It happened last November in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during a procession of Armenian clergyman, who were celebrating the 4th century discovery of what was believed to be the actual cross of Jesus. Having recently visited this church, revered to be the original site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, I could imagine the scene.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is controlled by 6 different Christian groups, all of whom regularly engage in turf wars. The building itself is a rather ugly mish-mash of different architectural styles and shrines decorated according to the practices of the Greek, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Yet there is a deep sense of holiness in this sacred space, as thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the earth wait in long lines every day to pray at the many shrines and chapels.
The fight last November began when Greek Orthodox monks objected to being excluded from the Armenian procession for fear they might lose control of the Edicule, an ancient structure built on what is believed to be the actual site of the tomb of Jesus. The Armenians refused to allow the presence of the Greek Orthodox monks, sparking a brawl. Israeli riot police were called in, a scuffle ensued, and 2 clergy were arrested, a bearded Armenian monk in a red and pink robe and a black-clad Greek Orthodox monk with a gash on his forehead.
After it was all over, Israeli police with assault rifles stood guard beside Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, just as Roman soldiers stood watch over the cross 2,000 years ago. What began as a celebration of the cross degenerated into an expression of rivalry and violence and an occasion for Christ to be crucified once more.
Holy Week is a deeply personal and vulnerable time for Christians, as we become intensely aware of our own sinfulness and the enormity of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. In the early days of Martin Luther’s journey of faith, he was observed holding a crucifix, sobbing, and saying repeatedly, “Für mich! Für mich!” (For me! For me!). This week we find ourselves participants in the crucifixion scene, as we relive the agony of Christ on the cross in our hymns:
- “O Love Divine, what has Thou done; The immortal God hath died for me.”
- “They crucified my Lord, and he never said a mumbalin’ word.”
- “Alas and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?”
- “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.”
- “Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power… watch with him one bitter hour.”
- “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?”
In Jesus’ day the cross was the cruelest and most barbaric method of death, an “emblem of suffering and shame.” The crucified Jesus was considered a failure and a fraud, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, who could not understand how an instrument of violence could become a means of forgiveness. Yet there is far more power in this cross than we think. For Christians, the cross has always been a symbol of transformation, liberation, nonviolence and reconciliation.
How will you walk the Way of Sorrow this week? Will you sing the hymns? Will you feel the pain? Will you confess your complicity in Christ’s death? Will you take time to kneel before the cross and say, “For me! For me!”
If we are not careful, however, the cross can easily become merely a sentimental symbol for salvation through a cozy relationship with our buddy Jesus. The cross is stripped of its power when we fail to move beyond our own personal relationship with the crucified Christ and work for the corporate redemption of our world as well. So I would invite you to journey through Holy Week with your Bible in one hand, a newspaper in the other hand, and eyes fixed outward as well as upward and inward.
- Are you aware of the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan? Charges of war crimes and gross violations of human rights have been filed against Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, but the entire country has been wracked for decades by war, poverty, disease and starvation. As you walk the Way of Sorrow this week, will the cross equip you to fight injustice and oppression wherever you find it?
- The Red River Valley in the Dakotas and Minnesota has caused immense flooding. Your One Great Hour of Sharing offering has enabled an immediate response from UMCOR. As you walk the Way of Sorrow this week, will the cross empower your generosity in helping those in need?
- According to Tinoziva Bere, legal counsel for UM-related Africa University, “Zimbabwe did not suddenly become poor and destroyed. We did not have a war. Somebody decided to disregard the law and use a militia to beat up, kill and loot from ordinary citizens. That is what got us here.” As you walk the Way of Sorrow this week, will the cross prompt you to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe and all other people in our world who experience extreme suffering?
- The strife between Israelis and Palestinians continues. As you walk the Way of Sorrow this week, will you say special prayers for the homeland of Jesus, that some day all people in this holy land may live together in peace and harmony?
- Our country’s economic woes deepen with each passing week, causing a ripple effect around the world. As you walk the Way of Sorrow this week, will you allow the cross to transform your values, so that when we live with less, it becomes more for others?
I fear that the feuds at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will not abate soon. The six Christian groups cannot even agree on where a fire exit should be located, so the church continues to have only one main door. Neither can they agree on who has the authority to remove a ladder on a ledge over the entrance, so it has remained there for well over 100 years.
If we are not careful and prayerful, could we possibly end up the same way? Are we so preoccupied with ourselves that the cross becomes an object to be controlled rather than the greatest symbol of reconciliation and hope, the greatest embodiment of grace and the greatest impetus for action that the world has ever seen?
“Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand.”
Where will you take your stand?