He carried a crown of thorns.
The soldiers’ logic had a brutal simplicity. A cruel, school boy logic. He said he was a king, so dress him up as one. A purple robe. Some twisted thorn. A makeshift crown. Briers and acacia. The barbed wire of the bush. Harvest it gingerly. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Stack him up. Salute him. Stretch him. Strike him. Scratch him. Scar him. Skewer him. Scoff and mock him. And afterwards the grazed hands of the harvesters plunged into basins of cool water for relief. And smiling at each other, wink and reminisce. A cracking good joke.
They made him a kind of pantomime king. Something to laugh at. Something to scorn. They bowed before him and grinning they worshipped him. Then they beat him.
They had their way with him. They made fun of him in the way that bullies easily do when there is someone defenceless in their midst. Someone who won’t fight back. Someone who’s a bit different. Someone who makes claims that are easy to mock. His silence convicts him. That’s how they see it. A loser. (And lest we start imagining how we would have been so different, let’s be honest about the bully inside us. How easy it is to make fun of others. To laugh at someone else’s downfall. The joy of immunity. The solidarity of the pack. The savage delights of the kill. Remember the butchery of the playground? The cutting word that split so deep. The carefully rehearsed put-down. The thoughtless slur.)
They wanted him sorted. They wanted him put in his place. But they didn’t know where his place was. ‘Not of this world’ they had heard him say. Well this was one dreamer they would haul back down to earth. They would reel him in. Like Icarus they would watch him flounder and burn. What had his dreams achieved? Just more trouble for them. The crowds were always bad at this time of year, stirred into a ferment of religious excitement and anticipation. He had made matters worse. Did he expect them just to leave? The mighty Roman Empire to roll over? What sort of revolution could this dreamer roll? They could crush him so easily! He was a grasshopper under their feet. They would stamp him out.
And where were his followers? Abandoned him, every one of them. A king, indeed! They would show him. They would do him honour. They would make him a crown.
And dressing Jesus as a king was such a wonderfully good joke that, like all good jokes, like every piece of well-honed gossip, it soon had legs. It travelled down the corridors of Roman power from soldier to soldier, from slave to slave, from senator to senator. It wormed its way into people’s ears, because we are all delighted by intrigue and scandal and love to laugh at some else’s ruin. Even to the ears of Pilate. ‘Are you a king?’ he enquires with a smile. And when he leads him out before the people: ‘Here is your King!’
The crowds spit back their curt reply. Laughing. Sneering. We have no King but Caesar.
Pilate then issues instructions for a sign to be put above the cross saying ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’. And so that everyone can get the joke, he decrees that it must be written in three languages – Hebrew, Greek and Latin. All the world can now enjoy the joke. This wretched little preacher from Nazareth said he was a king.
But then the joke reaches the ears of the High Priest. And he isn’t laughing. Jesus’ silence never quite speaks to him of a broken man; rather he is disturbed by his silence, confronted by his presence: it is almost as if he is judging them. ‘Don’t put King of the Jews’, he intervenes, ‘but this man said he was King of the Jews.’ So they stare each other out. These two big men. These occupying forces: one of the present and one of the past, but neither has the future in control, though they will battle on, oblivious and defiant to the truth the joke reveals. It is too late. The cat is out the bag. It has been uttered. ‘What I have written, I have written,’ retorts Pilate.
And so Jesus is unwound. Adorned with thorn he wears the crown. And that which was meant to mock reveals the deepest truth.
When I am lifted up from the earth …
The joke backfires. He is a king: a piercing beam of light for all the world: the very one that all Israel has been hoping for, waiting for; the one to whom all their scriptures and their prophets point. All the troubled searching of this nomadic nation, their deepest longings and the keenest insights of their brightest minds, has come down to this man, and been refined into this moment. But they don’t see it. They laugh out loud instead. And we would have done the same. Even those who have caught a glimpse of who he is are now cowering in fear, hanging onto their own lives and reputations, getting ready to go back to how it was before him.
There is a further twist: those he has come to save now hurry to get a better view of his dying, sneering at his stupidity. What sort of a king is this?
Even as he hangs there, the life draining out of him, the taunts come thick and fast. ‘He saved others, but he cannot save himself!’ Even one of the criminals crucified with him joins in the fun: ‘Save yourself, and us as well,’ he scoffs. And in his heart, though no longer on his lips, he carries the words that will get him through the next few hours. ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
‘So you are a king?’ The words of Pilate beat against him.
‘For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ And behind this the agony of vocation: ‘Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me.’
But there is no other way. All the supports have been removed. This is a cup that must be drained to the dregs. He stands at a point of terrible isolation, a crux. Behind him the baying of the mob. Ahead of him only wood and twisted thorn. Derision and decision. The wood he carries is the sign of his inclusive participation in the suffering of the world. He will now take his place at this bloody banquet. The thorn is a sign that he is what he is: anointed and annihilated, what so few people saw him to be – only children and demons – the Messiah of God; and that God’s redeeming will be accomplished in the bloody horror of his dying. Not that God gains any pleasure from this death. This is not some ghastly bargain being brokered in pain. Both God and man are forsaken in this emptying out of love.
The thorns press harder. Blood pumps from the punctured skin, oozes, clots in the heat and the sweat, and flows again. He is faint. His hands are shaking. He slips and falls again. Out of reach. Utterly alone.
The Godhead which is fully alive in Jesus, the crucified, is poured into the lap of uncomprehending humanity. These are the truths the thorns reveal. All our deaths and all our sorrows and all our failures are nailed to this tree. This is our half of the cross. We die with him because he chose to die with us. He carries a crown that all can wear; and the cross itself is our escape from the snare, a way to travel.
The darkness beckons. The flies buzz around his face. Still the crowds taunt: ‘Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross so that we may see and believe.’ But how could he come down? The cross that he carries is his throne. He is reigning from the tree.
Hold a piece of holly, or something else which is sharp or prickly. See how carefully it must be held or harvested to prevent it pricking your flesh.
If you are in a group carefully pass the holly from one person to the next.
If you are on your own, just hold it and think about it.