What do we do with a dead Savior? Why do we focus our attention today on suffering and a torturous execution at the hands of a corrupt religious institution, a fearful politician, an erratic and deceptive local government complete with crowd hysteria, all in the midst of one of the most glorious and sophisticated empires the world has ever known?
It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.” Jesus’ self-offering was just that, a willing oblation, as he was lifted up on the tree where the whole world might see the way of perfect peace, justice and love. He did so as a gift to every human being that ever lived and ever would live.
I was never more convinced of this truth than when I was washing the clothes and bed linens of people brought into the dying and destitute home in downtown Calcutta, India. Many had horrible diseases such as cholera, dysentery, AIDS or leprosy. Most came in with lice. The cast off clothes and bed sheets that came to me were not pretty. One day, while scrubbing, pouring into the tub before me adequate amounts of disinfectant and breaking loose what had been trapped in the folds of the cloth, I felt something in my hand below the surface of the darkened water. I could not see even inches below the surface. When I brought the object to the light of day, there before me in the palm of my hand, out of the muck of Calcutta’s suffering poor, was a cheap plastic rosary. Still wet with the water of the washtub was the cross and Jesus on it, crucified. To this very day I do not know from where what happened next came, but I know I heard someone sing “Alleluia” as that image of Christ on the cross was lifted by my hand through the water’s meniscus to be gazed upon by my own eyes. I remember turning to seek the source of the sound.
I would find it difficult to believe in a God who stands aloof and indifferent to the suffering of the world. On the cross, we see that God in Christ has come right into the midst of it. On the cross, we see the sorrow of all humanity, every victim, everyone abused, every injustice committed, every betrayal. We also see every act of love, every act of forgiveness and reconciliation, every desire for peace, every justice accomplished, every truth uttered. Jesus is at the center of it all. On the cross we see in him nothing but pure, embracing compassion. Hope hangs there, exposed for all to see.
It appeared on that cross that all he proclaimed and stood for died with him. The Gospel, the Good News itself, was nailed there. In the death of Jesus it seemed that not only the medium, but the message too had been exposed as fraudulent. Yet John’s Gospel is clear that when Jesus proclaims, “It is finished,” it does not only mean that Jesus has done what he came to do, that is die. It is also an expression of victory. It means God has triumphed. We ourselves turn the mockery of the cross on its head when we dare to call this day, “Good.”