From The Way of the Cross
At last the pitiful procession has reached the foot of Calvary. Once more Christ is to go up into a mountain, this time for the last time.
Here he is at last at the end of the Via Crucis, at the foot of the mountain, and with him Simon of Cyrene, the stranger who is sharing the weight of his cross; the two thieves who were led out with him, one on each side; and surrounding them, holding the crowds back with their spears and goading the condemned men to the last lap, the steep climb up the hillside, the soldiers of the army of occupation, unwittingly playing their mysterious part in the redemption of the world by carrying out what is for them simply routine duty, obeying orders without question, today as on every other day.
Behind them, held back by the spears, the spears that ring the defenseless Lord, are Mary, his mother; Mary Magdalen; and the other holy women who followed him and his apostles about the cities when he went about preaching and healing all manner of diseases; with them the boy John, the boy singled out by Christ as the object of his particular love.
And there is a great multitude following, the multitude that has thronged the way from the judgment hall.
There are those – sensation mongers – who have come out of morbid curiosity (the same who stand outside the prison gates to see the black flag go up on the morning of an execution, who sat round the guillotine during the French Revolution, or who crowd round a street accident, not to help but to gloat.)
There are those who have been healed by Christ: those who were lame – who could not have followed – pushing their way through the rabble, but for his touch; those who were lepers; perhaps even some whom he, who is about to die, has raised from the dead.
There are flocks of poor people, the destitute and beggars; those who heard him promising them a kingdom, promising that if they followed him they should be clothed in more than the glory of Solomon – that they should possess the Earth. To what do they follow him now, these, the bewildered and disillusioned poor? Where is the kingdom that they were promised? And what has become of their king? One of the young soldiers carries a notice in his hand; he has stuck it onto his spear; everyone can see it: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” It is written by Pontius Pilate’s own hand, the hated Roman governor who is mocking them through their king!
There are others following him, those women of Jerusalem who wept for him; others too who have wept for him, who believe in his innocence: Perhaps he has been foolish, but certainly he has never been wicked; certainly he did not stir the people to sedition. On the contrary he seemed to try to make them content with conditions that they, the Jews, had always revolted against; content to be poor, to be humble, to be meek, even to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Yes, certainly the man is baffling, but he is not wicked and he is not seditious. They remember how humble he was himself, and how kind, how he took their children into his arms and embraced them and blessed them. They weep for him.
And there are those who follow him because they hate him and fear him. Because they are still afraid that somehow he may escape from them: Before now he has been known to disappear from the midst of a dense crowd; it is not impossible that he may do so again. He has been known to work miracles; it is not impossible that he will work one now, on his own behalf. So those who hate and fear him follow him, hoping to see the end of him, unwilling to let him out of their sight.
As they approach the foot of Mount Calvary the suspense reaches its climax: If he is going to work a miracle, he must do it now. If he is going to show that, after all, he is what he claims to be, the Son of God, the moment has come for him to prove it. It is not only those who fear and hate him who are in suspense; the whole multitude watches him, holding its breath, waiting to see what Jesus of Nazareth is going to do now.
The morbidly curious are hoping now for a final sensation; they want, as it were, their “money’s worth.” They can follow criminals to execution practically any day, this promised to be a special event.
Those who have been healed, those who have been raised from the dead, those who weep for him, those whose children he has lifted in his arms and blessed strain forward, hoping against hope that he whom they still believe in, still believe to be innocent, will, at the eleventh hour, vindicate their faith, will show the triumph of goodness over evil. Surely this pure, guileless, flawless man must prove that goodness and honesty are more powerful than intrigue, corruption and petty politics?
As for the poor, the vast majority in that swarming, jostling crowd, they push themselves forward, struggling to be in the front of the crowd, waiting, praying, crying out for the miracle that will give them their triumph, their kingdom, after all!
What will he do, now that he has come to the foot of Calvary, and the little cavalcade has paused to push the cross more securely on the man’s shoulders, while he braces himself for the ascent? It is his last chance to show that he is a king, that he is the Son of God. Will he suddenly straighten himself up and turn to vanquish his enemies by the sheer majesty and power flashed off from him? Will he summon legions of angels to his defense and scatter the soldiers and those who are hostile in the crowd? Will he even speak to them with the old majesty, the old authority, piercing them to the heart by his words, as he did on that other mountainside long ago?
They wait, straining forward, struggling to come near to him, breathless with suspense, some through fear, some through hope; all tense, expectant, waiting!
And what does he do? For the third and the last time, Jesus falls under the cross!
This is the worst fall of all. It comes at the worst moment of all. It tears open all the wounds in his body; the shock dispels the last ounce of strength that he had mustered to go on. It shatters the last hope, the last remnant of faith, in nearly everyone in the crowd. It is triumph for his enemies, heartbreak for his friends.
The effect on the crowd is terrible. From having been an object of compassion, of admiration, he has become an object of contempt. Hope has given way to despair, struggling faith to bitterness and derision: “He has saved others, himself he cannot save!”
Now Christ gets up, he does not turn his head, he does not heed the disappointment of the crowd. He gets up, weaker than he has ever been, almost too exhausted to go on, all the old wounds open and bleeding; more abject than he has ever been, a greater disappointment to his followers than he has ever been, in their eyes a complete failure. He gets up and goes on; lays his beautiful hands, those hands of a carpenter, on the wood of the cross for the last time, and without looking round begins the ascent to the summit of Calvary.
The last fall is the worst fall. In it Christ identified himself with those who fall again and again, and who get up again and again and go on – those who even after the struggle of a lifetime fall when the end is in sight; those who in this last fall lose the respect of many of their fellow men, but who overcome their humiliation and shame; who, ridiculous in the eyes of men, are beautiful in the eyes of God, because in Christ, with Christ’s courage, in his heroism, they get up and go on, climbing the hill of Calvary.
In the third fall, the showing of Christ’s love is this: He does not indwell only the virtuous, only those who are successful in overcoming temptation, only those who are strong and in whom his power is made manifest to the world; he chooses to indwell those who seem to fail, those who fall again and again, those who seem to be overcome even when the end is in sight. In them, if they will it, he abides; in them he overcomes weakness and failure, in them he triumphs; and in his power they can persevere to the end, abject before men but glorious with Christ’s glory before God.
fallen under the cross
for the last time,
grant to me, and to all those
with whom you identified yourself
in the third fall,
to rise in your strength,
and in spite of failure upon failure,
shame upon shame,
to persevere to the end.
Do not let us despair.
Let us go on in your power
when those who believed
in your presence in us
and those who sought you in our lives
are scandalized and have lost hope in you
because of our failures.
Give us courage
to go on, in your name,
even when your enemies
because of us.
Let us rise in your strength
even in this extremity,
when we are alone before God,
and he alone knows
your presence still abiding in us,
because in your third and last fall
under the cross,
in the sight of God and men,
you identified yourself with us.