The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood – T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker”, IV, partial
You can feel the end coming. It will be soon.
The sun continues to beat down, as it has all day. No sleep, no blessed rest since the morning before, dragged across darkened streets all night, the voices of the liars still ringing in your ears. Those sounds, though, are growing distant and dim, just as the the world seems to be growing dimmer in your eyes.
There was this morning, again before Pilate. You feel sorry for him, because even though you don’t understand all his words, you know enough Latin, and can read his face and his eyes, to understand you, being here before him like this, is a predicament he’d prefer not to face. You understand more than he because you know what is to come. It is inevitable. The people will have their pound of flesh for yet another false Messiah, a miracle worker who promised so much and, in the end, failed them. You remember standing before the people, just wanting to sit – or maybe lie down and sleep – as Pilate sought release from what even he knew was inevitable. The irony of releasing one nicknamed “Barabbas” – Son of The Father – but you understand. The people wanted a man of action, and Barabbas had killed. Jesus? All you did was walk around and talk to people.
You know the time is even shorter now. Since Barabbas’s release, it has been nothing but pain: Lashes with whips, punches and kicks and slaps, the crown of thorns pounded on his head. Exhaustion and pain while carrying his own cross bar through the streets while being pelted with rocks and taunts. Then the explosion of pain, pain like nothing you could have imagined as the nails were pounded in to your wrists and feet. That jerk when the cross tree was lifted, lifted, then set with a thud, more agony coursing through your body. The terror as you realized it became more and more difficult to breathe, as the exhaustion and pain, their toll coming due, made it impossible to lift up far enough to inhale.
The lights are dimmer now, the sounds far off. The past is a haze now. Not that long ago, these people had placed their hopes, their fears, their faith in you. Now they stood around, throwing rocks no longer felt, their words a distant hush as they taunt you. No one is here, except two women, their faces covered as is right. You had known Peter would betray you no less than Judas, but you had hoped – dimly but firmly – the others might show up. You do not blame them their fear. The one with whom they’d entered the city was now a dying criminal, a laughing-stock. They did what they had to do. As do you.
Your eyes catch movement that’s different than the rest. So hard to think, to concentrate. Your body nothing but white hot pain, you lift yourself to breathe. When you relax, you do so too fast. The nails in your wrists tear a bit more, the pressure on the bones near the breaking point. A strange man emerges from the crowd. His dress is strange, his hair an impossible red. Is that a rock in his arms, a pack on his back? Part of you wants to laugh at the absurdity. Here, at the last, comes something you hadn’t foreseen. This man falls to his knees and stares, his eyes full of sorrow and wonder and . . . is that hope? You have surrendered hope. You cannot breathe. You have air enough for one final cry, even though the dimness is now overtaking you. You open your mouth, a sound comes out, then the blessed darkness, the silence of death catches up to you. You smile as its arms enfold you. It is finished.
So here I stand, the final destination of this Journey. All the waiting, all the confrontations with all that makes me the one who has hung him up there so clear in this moment. The bloody body, the exhaustion having replaced agony. He is turning blue now, and I know the end is so close. I step out of the crowd, not paying much heed at all to the taunts and jeers, the rocks that miss their mark, or hit and bounce off, landing on me. I’m so tired. I drop the rock, and as I look up . . . is he smiling? Or is that some kind of agonized rictus? I can’t tell, and perhaps he can’t tell either. I shrug off the pack on my pack, the one with all the cares and fears of my fellow followers. Finally, I turn out my pocket. The pebble lands on the ground, so bright amid the bloodstained rocks. Will its voice rise in praise today? I tore up my knees when I fall, but I don’t really feel it. All I feel is a mixture of horror and wonder. Horror at what Has been wrought in my name, for my sake. Not just me, though. All these around him, cursing and mocking, throwing rocks and demanding salvation, they, too, are objects of this event, those for whom he hangs there.
Even though I can never forget that I know the rest of this story, everything is so crisp and clear at this moment, the sun almost too bright, each voice so distinct, the smell of sweat and death full in my nostrils that I set all that aside at this moment. This Holy moment. I have seen death before, but never like this. I have been with the dying, but never the tortured and broken who actually welcome their end. Part of me wants to demand justice from the people around me, so enraged by their fickle ways, pushed this way and that by fear. Then I remember. These people are no different than any of the rest of us. Me, most especially. How many years did I deny him? How many years did I doubt any of this meant anything? How much time did I protest this event was a joke, a cosmic gag played on the Jews under Rome, with nothing to say to me? I denied Christ so many times, denied knowing him, denied knowing anything about him, Peter could walk proudly in my shadow, boasting that he only denied Jesus three times.
There is a stirring around me. I’m not sure of its source. Then I look up. Jesus is looking up, shouting something I recognize even though I do not understand the words. Suddenly he slumps forward. I see the wrists move a bit further on those nails. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t move.
The sky, just a moment ago so clear and bright, becomes dark. Not cloudy. It is dark, darker than midnight. There aren’t any stars, no moon, to enlighten this darkness. All the light, it seems, has been sucked away from the world. Around me, the people who just a moment ago were so confident in their taunts break and leave, this darkness breaking their spirits.
I know this darkness. It is the darkness that lies inside me, inside all of us.
It is finished.