[Jesus’] enemies were not the notorious sinners whom society casts out…it was not the gross sins such as shock respectable people which sent Jesus to the Cross: it was the respectable sins which are in the hearts of all of us.
(William Temple, ‘Palm Sunday to Easter’, pp. 15-16)
I think we all benefit from at least one blood-curdling liturgical moment in our lives. We are particularly blessed if that moment falls during one of the major liturgies of Holy Week. It is even better if it is something that could not be scripted, planned, or rehearsed. Finally, it may have the most profound impact if it is a moment that strikes the individual, but goes unremarked by others.
My moment was on Maundy Thursday of 1996, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in River Hills, an upmarket north suburb of Milwaukee. We had completed our elegantly austere agape meal, observed our orderly liturgy of redundant foot-washing (of course, nobody arrives at these things un-pedicured), and duly observed the Holy Eucharist. At this point, clergy and lay assistants, under the ever-watchful eyes of the Altar Guild, began to strip the altar bare for the prayer vigil that would occur between Thursday evening and the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy. During this, the congregation recited the 22nd Psalm, as bit by bit, the sanctuary became darker and more sinister.
Notably absent from the congregation was the critical mass of adolescent members of St. Christopher’s. They had a different job—to assemble the wooden cross that would be a prominent feature of the following day’s dramatization of the crucifixion. It was something that needed to be done, and giving the task to the young people was seen as a way of involving them in the work of the church. As we read aloud the psalmist’s words of agony and despair, I heard hammers striking wood and metal as the youth of the parish undertook their work.
I also heard laughter.
Laughter is a fine thing in the workplace—it both helps people bond over their common purpose, and at the same time demonstrates that they are indeed bonding. It helps relieve tedium, releases creativity, reduces stress, and makes people want to go to work. Whole corporate cultures are being built around making workplaces enjoyable.
But there is something chilling about young people laughing while they are nailing together an instrument of torture and death, as the congregation pretends to ignore the laughter while piously reciting the great psalm of the crucifixion.
I never want to forget this. It is the essence of Good Friday for me. It is the heart of what the Crucifixion means. We, each of us individually, and all of us together, are the ‘man with the hammer’. As the quote from Archbishop Temple, with which I opened this reflection, indicates, it is not the ‘big’ sins, not the conscious sins, not the ones that make ‘respectable’ people turn away in shock and horror, that actually brought Jesus to Calvary. It’s nice, in an individualist society, to think that what I personally and by-myself did, was why Jesus died. Individual sin leads to individual salvation—that’s the key to a lot of evangelical preaching and proselytizing, like the Buffalo City Mission’s Easter address tells us:
Let me be clear—I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. And if Jesus died for my sin, in my place, that sin has to be cosmically damaging enough to warrant the death of the Son of God who is himself God. And nothing I could do by myself is that damaging. So, I don’t buy the kinds of petty, individual sins that are being confessed in the Buffalo City Mission video. An extramarital affair, excess drinking, boosting a sports drink from the local convenience store—they’re not innocent, they’re damaging to others, but that is not anything close to enough to send the Son of God to a painful, shameful, violent death.
It’s bigger than that. It’s the stuff we can’t see about ourselves, how we are a part of larger, more damaging systems, sometimes beyond our control, that are our really damaging sins. It’s the “just following orders”, so often cited by those obeying the commands of those higher up the economic and political food chain, that is really damaging. And sometimes, we do not have a choice in whether we commit heinous sins or not.
Over the summer, I read Oliver Pӧtzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter series. As fiction, they are a bit silly, but Pӧtzsch’s research was interesting. He himself was the descendant of a hangman’s family in Bavaria. Pӧtzsch explained how the torturer/executioner was an ambiguous member of society. His work was seen as necessary to social order, and thus well compensated. But it was also ‘dishonorable’, because the essence of the work was to cause and prolong suffering, and to take human life. As a result, the hangman’s children could not be baptized, could not marry into an ‘honorable’ family or pursue an ‘honorable’ occupation. They were subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse by the ‘respectable’ people. Yet, because of their knowledge of human anatomy, herbal remedies (they had to keep people alive through the course of torture), they were also often sought, under cover of night, as healers, often more trusted than ‘real’ physicians. So, although marginalized, they also benefited at some level from their marginalization.
I don’t know what it was like for an executioner in Roman-dominated Palestine at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. But it is entirely possible that the man standing on the hill did not have a choice in his occupation, could not refuse to execute whoever was sent to him. The character of the actual person who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands is so repugnant to us that none of the Gospels acknowledge him as a person—we only guess that he must have existed because a crucifixion could not occur without him.
It’s hubris to think that any one of our petty, individual sins is enough to warrant the death of God’s Son who is himself God. But whether or not we are the one who ultimately drives the nails, we are all part of systems that pierce the heart of the One who was, and is, and is to come.
The man who shed the blood of Jesus was also the first (literally) to be washed by that blood. But it is a shower that stains as much as cleanses. And we are the man with the hammer.
On the hill
With the nails in his hands.
And I watch
Because I must
Take the nails
From my hands
And put them into his.