He carried his followers’ disappointments. You see, they thought he was going to be a different sort of king.
Heaven knows, he had tried. He had tried to etch eternity into the stubborn humanity of those who followed him, but now nearly all of them have abandoned him. Through eyes smarting with grief and narrowed by pain he looks out to see who will listen to the truth that is revealed in his death and there is hardly anyone there: just John, faithful, beloved John. He is still standing. He can also see his mother. She is bent over in grief, her body shaking with tears. Now and then her eyes reach upwards, searching out his gaze. He looks at her. But for once he cannot tell what she is thinking.
Several other women are also there. They seem better equipped to deal with pain than the men. They comfort each other. They hold him in their gaze and he is comforted. His gaze holds them in return. They stand under the cross and they find understanding. Perhaps this is the only way.
His disciples have gone. The shepherd has been struck and the sheep have scattered. Even Peter: pig-headed, big-hearted, bird-brained Peter. He had seen who Jesus was, but he had still got it wrong, railing against his tough words that the Messiah had to suffer and die.
Get behind me Satan …
And, no, at that time, he didn’t know when, and, yes, he was still struggling to know why, but he also carried the knowledge that he was somehow to be the fulfilment of all God had longed to do through Israel.
Into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit …
That he was a second Adam revealing a new humanity.
That he was a second Moses revealing a new covenant.
And he shuddered with the memory of all the struggle, the torment and the raging against God that had led to this most scandalous and blasphemous conclusion being the truth: that God was in him, and that his purpose was the purpose of God. And how, when you can’t fully understand it yourself, are you supposed to tell it to others? Stories and riddles and signs seemed to be the only way. You couldn’t persuade people to believe it. You had to wait till the penny dropped. And it was achingly slow.
They were only prepared to go so far. They followed him when he was rebuking the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and cant. They followed him when he fed the multitudes. They followed him when he healed the sick. They followed him when it seemed to them he was a conquering leader. They followed him because they believed he was the Messiah. But they stopped following when they found out what a Messiah really is.
Then they fled. Like a sudden change in the weather, when the promise of a bright day is overtaken by thunderclouds and rain, they were gone. And Peter himself, who had promised that if everyone else deserted he would stand firm, had crumbled, like a house built on sand. He even denied he had ever known him.
And Jesus carried with him the knowledge of that moment: looking into Peter’s eyes and seeing the betrayal. And sharing bread with Judas and knowing what he was about to do. And now, almost alone, almost accomplished, wondering: will they ever get it?
He had broken bread with them the night before and given them a way of seeing what the bloody horror of this dying meant; but they are not here to see it; not here to make the connections.
They wanted a different sort of Messiah. He had confounded them, and now they were embarrassed by him, endangered: and so they had left him. They were somewhere in the shadows. Not the shadow of the cross, but the shadow you create yourself when you turn your back on the light. They were nursing their disappointment. Carrying it like a trophy. Complaining how deceived they had been. Soon they would forget. Or else start saying it was better this way. In years to come, when they were fat and fifty, they would lean back in their chairs and smile at the foolishness of youth.
And this was a terrible thing to carry. The thought of it made him wince and retch. He carried the terrible possibility that it was all in vain. That he could walk at their side for ever and never be recognized, never be known; that endless bread would be broken and wine poured out, but incomprehensively, as if it were just food. They would go back to how things were. They would forget. They would airbrush out these crazy years, and, clinging to their portentous hopes of empire and power, lookout for the next Messiah to deliver them a kingdom of their own.
And then a more terrible thought – something to be carried that drops like a dead weight in the heart – perhaps he had got it wrong? Perhaps he was not just carrying their vanity, but his own? Perhaps that is all he is carrying – just vanity, foolishness and the unerring certainty of his impending death.
And then the crucified man screams out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
But there is one more indignity to carry. You would laugh if it wasn’t so monumentally awful. Even these words are misunderstood. The crowd hear the ‘Eli’ of his cry to God and think he is saying Elijah. And, like the religious junkies that they are, they suddenly get interested, much preferring a sign from the false gods they persist with than the living God before them. And they say to one another, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah. Let us see whether Elijah will come and get him down.’
He carries with him the knowledge that even in this moment of utter desolation he is misunderstood. We just don’t get it.
Hold a sealed envelope. Imagine it contains a letter informing you of the result of a job interview or an important examination result. Imagine you are on the brink of elation or disappointment. Imagine how it feels to not know what something you are holding holds.
If you are in a group, pass the envelope around.
If you are on your own, just hold it and think about it.