Whenever I gaze at the crucifix, particularly the kind of depiction we have in St Benet’s, there’s one reaction that comes repeatedly to my mind. How lonely Jesus looks. How isolated and alone.
It’s odd really. For the evidence of the gospels proves the opposite was the case. Jesus was far from alone. The beloved disciple and his mother Mary accompanied him to his death and remained faithfully at the foot of the cross. It’s also clear there was a large group of people jeering at him, a detachment of roman soldiers carrying out the execution, and the two other captives crucified with him.
And yet Jesus still looks and feels so alone.
Maybe what we’re really experiencing is a paradox. Although Jesus is physically surrounded by a large number of people, the emotional reality he is experiencing is one of complete isolation.
His mother and best friend can offer all the support they possibly can from the foot of the cross. But there is something about the Cross that only Jesus can experience. Only he alone can know just how terrible it feels. Only he alone can experience the pain. There is something going on here which is about him and him alone carrying the weight of our sins and the burden of this appalling act of cruelty.
Isolation is something we have all of us had to learn about over the past 12 months. We have all learned just how debilitating isolation can be as we’ve locked down and socially distanced. It makes us feel stressed and anxious – and less human. The experience of lockdown has brought home to us just how important contact with others is to being fulfilled human beings.
Isolation is also the oldest, simplest and cruellest punishment it is possible to inflict on another person. I happened to watch the Netflix remake of that great film Papillon the other day. It’s about a prisoner who tries to escape from a prison camp in French Guyana. Every time he escapes and is recaptured they sentence him to years in solitary confinement without any light or verbal communication with the outside world. The film is an exploration of how he stops himself going mad through this terrifying, crushing experience of isolation and how he clings on to hope.
The most extraordinary truth at the heart of our celebration of Good Friday is this. Jesus’s point of greatest isolation as he dies on the cross is actually the point of his deepest connection with us. His isolation, his feeling completely cut off and rejected by us on the cross is what restores our friendship and connection with God.
The truth we need to take to heart today is this. The cross is actually the place where human isolation is finally defeated: isolation from God; isolation from our neighbour; isolation and alienation from our very selves even. It is through experiencing complete isolation that Jesus opens up for us the possibility of new connection and new relationship.
All we have to do is say yes to the offer of new life and new relationship which he makes to us. For it is only in Jesus that the solution to our alienation from God and neighbour can be found. Not in any efforts of our own.
The reason that is the case is divine love. The thing that makes our relationship with God right, and the thing that reconciles us to our neighbours is love. Jesus isolates himself on the cross out of pure love – the very thing we need to imitate him and live like him.
So let us take to heart today the extraordinary paradox that it is through Jesus’ death that we can live; it is through his isolation that we have connection and relationship with God; it is through his alienation that we are reconciled; it is through his being taken prisoner, that we are made free.