THE LONGEST DAY
Hitting the fast-forward button on the gap between cross and resurrection deprives us of a story to inform our darkest moments.
In the final hours of Jesus’ life everything seemed to peel away. Firstly his physical freedom, then what today we would call his human rights – the right to a fair trial and the right not to be tortured foremost among them – then his life, as he died on a summary Roman cross. The stripping away of Jesus’ dignity was aggravated by the dispersal of his friends. Faced with a sudden and potentially violent crisis as the soldiers came to arrest him, the disciples were found wanting. Nothing would have sharpened Jesus’ sense of aloneness more than the desertion of his friends.
You can never be sure how you would respond in an acute crisis. We spend our lives as armchair consumers of the mistakes other people make when they are put to the test and sustain this in our Bible study too, picking apart the failings of the disciples over a cup of coffee or a sturdy pulpit. But we could never be sure we would act any differently. The touching thing about the last day of Jesus’ human life is the evidence that some people discretely stayed the course. It was the women who endured the emotional torment of watching Jesus die on the cross – perhaps the most significant example in the history of pastoral care of the importance of staying with someone who is suffering. These resilient mothers surpassed their offspring in mental toughness. Matthew records that the mother of the sons of Zebedee was there, but there is no evidence that James and John were with her; the eagerness with which they ditched their nets to follow Jesus in Galilee now a distant memory.
And after death, the dignifying of the body of Jesus - usually the responsibility of those who love you the most - falls to Joseph from Arimathea – a disciple for sure, but not one who hitherto had commanded much space in Jesus’ life. He showed great courage in approaching Pilate for the body. The situation was so volatile that no follower of Jesus could have been sure of their own life. Had he not gone to Pilate, there was every chance that the body of Jesus would have been further mutilated, such was the malevolence surrounding that day. In doing so, he created the environment for the most important moment in human history. Joseph was a rich man, showing that it was possible to be rich and a follower of Jesus. The generosity with which he put his money at God’s disposal sets the world an example – and an incentive. Could anyone have owned a more important piece of property than the tomb in which Jesus’ body was put to rest? Joseph would have gone to his death with the joy of knowing that.
The chief priests and the Pharisees, not content with crucifixion, lobby Pilate to throw what today would be termed a security cordon around this tomb, to ensure that no-one could interfere with the evidence of a dead and soon to be decaying man. There’s a remarkable irony when you think about it: the friends seemed to forget entirely the promise of Jesus that he would rise from the dead on the third day; they simply hadn’t understood his teaching. Meanwhile the Jewish elders, despite their opposition to Jesus, had understood all too well what this might mean.
It’s important that the Church reflects on the pastoral meaning of Easter Eve because it is the forgotten day. We fast-forward from the crucifixion to the resurrection and miss its significance. The passage from death to resurrection, from darkness to light, from despair to joy, can be slow and painful. We would rather move quickly through the painful experiences of life, like using the DVD remote to skip the frames of a film we find unsavoury, but God has not afforded us that privilege any more than he did for his Son. In our Christian care for one another, we should resist the temptation to jolly people out of despair just because we find it awkward and unpalatable. Psalm 23 speaks of the valley of the shadow of death and unless you’re a super fit mountain runner, no-one traverses a valley quickly. Small steps and shortness of breath are painstaking evidence of a difficult and lengthy journey. Yet at the end, there is immense satisfaction at looking down at how far you have managed to come.
The endless hours of Easter Eve afforded the disciples the time to reflect on their own failings. It is hard to get a grip on the guilt they must have felt, unless at some point we have contributed to someone else’s death ourselves. These feelings would have burrowed into Peter, James, John and the others like a vicious burn. This is the emotional setting for the day of resurrection. A superficial understanding of what took place that weekend overlooks this dimension. One poet has described their realisation that Jesus was alive again as a moment of ‘chill ecstasy’. The joy is readily understood; the chill would have been the shudder down the spine that the friend you fatally let down is staring you in the eyes after death. When things go wrong in life, we always attempt to re-write history to ensure we look better. Jesus’ resurrection put paid to the possibility of that little deception. Thankfully for us, the four Gospels tell it like it was.
God’s wonderful promise to us is that those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy. The Easter weekend shows us that this is an emotional development more than the description of two distinct events. One merges into the other, where tears are mingled with both grief and joy.
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