Why the Cross and not the Empty Tomb?

A Good Friday Meditation

44By now it was about midday and a darkness fell over the whole land, which lasted until three in the afternoon: 45the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus uttered a loud cry and said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’; and with these words he died. 47When the centurion saw what had happened, he gave praise to God. ‘Beyond all doubt’, he said, ‘this man was innocent.’

Luke 23: 44-47 – NRSV

(An imaginary conversation)

In old age, a disciple who was present at the cross tries to explain to a group of new Christians why the cross and not the empty tomb is the symbol of Christianity

It was dark, uncannily, eerily dark. It was the kind of darkness that feels unnatural. We could just see the others about us in a kind of dark purple mirage, but it wasn’t at all clear where the purple light was coming from. Three hours earlier, we’d been in a clear sky with hot spring sunshine. It went dark so quickly, with no sign of any visible clouds, that it was difficult to understand what was happening. The crowd of onlookers (you always got them at these executions) went deathly silent, as if they knew that what was happening wasn’t a natural phenomenon; some had experienced eclipses before, but never like this, never one that had lasted several hours. And never one at the time of the full moon at Passover. The sun’s light had just…. gone.

As we awaited the end, it was hot and muggy as if the sun was still there, only we couldn’t see it.

A while before, the Roman soldiers had been casting lots. Then they’d had to stop, as they couldn’t see to play.

There was no glow on the horizon, but the cross seemed also to be masked by dark purple. When we looked carefully, we were just able to make out Jesus, hanging there…just……hanging there.

As we looked up at Jesus on the cross, there seemed to be no answers, only questions. The one who we’d come to believe was the Messiah, was dying? It was just impossible to work out why it was happening; why he was hanging there, how it had come to this…….

We’d been so full of hope; but now what cause for hope could there possibly be, with Jesus dying in this terrible way?

He’d predicted his own death; why hadn’t we listened? But if he’d been able to see into the future, why couldn’t he also have avoided it? How could any good come of his dying in agony and the hope he’d inspired during his brief life, being extinguished with him? He’d talked about changing the world; and we believed him, but now….well, how can a bloody, tortured body possibly change the world?

Everyone always talks at crucifixions about the physical pain. The Romans choose it as their worst form of execution for a good reason. But in his case, having seen him earlier as they nailed him up, we knew that the physical pain wasn’t the worst of it.

He’d talked of the coming of the Kingdom: the end of injustice, intolerance, selfishness, greed and oppression. How could these very things have led directly to his death? He’d mesmerised us with a picture of a world ruled only by compassion, tolerance, love, justice, enough food for all; a world of God’s values. How could anyone ever want to reject that? Why would anyone want to kill him to prevent it happening? The pain he was experiencing on the cross wasn’t just the physical pain; it was the pain of his love being brutally rejected. I don’t think we can even begin to imagine what that must have felt like, particularly for him whose very nature was to offer his love to all.

Then, for a while, it seemed to get even darker. We could just hear the words through the gloom ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. As you know, it’s the prayer from Psalm 31, that all good Jews say last thing at night before going to sleep. It was so familiar, probably each of us thought back to our own childhood, when we’d learnt these words off by heart at bedtime. And we knew the next verse, too: ‘You have delivered me, Lord God of truth.’ And we were dumbfounded, because to us, God had not delivered him. It was almost as if God had sided with the Romans and actually wanted the death of Jesus; that God had looked down and seen Jesus’s death as yet another sacrifice, like the finest lamb with no blemish. Some actually even believed that, in the years after the crucifixion, but it never made any sense to me. How could God, our God of love and mercy and above all our God of justice, demand the death of the most innocent and compassionate man who’d ever lived? It was ridiculous; clearly we’d misunderstood something.

It was only later, quite a bit later, that the thought came to some of us. Suddenly it all started to make more sense. We saw that when we struggled to understand who Jesus was, we needed only to look at the cross; this wasn’t Jesus being sacrificed by His Father; the earth-shattering, life-changing and world-changing revelation was that this was God sacrificing himself. The cross wasn’t, as we thought it at the time, the end. It was the beginning. It was the beginning of us being able to say through our own pain ‘We know you understand, Lord; you’ve been there.’ Instead of saying ‘Lord, why me? Lord, why my mother? Lord, why my child?’ it was the beginning of us being able to say through our own pain ‘Lord, thank you for understanding us; thank you for being alongside us; thank you for sharing our pain and suffering with us.’

If you want to take the message of Christianity out into the world, you’re going to have to see that the cross, alone, proves that God is love. It’s the opposite of us seeing the Father demanding the death of the Son to take away our sins. Instead, it’s the supreme act of selfless love and self-sacrifice. Since the dawn of time, we Jews have believed that God created human beings in his own image. Maybe it was only after the day we all watched Jesus die on the cross that we realised what that might mean. We came to realise that the capacity for loving self-sacrifice is the characteristic that we share with God; it is the defining characteristic of our God. And through his own act that day on the cross, he’d challenged each one of us to commit our own spirit into his hand, as Jesus had in his very last words.

And so I say to you new Christian disciples, take this message to the world: the challenge of God’s self-giving on the cross, is to commit our spirit into God’s hand in our daily lives; to react to God’s self-sacrifice by pledging ourselves to try to reflect his love for us in our own lives.

And so you want to know why the cross, and not the empty tomb, is the symbol of Christianity? God hangs on the cross because he trusts us to commit our spirit to him, in response to his supreme act of love. The awesome challenge of that terrible day at Golgotha is whether we trust him enough to do exactly that.

Gracious God, the cross represents such a picture of despair; help us to see hope, where the world sees none. Help us to look at the cross and see you. Loving Lord, when we realise that it’s you hanging on the cross, we’re overwhelmed. Help us to respond to your act of selfless love in the only way that’s possible: with our own trust and love.

One thought on “Why the Cross and not the Empty Tomb?

  1. Thank you James. We should always look more deeply on this day, more darkly and yet more wonderously. This post is of great help.


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