
Yet, although the cross was meant to be the greatest form of degradation that could by inflicted upon you, it was also your glory. You chose to accept death, following your father’s will so closely even though you knew that the consequences of such obedience would be so terrible.
Jesus, your Cross was your glory. It is still too recent for me to say that I exult in all that you achieved. My heart is still overflowing with too much pain for me to say that, but, Jesus, as we close the door of your tomb, I can say, as only a mother can, that I am proud of you, my dearest, beloved Son.
All that you have done in such a short life will be heralded for all ages to come. Your words will never be forgotten. They will be borne within other hearts and minds, giving others the strength and the courage to totally commit themselves to your Father.
Jesus, Joseph and I would want nothing more than your total fidelity to your real Father: God.
Jesus, you are my Son, but you are also the Son of God.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 4:46 pm
I would have given my life to avoid this moment. Never did I expect, when Jesus called me to follow him, that I would, one day, be helping to remove his body from a Cross, to place it in the waiting arms of his mother, now my mother also.
How do I describe her utter weariness? It is almost as though her whole life has been building up to this moment and now that Jesus has died, there is nothing more that can be drained from her. Mary has given her all, just as her Son placed himself entirely in the hands of his Father in Heaven. I, John, was at the foot of the Cross with Mary and heard that anguished and yet triumphant cry of Jesus as he breathed his last.
Where did he find the strength? He had suffered beyond any limits of human endurance and yet, within the last seconds, managed to pull himself up on his hands, forcing even more pain into his feet as they pressed against the Cross, declaring that he was about to commend his spirit into the hands of his Father. By rights, he should not even have had the strength left to utter a single word. Yet, even those words were not his all. His very last speech was a simple statement: “It is finished”.
It seems to me as though, when Jesus died, it was not slavish obedience to a Father who demanded the utmost and who inflicted brutality beyond description as a test of loyalty. It looks as though Jesus had a choice at any moment. He chose to put his life into his Father’s hands. If that is what happened, then does that not mean that his death was, in fact, the supreme act of freedom? Does that not mean that his refusal to defend himself or to run away were also acts of freedom and not of compulsion? Did the death of Jesus teach us something about obedience and also about freedom?
As I stand here beside Mary, waiting for the moment when we can remove the body of Jesus to his tomb, I cannot help looking back on all that she has told me. The angel offered her the choice of motherhood, even though her unmarried status would open her to criticism and the possibility of being stoned to death for adultery. Yet she chose to say ‘yes’ to the angel’s invitation. Simeon and Anna foretold a sword of sorrow, but she still said ‘yes’. She did not plead with Jesus to stay at her side when Joseph died, but allowed him to leave Nazareth and head towards the River Jordan and John the Baptist.
For Mary, too, obedience meant a free choice, not compulsion. Had she refused God’s request through the angel, what would have happened? Would God have looked elsewhere? Did he know her so fully that although he gave her a choice, he also knew that she would accept?
Mary’s hands stroke the matted, bloody hair of Jesus. There must have been times when she did the same thing when he was just a baby or a small child. Is she remembering those moments? What are her thoughts at this time? Is her heart too full for words to form? I do not know. My own brain is almost a blank slate, overflowing with too many images and thoughts. Pain reaches a stage when any increase is imperceptible; when all that exists is pain and so one more makes little difference. I think that Mary and I have both reached that stage.
Mary and I were not the only ones at the foot of the Cross. There were other women there also, but none of the Disciples of Jesus apart from myself. That is something I find bitterly disappointing. Jesus spent so much time with us and yet his friends deserted him.
Even on the Cross, Jesus called out to his Father, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” It was not only his friends who abandoned him. He felt himself even without his Father and his God! That was the abyss of loneliness!
Yet we were there, and every moment of his agony was ours. Now he is at peace, but we who truly loved him will bear forever the sight of the crucified Jesus in our hearts and minds. Our suffering continues.
The guards are still around in a desultory sort of way. The fact of the Sabbath closing in has urged them onwards. They feared that the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus might survive until the morning. Crucifixion is usually a slow death. In order to preserve the sacredness of the Sabbath, they caused two more deaths, breaking the legs of the thieves in order to hasten their ends. Those two men have almost reached their last moment. One of them, his eyes glazing over, is watching Jesus and Mary. He is the one whom Jesus promised a place in Paradise this very day. What are his thoughts? The sad thing is that whereas Jesus felt himself to be deserted even in the presence of some of those who loved him most dearly, these thieves were truly abandoned. I did not see a single person at the foot of their gibbets. I hope that they will have people who will mourn them, but it is sad that nobody braved recognition in order to give at least a minimum of support as they suffered beside Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea. Faithful friend. You first approached Jesus at night lest you be recognised by others. Yet, in the end, you approached Herod and asked for the body of Jesus. You offered Mary your own tomb for her Son. We could not have prepared a burial place for Jesus within the space of a few unexpected hours. Were it not for your concern, Jesus would have been laid in the ground as a pauper, for we could not buy something more suitable.
It is interesting that, once again, there is a Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What is it about the name of Joseph that he is there at the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus as someone who is faithful, responsible and caring? Was Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth acting through Joseph of Arimathea? Who knows but God?
Mary is crooning a lullaby to Jesus, perhaps one she used when he was a baby. The sword of sorrow has pierced her heart, but she will continue living. She has not been destroyed by the death of her Son. She is here when we most need a mother.
PS The 14th Station will be posted later on today
Posted by Sr. Janet at 7:38 am
Thursday, March 20, 2008
“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
It will not be much longer now. Jesus will soon be dead and I can order my men to turn back to the Praetorium. I have had enough and so have they. Some of the Jews have been mocking Jesus even in his agony up there on the Cross, but most of us who are Romans did not. Even those who cast lots for the bloodstained, seamless robe that Jesus was wearing are looking sheepish and trying to disguise their actions. I presume that the man who cast the winning throw will try to sell the robe to supplement his paltry wages. After all, it is a fine piece of work and an excellent example of a local craft. His bundle is an embarrassment, so he will not keep it for long. It is a pity. Why does he not give it to the mother of Jesus, for she is standing there at the foot of the Cross.
I am sickened by today’s deeds. I long to be away from here. I had thought that I was battle-hardened and could stomach most things, but I hate being present at a crucifixion, even that of a criminal… and Jesus was no criminal. He was innocent of any wrongdoing. It should have been his captors who were brought to their just desserts. After all, is it not written in their Law that someone who wrongfully accusers another must suffer the same fate as the one whom they condemn? That would have turned the tables pretty successfully if Pilate had thought of it, but then he would have been in severe trouble with Caesar if he had crucified the High Priests and some of the other Temple authorities.
“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
Does Jesus truly feel himself to be abandoned by the God whom he has been preaching? Does he feel the depths of desolation that I feel creeping into my own heart?
The weather is deteriorating and the rain is starting to fall, but I am cold with an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. If Jesus dies, I can see nowhere to go. Since we left the Praetorium, I have begun to see the truth of some of the words that I have heard reported of him. We have executed someone who has only done good things for others.
Even as he hangs there, mocked by some of those whom one would have thought would have pitied a fellow Jew, he has uttered not a single word of criticism. Of course, speech is difficult because it is suffocation that eventually kills in crucifixion, when nailed feet can no longer push the body up high enough to take one more breath. It is a cruel death. Still, some victims manage to utter a few words of well-chosen curses over those who surround their death-throes.
But it has not been so with Jesus. He actually prayed for his persecutors. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I am stunned with amazement. He has forgiven those who have killed him. He has even offered forgiveness to me! I do not know what to do with that forgiveness. A short while ago I prayed to his God to release me from the burden of guilt that will haunt me for the rest of my life and it was as if Jesus heard that prayer, for it was a prayer, even if a selfish one, and has held out a hand to me even whilst it is nailed to his Cross!
“Mother, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.”
God of Jesus, I think my heart will break if I hear much more. Even as he is dying, Jesus thinks of others and instructs his mother and friend to care for each other as a son and a mother. I can see that this is an instruction that they do not want to hear even as they pull closer together. They genuinely care for each other, but they would prefer to have Jesus alive and whole, not broken and dying.
“I thirst.” Those are the only words that Jesus has spoken on his own behalf. He has not asked to be rescued from his pain or from this terrible death. Suspended between heaven and earth is a sign that he has been rejected by the gods and by man. That is why it is such a terrible death. Yet he has asked for nothing for himself. He has only declared that he is thirsty. Of course he is. He has lost so much blood. He must be bitterly cold, not only because the weather is turning increasingly towards a big storm, but also because he is in shock after so much trauma. He has a thirst that nothing will quench, especially a little vinegar on a dirty sponge.
Yet I have a feeling that Jesus is speaking of a different thirst. Even on the Cross, he is consumed with longing. If only I could read his mind even now. I cannot put into words the effect he is having on me. My earlier guilt is being replaced by something else that I am as yet unable to identify. I have a feeling that Jesus would be able to tell me exactly what is happening, and yet, because I am one of those who has killed him, I cannot hope to sit with him and listen to his wisdom. I am also thirsty with longing, but will I ever have an answer now that Jesus is dying? Does that mean that the God of Jesus has forsaken me just as he seems to have abandoned the one who described himself as the Son of God?
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Even as he is dying, Jesus still trusts the God whom he also feels has left him alone in this terrible agony. Does he feel the darkness of absolute despair, or is his God starting to make himself known to the human wreck who hangs there above me? Is Jesus at last beginning to experience some consolation in return for his loyalty and obedience? How can he, from such a terrible position, still place himself in the hands of his God? Does that mean that the God of Jesus is stronger than Jupiter or Mithras? Our soldiers’ god, Mithras, does demand bloody sacrifice, but does not receive the loyalty and commitment that Jesus offers his God. Who is the God of Jesus?
“It is finished!”
Jesus is dead. We can now go home, but I am not the same person who went on duty this morning. I have been changed… and for ever. I am overwhelmed by an unutterable weariness and an emptiness I cannot describe.
Truly, today, we have killed the Son of God.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 7:40 am
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Jesus is no different. This is a moment that I hate, even as a battle-scarred centurion.
When the first nail starts its journey into the wrist of a condemned man, the scream is one that would haunt the dreams of all those who hear it. It is obvious that although the journey to Calvary was already painful and anticipatory of greater pain, that of the nail forcing its way through living flesh is far greater than anything that could have been expected.
We Romans have made an art of crucifixion. The nails do not go into the palms of the hands, for the weight of the body would be too great for them to bear. No. They are hammered through a small gap in the bones of the wrist, a gap which is weight-bearing, but is also the route for a small nerve which is pierced by the passage of the nails. The effect is excruciating. I would guess that there could be nothing like it.
Curiously, one effect of the nail travelling through the nerve is that the thumb, in losing its independent movement, crosses itself against the palm of the hand, almost as a gesture of self-protection.
I have attended many crucifixions, but I have never become accustomed to that initial scream and then the dull thuds of the hammer driving the nails into the wooden crossbeam. It is a sickening sound at the best of times. It is rather more difficult now that I have begun to feel sorry for this Jesus of Nazareth, because I have begun to feel pity. That is not what I want just now. I want my heart to be hardened, to escape feelings of compassion and understanding filtering through. To be a witness to human suffering of the magnitude of crucifixion needs a strong heart and stomach, preferably hard, rather than strong, so that the images will not haunt the dreams of days and years to come.
I never thought that I would ask the gods to give me a hard heart. The time was when I wanted wisdom and understanding, but those qualities need a heart that can be touched and opened. One that becomes impermeable to the sufferings of others is also gradually crafted into something unlovely. Perhaps that is why my wife and sons keep at a distance these days. It is a pity because I love them all and am proud of Alexander and Rufus. They will be fine men because they have never learned to become unloving… unless it is that I am teaching them as I continue to be caught up with executions.
Take a look at that woman on the edge of the crowd. Even I can see that she is someone who has learned the meaning of love. Is she the mother of Jesus, I wonder? I would think so because her pains are as great as his. I can see that every blow of the hammer strikes a sword of sorrow into her heart and yet she stands there, trying to catch the eyes of Jesus in her own. It is almost impossible, of course, because her son’s head tosses from side to side, as if its movement would take away the agony. Who knows if he even sees her when, by chance, he turns in her direction? Surely, at this time, his whole world has become confined to all that is being done to him by others?
That woman has not hardened herself to be here. She has become strong. Was she already strong and courageous? I suppose so. Most people do not ‘suddenly’ find courage: they prepare for it by years of rigorous training. I cannot make a warrior of a coward as my cohort faces battle. A warrior is made by a lifetime of tiny choices and the understanding and acceptance of their consequences. Bravery does not mean that someone is unafraid: it merely means that they do what is right in spite of their fear. The mother of Jesus is desperately afraid for her Son and in that, she completely forgets the implications for herself as she tries to be there for him. That, I suppose, is the meaning of motherhood.
Until now, I had thought of myself as a warrior, but now, I am not so sure. I am unsure of many things. Where am I going? Are all the things that I had thought I had achieved real or imaginary? Am I big or little? Am I merely a big fish in the small pond that is Jerusalem? If I were back home in Rome, I would be insignificant and almost invisible. Here, I lead a few men, wear a highly polished uniform and shout orders at people who are unable to fight back. What would happen if they were suddenly to retaliate?
…and what about the very action that I am called upon to perform here and now? I do not agree with it. I do not want to crucify Jesus of Nazareth, especially after seeing him on his way to Calvary, but could I dare confront Pilate and refuse to put his orders into practice, even knowing that I am merely the ‘fall guy’. Pilate would not have the courage to stand here and see this through. He is weak and spineless, afraid of the consequences of standing against Caesar.
It is all a case of one person being afraid of the person in authority, and yet, who is the one to suffer? Only the poor, the weak and defenceless…and Jesus, who could have defended himself but who did not do so. He chose to remain silent.
I do not understand and, suddenly, I do not know where I am going or who I really am. I have fewer and fewer answers with each thud of that hammer as it bangs the nails into the hands of Jesus.
He is being killed because others did not stand up to protect him and to reject injustice, lying and self-seeking. Had I rebelled against Pilate, could I have saved his life? Would my desire for justice save the lives of those who would otherwise know only injustice and cruelty?
Jesus, as you are nailed to the Cross, it is not iron nails that fasten you, but everything that is evil. Forgive me. Even though my eyes are opening, I am still under orders and must see this through to the very end, must witness your death because of the instructions that have been given me. I am guilty and I know that this guilt will weigh me down for the rest of my life. I will outlive you and unless you forgive me, I cannot bear the future that gapes in front of me like a chasm.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:23 pm
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
As the centurion of this cohort, it was my task to take charge of the crucifixion. I have performed the same act on many occasions, but this one is different. I did not know Jesus of Nazareth, but I had heard of his name. It would be hard for him to have remained unknown to the garrison because we had to be aware of potential troublemakers. Yet I had only heard of the Nazarene as a possible prophet. No acts of insurrection or violence were associated with him. Of course, the Jewish authorities disliked him, but I don’t think much of them myself. They are a scheming, self-centred, power-hungry bunch of individuals who are unworthy of the positions that they hold. They are not leaders in the true sense of the word.
This road has been hard. I wish that it had not been mine. I have seen too much of this man from Nazareth.
When we first left the Praetorium, I was not too concerned that he had been scourged and mocked. That happens to all the condemned criminals, or, rather, to many of them. The crown of thorns was a new and unique twist that caused me to smile. He had claimed to be a king and there he was, wearing a crown, albeit of thorns.
It was only as we made our way along the Via Crucis that I reflected more deeply.
Jesus had not spoken out in his own defence as he faced Pilate. That in itself was unusual. Most criminals rant and rave, or else plead for mercy, grovelling on the floor in abject fear. Jesus did not do that. Even after he had been beaten, he stood there with a dignity that I could almost describe as regal…and yet, how could he be kingly with blood dripping onto the floor and staining his robes? Yet I can think of no other word that fits the description.
It is not a long road from the Praetorium to Calvary. Someone who is fit and healthy could walk it in a few minutes, but Jesus was no longer in his peak condition. Of course I could see that before tonight, he had been a very fine specimen of a man. A carpenter who had taken to living outdoors, wandering the hills of Galilee and feeding on a diet of freshly-caught fish could ask for nothing better. I feel somewhat guilty that the actions of my subordinates have been responsible for humiliating a man whom I increasingly understand to be innocent of any crime. I feel bad that they have degraded something that was good: a living human being. It is not true to say that my soldiers have made a nothing of a something, but they made a pretty sustained effort to do just that.
We have walked the Via Crucis and Jesus has fallen several times. I am glad that I ordered someone to take the Cross on his own shoulders, but now I am sad that two innocent men suffered today, for the Cyrene was also guiltless.
This road to Calvary has taught me a lesson. I have witnessed a mob gradually realise its own guilt. Some people have quietly removed themselves from the scene, wanting to disassociate themselves from the horror that is to come within a very short time.
Others have been afraid to consider the terrible scene that will shortly be before their gaze, and yet they have remained because, in some way, they want to offer their support to Jesus. Interestingly, many of them seem to be women. Are women predisposed towards defending the defenceless? I think so because what is stronger than a mother who sees her child threatened?
I saw his mother. I do not think that I will ever forget the agony in her eyes. Yet, in her anguish, she too was regal. Is it not strange that the word ‘regal’ is the one that comes to my mind at such a time? Yet I can think of no other word that can express such dignity even in the midst of torment.
Jesus of Nazareth. I do not know whether to admire you or to despise you. You could have escaped from Gethsemane, but you did not. It was only a short distance to the wilderness where you would have been safe.
You could have escaped from Caiaphas, but you chose to face him. You did not defend yourself against Pilate, who had the power to release you.
Are you determined to die? What good will come of your execution?
Now you stand there, stripped at the foot of your Cross. You are bleeding anew. You are stripped of your robes, but something is telling me that I am also being stripped naked. My heart is slowly being opened to a new reality that it has not faced until now: that there might be some things that are not only worth a life, but are also worth a death.
Is there anything in my life that I believe so firmly that I would be prepared to face death in order to uphold it? That is a thought! Who is God? What is God? Is God worth my life? Jesus, you obviously think so. Are you a son of God? Does your God demand a life?
Jesus of Nazareth, who are you?
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:58 am
Monday, March 17, 2008
Will Jesus be able to pull himself up this time, or is he too weak? Will he die here, rather than up there, just ahead of us?
We have now begun the last part of the journey to his crucifixion. The road has given way to a rough, stony, path that makes the uphill walk even more difficult. The weight of the Cross on my shoulders is now heavy and the skin is sore, especially where the splinters have entered.
The wood is so rough. It is hard to believe that it was once a thing of beauty, for now it has become an object of pain, of shame and degradation. How easily people can turn beauty into ugliness! Where are the branches, leaves, flowers and fruits that once made the parent tree something to be cherished and admired? What will be the effect on the world of this one small, rough-hewn beam that will soon bear the weight of Jesus? Will it be remembered or forgotten? Is it not ironic that a carpenter, who created beauty from wood will also die on wood, his very medium of loveliness and creativity becoming the instrument of his shame, torture and death?
Jesus is now very weak and I am not sure if he will make it up the hill. I saw him shudder as we arrived here. He looked up towards the gallows that are already permanently erected and onto which he will be fastened after his hands are nailed to this crossbeam that I, Simon of Cyrene, the innocent one, bear for one who is even more innocent.
Strangely enough, it is now I who feel guilty, I, who have committed no crime, I, who carry the Cross of one who has been condemned to death.
I feel guilty because of my rebellion when the soldiers pulled me from the crowd and forced me to help a condemned man on his way to Calvary. I feel bad that I was so unwilling to help one who was helpless.
I am guilty because he is guiltless. Is that a paradox? I do not think so. I have watched him make his way towards a certain, predestined, agonising end and have seen his gentleness and integrity shine through his degradation. Even though he has been in such pain, he has shown compassion for others: he showered compassion on his mother, a woman who wiped his bloodstained face with a cloth and on some women who wailed at the side of the road. He did not look for pity for himself: he showed pity for others. That is unique. That is a generosity and a selflessness that I have never, ever, seen before. That is why I am guilty. I wanted the crowd to feel for me, to see the injustice of the soldiers as they condemned me to walk beside the Nazarene on his way to Calvary.
I am guilty because I resented Jesus. I resented the indignity that his suffering inflicted upon me. At first, I wanted to retaliate and hurt him even more for all that was happening to me. In my anger, I thought that he deserved his end and that it could not come too quickly or too painfully.
Yet I could not escape the Via Crucis because I was also forced to walk alongside Jesus. I was forced to look into the eyes of others and see, not just the anger and the condemnation, the scorn and the ridicule, but also the pain in the eyes of those who loved him. I saw the anguish of those who had never known Jesus, but who could not bear to see the gratuitous brutality of men who behaved worse than beasts, for animals would never treat one of their own in the way that I saw men forget their humanity.
As I stumbled along my own Via Crucis, I did not fall, but I felt the aching shoulders that would have been those of Jesus, except that I had not been scourged. I took on his tiredness but did not assume his pain. Somehow the contrast made an unexpected mark within my heart. It was as if I suddenly saw, for my first time, the face of others as if I had been blind until this very moment. I was blind, but now I see. Does that sound strange? My eyes had never been diseased, but the eyes of my heart had been turned in upon myself. I had been closed to the sufferings of others, had never known what it was like for a parent to watch beside a dying child, had never thought of the agony of a family that knew one of its members to be sentenced for a crime of which he or she was innocent. Until now, I had never considered the senselessness of violence and injustice, had never prayed for the ill-treatment of another person to come to an end. Until I walked beside Jesus, it had never crossed my mind that I could want to take someone into my arms and defend them from further hurt, yearn to kiss away the anxiety and the wretchedness, replace anguish with peace and love.
Could I dare say that, carrying the Cross of Jesus, even for this short distance, I am learning what it means to love? Am I crazy?
I am suddenly realising that, when I see Jesus stumble or notice some sign of pain in one of the crowd, I am the one who flinches and wants to be able to defend and shield them. Is Jesus teaching me compassion? Is Jesus teaching me love?
We are now very, very close to the summit of Calvary. Jesus has fallen a third time. This fall is different from the others. He is so weak that he might not manage to stand again. Yet, this time is different. The crowd is quiet and subdued. The soldiers who pull Jesus to his feet are almost gentle. It is as if they, too, know what it is to feel guilt. They have also realised that they are about to kill an innocent man and are ashamed.
Now, it is only the truly hard of heart who have not been touched by Jesus. The tragedy is that they are forcing themselves to even greater depths of shame as they decide they have to see this through to the bitter end. Whereas some of those who were responsible for condemning Jesus would now seek to release him, there are also those who think that, by killing him, they will be able to escape from the heinous crime that, in their heart of hearts, they know they are about to commit. They will not be deterred.
Father God, forgive me for my earlier sins. Thank you for the privilege you have given me in letting me know the Cross of Jesus. Father, forgive these people who have not learned the lesson that Jesus has just taught me. Now, Father God, I would willingly die with Jesus. His blood and mine will be mingled on the Cross, but I will not die. I must carry the knowledge of all that I have seen and experienced to the end of my days. Father God, thank you for this Cross.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 7:46 pm
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
He looks so peaceful as he sleeps in my arms. He is beautiful and, even in his sleep, his tiny fingers constantly curl and uncurl. My baby is but two months old, my firstborn. It is as if I have never known happiness until this moment, so great is the joy that he has brought to me. My days and my nights are filled with the thought of how blessed I am to have such a child.
Yet, earlier today, I saw a mother who must have known a similar joy and now knows a pain beyond anything that could be borne by any other.
Yes. I witnessed Jesus of Nazareth as he trod the Via Crucis towards Calvary. The sight was dreadful, but, as a new mother, the sight that initially touched me even more deeply was his mother. I could identify with her because Jesus was her baby just as much as the sleeping infant in my arms is mine.
I have never spoken to Mary, but I am familiar with her appearance because my friend Sarah pointed her out to me on several occasions when Jesus came to Jerusalem. There is nothing that particularly marks her out from other women, except for her graciousness and kindness. In a crowd, nobody would automatically look towards her and identify her as being different from anybody else. That is why, I suppose, she was able to mingle with the mob earlier on today.
Yet, had anybody looked into her face, as I did, they would have seen that her anguish was unutterably deep, that the man stumbling along the road had to be her son and that she could only be his mother. She looked absolutely ashen, stressed out and utterly helpless to change the course of events.
It is a look I have seen before on the faces of the mothers of those condemned to crucifixion, especially if they were innocent of any crime. The mothers of hardened criminals had a strange sense of inevitability about their agony. They knew that their sons had committed some crime or other and were atoning for their misdemeanours. The mothers of the innocent wore a tragic desperation in their faces: something was happening that should not be happening and there was nothing that could be done to halt the undeserved barbarity. That was the same look in the eyes of Mary.
Those whose sons were guiltless hold a despair, torment and vulnerability about them that would cause any judge’s heart to soften: even that of Pilate, but, then, he was driven by political expediency as he passed his judgement on Jesus. Pilate knew what he was doing, and so did Annas, Caiaphas and Herod.
I had not intended to witness the journey of Jesus towards Calvary. My friends and I had been gathered around the well very close to the Via Crucis. A well, as you must know, is almost the centre of a woman’s life in any village or town. It is the place for meeting, sharing news, joys and sorrows, whilst usefully drawing water for the family’s needs. There are usually several women at the well at any one time, each waiting her turn, and so it is inevitable that a conversation starts, grows and develops. Each brings along her youngest children who cannot be left unattended. There is great amusement as the toddlers see each other and start, on faltering steps, to move towards each other. It never ceases to amaze me the way in which small children identify each other, even before they have spoken their first word.
As usual we were gathered around the well, chatting, when we heard the low rumble of a crowd on the move, a unique sound that is punctuated by one or more voices occasionally rising above the others. The noise appeared to be coming from the Via Crucis, so we gathered together our children and water jugs, heading towards the cause of our curiosity. We were not harsh or looking for a spectacle: we were simply women whose humdrum, monotonous lives sometimes need something that is a little different from normal, something else that can be a topic of conversation.
I saw Mary before I saw Jesus. I was shocked to realise that her Son must be the reason for the cavalcade. I had listened to Jesus on several occasions and had enjoyed his words, for he seemed to favour especially those who are poor and disadvantaged. I did not always agree with him because he spoke of a reality that he could see but we could not. “Blessed are the poor…” Since when? Well, perhaps our struggle to survive will earn us the kingdom of Heaven, but some of those who are poor are also shiftless, lazy and not too honest in their dealings with others. Perhaps Jesus had a deeper meaning that I could not perceive. I do not know.
The sight of Jesus and Mary cut my friends and me to the quick. I pulled my baby closer to my breast as if I wanted to protect him from the sight that he is too young to see. The other mothers did the same with their children, although one or two of the little ones managed to peep out under their mother’s cloak. We suddenly did not want to be present, wanted to be anywhere other than the Via Crucis, witnesses to someone suffering who did not deserve his fate.
Jesus saw us and, even in his agony, spoke to us. “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.”
What did he mean?
I am frightened. I sit here with my beloved baby, for whom I would give my life. Did Jesus foresee something to which I am blind? What was he saying?
Almighty Father, open the eyes of my mind. Give me understanding so that I might protect my baby as Mary wanted to defend hers. What did Jesus mean by his words?
Posted by Sr. Janet at 9:06 am
Monday, March 10, 2008
That had to have hurt! Jesus will not be able to walk much further and it was with difficulty that he just stopped himself from falling when he caught his foot on a stone.
I can see that he is much weaker even though I, Simon the Cyrene, an innocent man, am the one who is carrying his Cross. We are not far from Calvary, but the road surface has already deteriorated considerably. The Romans were interested in having an efficient infrastructure for their own needs, not for those condemned to death to have a less traumatic journey. Yes, the road is still made of large, flat stones, but they are smaller than the ones in the city. It is much easier to stumble and trip over one that stands slightly higher than its neighbours. It is a road that now needs concentration.
Jesus is too weak to concentrate on anything other than putting one foot in front of the other and slowly, painfully, continuing the journey to Calvary. Me? Although I am fit and strong, carrying this heavy piece of wood is tiring and my shoulders are aching. There is no way known that the Nazarene could have borne this weight thus far without collapsing and perhaps dying from the effort. His heart would have given up, a heart that, in spite of everything, seems determined to carry him onwards, ever onwards.
I myself have already stumbled once or twice since the soldiers forced me to carry the Cross lest Jesus die on the way. I have been fortunate insofar as I have not fallen, but my shoulders are bruised and I can feel that some splinters have already forced their way through my tunic. Perhaps they have even drawn blood.
That is a thought. When Jesus dies, his blood and mine will be together on the Cross! I am not sure what that means because I am not yet sure what I think of Jesus of Nazareth. A man of courage and determination, certainly. From all that I have heard, he is also a man of wisdom, compassion and understanding. What was it, then, that led to such foolishness as to denounce the temple authorities?
They do say that there are only two types of people in this world who can speak the truth without fear: the honest and the fool. Something makes me think that Jesus was both: honest enough to speak out regardless of the cost to himself and a fool because he could easily have thought out the consequences for himself. Was he so on fire with righteous indignation against the authorities and so burning with concern for others, especially the poor and downtrodden, that he found himself compelled to speak out even if it meant that he would die in the process?
Where are his friends? Has he been deserted? He is to die because he claimed to be the King of the Jews, yet, with so many Jews here in Jerusalem for the Passover, why are they not trying to protect, defend and liberate him? He is not completely alone because I have seen one or two people who seem to be close to him. There is a young man escorting a woman who, I presume, must be his mother, judging by the agony in her expression when she looks at Jesus. She can barely take her eyes away from him, as if she is trying to absorb all his sufferings upon herself. Even if someone speaks to her, she barely averts her gaze from Jesus. It is as if she is willing her thoughts into his mind, telling him that he is not alone and that she is with him. Does he know that she is there? Does the presence of his mother comfort him or is his brain too filled with pain and the ordeal he must still face?
There’s a quiet dignity about Jesus and also his mother, for I presume that only a mother could share such agony and still keep on going. Even in the midst of all this horror, even though he shows no sign of being a king, regardless of the degradation that he has already experienced, there is something within him that has not been destroyed by the violence that he has experienced. It is also true of his mother.
It seems to me that the crowd now senses that there is something different about this execution for, instead of becoming increasingly rowdy and insulting, they are, if anything, quieter. In spite of everything, Jesus is almost in command here. I do not know how to describe it. He has been beaten, but not vanquished, and I think that message is starting to filter through to the onlookers. It is strange. It is as if all that has happened to him has only served to show the High Priests, Herod and even Pilate, for what they are. Regardless of their authority, they are increasingly, even if invisibly, present as mindless, self-seeking, power-hungry thugs.
Is it possible that a victim of violence criminalizes his or her abusers? By that, I do not mean that by perpetrating violence they were not already criminalizing themselves. Yet, the victim, through sheer goodness and without intending to do so, actually allows the thuggery to be seen in its true horror, as inflicted upon a totally undeserving human being. Somehow the abusers’ absence of compassion is highlighted by its presence in one who, through being violated, has something of a right to fight back.
I think that this is what is happening with Jesus as we head towards Calvary.
I am seeing more and more, that this is an innocent man for whom I am carrying the Cross. With each step that we take, I am seeing the guilt of those who condemned him. In fact, I am beginning to reflect that for the blood of Jesus to be mixed with mine will be an honour far beyond anything I could ever have deserved.
Jesus has just tripped upon a stone and has fallen. His pain and weakness are all too visible. The crowd, however, is not jeering as it did only a short while ago. True, there are some who are hurling insults, but they are not everybody. Even some of the soldiers, especially the Centurion heading the procession, are beginning to look at their prisoner with different eyes. They, too, are starting to ask questions of themselves. These battle-hardened veterans are not totally insensitive. They have the ability to question and to challenge.
As Jesus falls for a second time, they are starting to challenge themselves.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 9:11 am
Sunday, March 09, 2008
The sky is grey and heavy with unshed rain… or are they tears? Perhaps even the sky weeps today? It would be appropriate. Is the dimmed sunlight, in reality, the half-closed eyes of the sun as it tries to come to terms with all that it has seen today? Will there be a full moon tonight? In reality, there should be one because Passover is timed according to the full moon, but will the clouds even obscure the face of the moon? Will the sky at last be able to cry when the sun has given up its attempt to shed light on this awful day? I do not know, and neither do I know if there are any answers.
I sit in my house, the door closed to visitors, even to family, and, in the gloom, there is little that I can see of my familiar and much-loved belongings, however poor they might be.
All that I can see is in the eyes of my mind, and those, I cannot close, no matter how tightly I screw up my eyelids. Yet I do not know if I want my mind to be blind. All that I have witnessed today has been horrendous, but, even so, it was the last that I would see of the man they call Jesus of Nazareth, but whom I know and love as the Master. His face has burned itself into my heart and mind.
I had not planned to be in the vicinity of the Via Crucis today. Certainly, I would never be there when someone is being taken to his execution. I hate the gratuitous violence that is unleashed on such occasions. For some reason, even though the condemned man might be a criminal and, in a sense, heading towards an end that he might have deserved, he is still a human being. He still deserves some dignity and respect, at least from the bystanders, regardless of the actions of the guards who have sometimes drunk themselves almost senseless in an effort to face up to the enormity of their brutal responsibility that lies ahead.
Why does a mob mentality develop amongst the crowd of bystanders? Who starts it and why does it spread so rapidly? Why do normal human beings become more like vicious beasts, avid to tear asunder a weaker and perhaps defenceless prey?
For sure, on the occasions when I have seen the ghastly procession making its way towards Calvary, the condemned man has sometimes shown a last attempt to hit back at the world. As the crowd has taunted and insulted him, he has retaliated, uttering vile threats and curses that would, perhaps condemn him to Hades were the Almighty not such a merciful and understanding God.
Sometimes the one who is facing his execution has protested his innocence and claimed that his death is undeserved and, sad to say, I am sure that these protests are sometimes true. Our justice is not always just. Political expediency can so easily reduce a human being to a gaming-piece in some dreadful form of play that satisfies the power-hungry.
Today, however, was different.
The Master was silent apart from his laboured breathing and the occasional grunt or groan of pain as he moved.
When I came upon Jesus, he had already been relieved of his part of his burden. Some of the sounds were made by a disgruntled passer-by who had been forced to help Jesus to carry the Cross, lest he die on the way.
I saw the wounds inflicted upon the Master and, when I noticed the thin trickles of blood on his face, leading downwards from the crown of thorns, it was my woman’s heart that started bleeding in compassion. There was so little that I could do.
It was then that his mother moved into my line of vision. A young man, who was trying to be strong, escorted her, but his own shock was obvious. Neither of them had truly expected to see the Master in such a terrible state. They were both pale and horror-filled, immobilised and therefore bumped about by the moving crowd as it processed along the road, keeping pace with the Master and his guard. The crowd did not mean to jostle anybody: it was just that people’s attention was fixed elsewhere and two stationary individuals went unnoticed.
The expression on the face of the Master’s mother was one of acute agony and helplessness. I have never before beheld anything like it and hope that I will never again witness such suffering as passed between her and the Master when they caught each other’s eye. It was strange: as if the Master had sensed that his mother had come and that, even in the midst of everything, drew some comfort from her whilst, at the same time, showing a bitter sorrow that she should see him min this way.
It was that look that spurred me into action. I pushed my way through the crowd, through the marching soldiers, pulling out the cloth that, until that moment, had been covering some vegetables I had bought at the market. The unexpectedness of my rush actually stopped everything. I suppose the soldiers might even have thought that there was a rescue attempt in process. In a sense, there was. I did the only thing that I could do: I wiped the face of the Master, cleaning away some of the blood that must have been dripping even into his eyes. His look of gratitude was indescribable, even for such a tiny action.
As the guard pushed me back, his mother looked at me and I wept for the thankfulness in her gaze. I had somehow done something that she would have liked to do herself. I had managed to tell the master that not everybody in the crowd wanted his death. There were some of us there who loved him.
Now, I sit in my house, the bloodstained cloth on my knees. There, plain to see, is the face of the Master. There are no bloodstained smudges, such as I had expected. It is his face, looking up at me.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 9:13 am
Thursday, March 06, 2008
No. I do not want to pick up the Cross. What will people think of me? They will look on me as either a criminal on the way to execution, or else they will mock me for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was obvious that Jesus of Nazareth is rapidly becoming weaker and would have no chance of reaching Calvary unaided. Many of us saw the soldiers looking for a man who could take on the burden of the Cross, taking it from the shoulders of Jesus so that he could still make it to his place of execution.
I must have just happened to catch the eye of the nearest soldier. I was trying to avoid exactly that. I was merely curious to see why so many people had gathered to watch one captive on his way to Calvary. It seems that my curiosity was enough for the guards to decide to satisfy it in the most humiliating way possible. Were they trying to assist a victim or to find a second whom they could humiliate?
This wooden beam is quite heavy but not unmanageable and will form the crossbeam from which Jesus will be suspended. I suppose it has to be reasonably lightweight because otherwise, how could one man even lift it, never mind carry it? But, then, I am fit and strong. I imagine that for someone who has been beaten and scourged, it must be an unbearable burden, and I mean that in every sense of the word.
His load has been passed on to me and I am not happy about it. I am not an unfeeling, selfish person, but what will people think when they see me trudging through Jerusalem, surrounded by guards, heading towards Calvary? It is all very well to help Jesus, but I do have my own reputation to consider.
Perhaps one of the reasons why I was selected for this job is because I am a foreigner. I think that the Romans would not have given the responsibility to a Jew in case there should be an outcry. The Romans are, after all, an occupying force and they have oppressed Israel for quite some time now, inflicting heavy taxes and exacting relentless obedience to a law that is not theirs. The Jews are tiring of seeing their own people injured and killed and so I think that, if the Romans had chosen to humiliate a second innocent Jew today, there could have been a revolt. Jerusalem is filled with people who have come to celebrate the Passover. Any uprising would spread like wildfire and soon become unmanageable.
No. It must be that the Romans actually needed someone who was not a Jew, someone on whom they could dump a job that nobody else wanted. Their action also saved the Temple authorities from the task of lodging a complaint with Pilate. It would not look good for them to condemn one innocent man and then, at the same time, to argue against the ill-treatment of another, all in the same few hours.
So, here I am, a completely innocent stranger, here only because I wanted to conduct some business in Jerusalem whilst there were so many people around the city. Even the soldiers laughed when they saw my disgust, not only at being forced to take up the cross, but to actually handle the wood, sticky with blood. That is why I was none too gentle as I took the Cross from the shoulders of the Galilean. I suppose I might even have added to his pain. After all, he was the cause of my embarrassment, shame and hardship, even if I need only walk a short distance to Calvary, a short distance that, to me, would feel considerably longer as I carried the unsought burden of someone else.
Yes, I was disgruntled and more or less dragged the Cross from Jesus. I heard his gasp of pain that gave way to a low moan. I saw that my roughness caused more bleeding, but who was I to care? It was his fault that I was about to suffer and so he must suffer the consequences. That is justice, is it not?
…and then, Jesus looked at me. I cannot describe that glance. It was an apology for the consequences that I must experience on his behalf. It was gratitude for having, even unwillingly, taken up his Cross. It was relief that at least part of his burden was removed from his shoulders. It was an agony of pain, desolation and loneliness: as if he felt that he had been abandoned even in the midst of the crowd. There was a strange determination to continue along the Via Crucis even to Calvary, at whatever the cost.
I can think of no other way to describe the effect of my taking the Cross of Jesus upon my own shoulders than to say that, even in his agony, he now walks more erect and more determined than ever to see this through to the bitter end. His head, though bowed by suffering, is not conveying subjugation so much as a sense of taking part in something far beyond anything that I, or anybody else, can either see or understand. In the midst of the rowdy bystanders, there is almost a pool of silence and tranquillity, which sounds a contradiction because the actual level of noise has not diminished for one instant. Quite simply, I have no words that can describe exactly what happened when I lifted the Cross from Jesus and took it upon myself.
Neither can I describe what is happening to me as I walk with him and, like him, stumble on the way. Yes. I feel ashamed, but no longer because of what others might think, but, rather, because of my earlier unwillingness to help and my desire to be anywhere other than close to Jesus. I am ashamed of myself, not for myself, and that is the difference. No longer do I care what the crowd is saying about me. I am merely sorry that I took so long to accept the Cross.
I will never forget this day. Jesus has changed me forever.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 9:19 am
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
I could not believe it when I saw him. I had not been present in the Upper Room when they went to celebrate the Passover. After all, it was a man’s occasion. I don’t mean that the celebration of the feast is only for men, only that Jesus was together with his closest disciples, who are all men, so that even though I am his mother, I would have felt out of place. It was much easier for me to stay in Bethany with Martha, Mary and Lazarus who are, by now, very lose friends. We had a peaceful, pleasant meal, only slightly tinged by anxiety caused by knowing that the clouds were gathering ominously around Jesus. He had stirred up such antagonism amongst the Temple authorities that we knew it was only a matter of time before they found some way of acting against him.
Of course, we knew that the High Priest would be forced to be surreptitious in whatever way he decided to remove Jesus from the scene. In daylight hours, too many people surrounded Jesus, finding hope and encouragement in his words. There were too many who wanted to see him perform another miracle.
No, Annas and Caiaphas would be forced to act under the cover of darkness against my Son, who had dared to describe them as ‘whitened sepulchres’ and a ‘brood of vipers’. They must also have been angry when Jesus disturbed the business of the moneychangers and the vendors of sacrificial animals within the temple precinct. This was such a source of income for them. No wonder I felt sick with dread when the tale reached me, describing all that Jesus had said and done. The one who related the event did so with huge enjoyment, not knowing the effect he was having on me as the mother of the man who had thrust himself onto the centre stage in righteous anger. The storyteller had only been aware of Jesus doing something with which he had been in full agreement. We all knew the corruption, as well as the sanctity, within the Temple walls.
It was John who came rushing to Bethany to tell me that Jesus had been arrested and taken to Herod. Poor man! He must have run the whole way, for it took a while for him to recover his breath sufficiently to tell us the dreadful news.
Martha and Mary were wonderful, immediately taking charge of everything. I was grateful because. For a short time, I was immobilised, filled with shock and terror on behalf of my son.
Lazarus could not come with us. Although he was now in full health after Jesus brought him out from the tomb, his celebrity status would hinder, rather than help us, once we reached Jerusalem. Everybody would want to see the man whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
John, Martha, Mary and I set out immediately for Jerusalem, calling briefly by the house where we knew Mary Magdalen had been sharing the Passover with some family members who live close to Bethany.
It was a terrible journey, even if not a long one. We were all so frightened for Jesus that there was very little conversation. Even if someone did speak, my mind and heart were so full of fear that I was not a good audience: the thoughts only echoed all that was already passing through my own mind.
As we drew near to Jerusalem, we could hear a low sound, almost a growl, of voices, with one voice periodically rising above the others. It was a sound that filled me with dread because it was one that I had heard before, but this time knew that it was directed against my Son.
The Via Crucis loomed into sight. There was a close-packed bunch of people and I knew exactly who was in their midst.
I have no words to describe my Son, no way in which I could describe what it was like when he looked up and saw me. He was a little boy again. All he wanted was his mother to kiss away the pain, but this time there was nothing that I could do.
The crowd parted to let me pass by. They fell silent, as if they suddenly realised what they had done. It was a silence of guilt and embarrassment. I knew that silence. I had encountered it on so many occasions in Nazareth when a child was bullied and a parent appeared unexpectedly on the scene. It was the same. The bullies surrounding Jesus knew exactly the dreadful suffering that they had inflicted on a man who was my child and would always be my child, even through eternity.
Jesus, my Jesus, for a few seconds, I held you close to me and I heard a single sob force its way to the surface. Was it yours or mine?
After those brief moments, the soldiers forced us apart. They were not rough, but they were not exactly gentle either. They had a job to do and our meeting was only an interruption on the road to Calvary.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 11:45 am
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
The horrible thing about torture is that it is gratuitous pain inflicted upon another person. There is often no escape from it except by divulging information that the victim cannot, or does not want to, give. It is suffering that just goes on… and on… and on…, often until death intervenes.
I do not feel good about all that we did to this man from Nazareth. It was a set-up from the start. He criticised his own people and for that, they had to get rid of him. Pilate colluded because although he saw an innocent man, he wanted to keep on the right side of Caesar.
The crowd joined in the condemnation and the sentencing to crucifixion, not because they had necessarily any grudge against Jesus, but because the Temple authorities had cleverly sited rabble-rousers in their midst. It is amazing how easily people will respond when there are troublemakers amongst them. They react even against their own normal thinking. I wonder how many of them, in the clear light of day, would have chosen to send Jesus to his death? I wonder how many of them would have freed a known criminal such as Barabbas? I wonder how many would even have agreed to having Jesus scourged?
Yes, the soldiers joined in the torture of an innocent man. We can make the excuse that we were following orders: after all, that is what a soldier is supposed to do. Yet there was more to it than that. We need not have scourged him for so long or so violently. We need not have woven a crown of thorns and impaled it on his head. We need not have mocked him for claiming to be a king… but our blood was up, do you see? We took out on Jesus our own anger concerning our own poverty and abuse at the hands of our senior officers. Perhaps, had we not ourselves been angry, we also would not have gone to the lengths that we did. I do not know and, at this stage, does it make any difference? Only Pilate now has the authority to stop this farce continuing to the bitter end… and the end will be bitter. Jesus will not escape from the shame or the agony of the Cross.
Calvary is actually very close to Pilate’s residence: only a brief walk, in fact. Yet I am not sure that Jesus will make it there. He is very weak and has lost a great deal of blood. In fact, I am quite surprised by his frailty because he is a strong man, a carpenter, who has lived outdoors for several years. Perhaps his weakness shows up our own brutality? Perhaps we inflicted more violence than even we had realised?
What will happen to us if Jesus dies on the way to Calvary? Will we be in trouble for preventing the spectacle that the crowd is expecting?
The road is not smooth. I had not intended to make a pun, but there it is: Jesus is making his way along a road made of large flat stones, but he is also experiencing great suffering that is making his life anything but easy as he moves towards his execution.
But back to the road. We Romans are excellent road builders. They are straight, never link more than two tribal areas so that the tribes can never unite in great numbers against the might of Rome, but they are also truly a marvel of engineering skill. Each road is built in several layers and must not need any maintenance for a period of one hundred years. In Rome itself, in order to ease congestion, only the Emperor may drive through the city by chariot, which, of course, does not mean that there is not a massive assortment of wagons. Here in Jerusalem, life is different, but the roads are still made in exactly the same way, with large stones making as even a path as it is possible for us to create. Yet, the road is not smooth. It is so easy to trip over the edge of a stone. I know several people who have broken an ankle in this way. For the elderly and infirm, a walk has many hazards.
For someone like Jesus, carrying his crossbeam, weakened by scourging and, I presume, dehydrated through blood loss and through shock and pain, it is inevitable that he will stumble on his way to Calvary.
Saying that, he has just fallen. It must have been incredibly painful, if not downright agony! He is trying to stand, but it is difficult. Some of my colleagues are beating him in an attempt to make him rise more quickly. It is futile. He does not have the strength. He is a brave man to even make the effort to stand. Some would have given up and would have died. It is as if Jesus is determined to reach Calvary.
Who is Jesus of Nazareth, I wonder?
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:37 pm
Monday, March 03, 2008
Once upon a time, it was a seed, lying on the ground, shed by its parent tree at the appointed time. Kissed by the sun and the dew, it put forth a tender shoot, a tiny root, covered with hairs that would allow life-giving water to enter its hard coat, softening it and enabling life to burst forth.
Once upon a time, the small seedling uplifted its leaves to the heavens, carolled by birdsong, caressed by a passing breeze, and life was good.
Once upon a time, the sapling waved in the wind and offered its slender branches to passing birds as they rested from their long and tiring journeys in search of food. Small animals, insects, spiders and lizards found shelter amongst the ever-strengthening roots.
Once upon a time, birds chose to nest in the spreading branches from which arose strange twitterings as eggs hatched and young nestlings pushed their way from the fragile shells that had both sheltered and confined the new life.
Once upon a time, this was a beautiful tree that drew the gaze of passers-by for its loveliness. If trees can think, it did not spare a thought for the transience of Time that waited only for the moment when its beauty could be severed at the root, the graceful branches amputated and the unique tracery of its bark stripped and cast aside for ever.
Even in its naked loveliness, the tree was not left alone. It was torn apart until the delicate lines of the passing years were laid bare. Eyes that had no right to stare dispassionately, gazed at the dark and light streamers of the wood grain that stretched from the deepest roots to the highest branches. Rough voices complained about the splinters caught in their insensitive fingers and did not spare a kind word for the wonder that had just been destroyed.
Had those who felled the tree been carpenters, then the tragedy would have been less. They, at least, would have caressed the wood with loving hands, feeling its strengths and weaknesses, drawing new grace from that which was innately tantalising. Understanding eyes would have seen the unique essence of the tree and would have tried to bring a new beauty to something that was already beautiful.
Instead, the despoilers were brutish workmen, searching only for a practicality of horror: to bring death where there had been life, to create rough planks from that which its Creator had fashioned in love.
As it lay on the bare ground, one plank was selected, not for its loveliness, for little remained to it, but, rather, for its size and unevenness. It was cruelty designed to inflict cruelty.
Yet the calloused hands that took hold of the wood were the loving, sensitive hands of a carpenter. Within an instant, those hands recognised the name of the tree, had seen its age and known the good years and the bad that had imprinted themselves on the grain of the tree, lines no pen and ruler could ever hope to copy.
The hands that took hold of the rough plank knew its potential, both that which had already been realised through the passage of the years and also that which had been thwarted by the axe of those who cut down the tree before it reached full maturity.
Even as the wood was placed on the raw and bleeding shoulders of the Carpenter, he remained just that: a carpenter. Part of his life would become the instrument of his death.
The plank and the man were ruined. “There was no form or comeliness to attract our eyes”, wrote the prophet. Where they should have been venerated, they were mishandled and abused. Yet, in their degradation, the tree and the man came together, became one in a way that would never be repeated.
In the bloodstained hands of the Carpenter, a coarse plank achieved an incomparable beauty. It would never be thrown aside. Until the end of time, the wood and the Carpenter would be united as one, so that, where One was seen, so was the other.
In the bloodstained hands of the Carpenter, the tree blossomed far beyond any human imaginings.
As the Carpenter accepted a crudely-cut plank from a despoiled tree, he, too, set out towards his Destiny.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 2:46 pm