Every year we go through the great Three Days at the end of Holy Week, I find it speaks to me in different ways. Though I’ve heard these words a hundred times, each time I hear it, there’s some new detail, some new connection, that somehow makes the story new again.
At worship tonight, as I was reading the Passion story from John 18-19, a few verses near the end of chapter 19 grabbed my attention:
…they did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.John 19:31b-33
When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. For some reason, the utter horror of that sentence just struck me in a visceral way as I was reading it. They broke the legs of the other two crucified men because they were still alive. In a story of unrelenting violence, the particular cruelty of that act stood out to me tonight. Not only was some human (or several) capable of pounding iron spikes through the body of another human — hanging them up to die a slow and agonizing death — but after hours of this literal torture, if those being punished didn’t die quickly enough, this human also had to apply enough force to break the bones in their legs — to break the legs of those already screaming in agony so that they would be unable to support the weight of their own body and suffocate as well as bleed out.
I sat for a long time tonight after worship, contemplating the cross on the wall above the altar, and I kept finding my gaze drawn to the sharp, black shadow the cross cast there. It’s hard to tear my eyes away from the dark shadows these days. Every time I read the news, I feel despair grasping at the edges of my heart; I feel so impotently angry and frustrated and grieved by those who deem the destruction inherent to war some kind of necessary evil, who speak about the possibility of nuclear conflict without the sense of ghastly horror of what that would actually be like; those who don’t appear to give a shit about the people struggling to find housing and food and a decent living, who are insensitive to the obscene injustice of a world that allows billionaires and starving, homeless people to coexist; those who see the earth as something disposable, to be stripped of its riches for profit, who plunge us deeper into climate catastrophe day by day, uncaring that half the world is drowning and the other half on fire; those who see other people as something disposable, to be dehumanized as criminals for minor offenses and conveniently warehoused somewhere out of sight, or to die of preventable, treatable illnesses on another continent they see as “uncivilized,” or to die on the front lines of a global pandemic in their crappy minimum wage job in the name of productivity, who care more about themselves and the value of their shares than about the well-being of others and the well-being of creation.
Sometimes it feels like screaming into the abyss to be a person of empathy and compassion these days. So much of what is broken in the world is systemic and wide-ranging, and those who have the power to make better decisions for the good of the many have so little incentive to do the right thing — and so much incentive to do the wrong thing. As one insignificant person living in some insignificant place, far from the seats of power, I feel hopeless sometimes that things will ever actually get better. There’s so much suffering to alleviate, so much unseen violence and banal prejudice and unspoken hatred that moves the world — and so little collective will to change it.
That’s why it makes me strangely hopeful to know that, in the ancient Roman world in which Jesus lived, it was some guy’s day job to break the legs of tortured, suffering, dying men. It tells me that Jesus was intimately familiar with the kind of grotesque cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on one another — and that it’s the same sense of cruelty and brokenness and corruption that still fuels the atrocities of the 21st century. Jesus allowed himself to be drawn, unresistingly, nonviolently, down to the deepest levels of human depravity. Full of love and peace, he let his life be slowly drained from him in a torturously painful and public way.
And then… three days later… that love and peace won. That love and grace and unending mercy burst out of the bondage of death itself in victory. Like an ever-flowing river eroding even the highest mountains away to nothing, the corruption, the cruelty, the dark shadows of this world, simply cannot stand against the cleansing flood of God’s love. And that river is still flowing — still washing away the muck of sinfulness and making all things new.
Tonight we sang several repeated refrains of an ancient prayer called the Trisagion:
Holy holy, holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.
All throughout the season of Lent, we pray for God’s mercy, but these prayers become especially acute on Good Friday as we contemplate the horrific violence — including leg-breaking — that led to humanity nailing our Savior to a cross. We beg for it to stop. American culture is so individualistic that the full scope of this plea for mercy can sometimes escape us. Our prayers for mercy are not just for forgiveness for the things that we as individuals have done or have failed to do. “Have mercy on us” is the despairing cry of people so mired in sinful systems that we don’t know how to get free — the cry of people who can’t tear their eyes away from those dark shadows, who beg God to save humanity from ourselves.
In this world where people break legs and drop bombs and die of hunger, we continue to pray — as we have done for millennia — have mercy on us, O God.
Holy, holy, holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.