In the millennium year 2000, there was a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery, Seeing Salvation, full of Christian art, depicting the life of Christ. It was estimated that over a third of a million people saw that exhibition, so powerful remains the draw of the life of Christ to attract, even in such a secular age, and in a country constantly whittling away Christian heritage.
One thing I remember from the paintings, and which I still recall vividly all these years later, is that several of the nativity images — the scenes of Christ’s birth — also had hints of the death of Jesus too. The sweetness of the scene of the crib was tempered by the shadow of the Cross. Images such as his swaddling clothes binding him as tightly as the grave shroud; or with Him sleeping, ashen coloured, as if in death; or His head resting on a small cross … These connect the Crib and the Cross in a way that is disconcerting … Disconcerting, at least, for the non-believer! For the true Christian, of course, the Crib is not about a sugary-sweet scene from a fairy tale, something to ‘aah’ and coo at … No, the birth of Jesus is beautiful, but beautiful because it is God made man, God come to dwell with man, and teach, guide, correct, and save, mankind.
So, it is not that bizarre, even on this last Sunday before Christmas, to reflect on Jesus’s death. It may seem a bit out of season … but our reflections this year on the Catechism have brought us to this point in the Creed: “For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, He suffered death and was buried.” The reasons for Jesus’s death, on a human and political level, of course, are very complex … They are tied up with the struggle for power between the Jewish religious authorities, and the oppressing Roman occupiers: the Jewish leaders could not risk upsetting the status quo, given their tenuous hold on government given them by the Romans; but on the other hand the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, also can’t risk sedition and riots or else his own job will be ‘on the line.’ As the High Priest said, “It is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to perish” — that was His take on it. Jesus was a nuisance, and was getting too popular. They had no real evidence of any wrongdoing; in the end they brought false witnesses against Him in the Sanhedrin, and even these could not be consistent! The sort of accusations they brought against Him were (i) His claiming to be the Messiah; (ii) His forgiving sins; (iii) His claiming to destroy the Temple and rebuild it; (iv) His breaking of their strict interpretation of the Sabbath. Now, of course, if He were not the Son of God, then their opposition would have been justified, as He would truly have been a blasphemer, as they said. Ultimately it was on this basis that they wanted Him destroyed: His claim to be one with the Father … “the Son of the living God.” With Pilate, they then play the card of “a new king” — the same worry that got Herod killing the innocent babies after Jesus’s birth. The Jewish leaders say to Pilate, duplicitously, as they accuse Jesus: “We have no king but Caesar.” Pilate will get His own back when He has written above the Cross of Jesus, “The King of the Jews”!
But Jesus did not just die because it was politically useful to have Him out of the way. Jesus died because when the Truth speaks — when the Son of God reveals Himself, the perfect man in a world of sin — then He will be opposed and rejected. If you read the (blue) sheet which came out on the 1st Sunday of Advent, on The Person of Christ, you’ll have seen a quotation there from the book of Wisdom (read it if you’ve not already!). It reminds us powerfully that the virtuous man is despised, and suffers for his truth and goodness. This is most extreme, of course, when that virtuous man is also the Son of God, perfect in all things, and speaking what is true. Jesus died, that is, because of man’s sinfulness. The blame for Jesus’s death cannot lie solely with those in Jerusalem in 30ad. Jesus died, as His name implies, to save mankind from our sins: He died as the consequence of man’s sin, rejecting the true God when He came amongst us. Therefore, He died as a result of all our sins, all our wrongdoing, but precisely to overcome and forgive all our wrongdoing. This is why He uttered those words from the Cross: words that ring out across the ages, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” In His body on the Cross, He reconciled God and man: He remained faithful to God the Father, and He remained faithful to man: He didn’t come down from the Cross, saving Himself the agony and the bitter death. His perfect obedience meant that God and man were reunited. Jesus went in to death, the consequence of our sin, so as to bring His life and light to that place and to save us from death.
As we come towards Christmas, let’s also accept that this child born for us will also go on to die for us. That’s the meaning of the myrrh brought to His birth-place by the Magi: myrrh, the burial ointment, signifying His death. As we prepare to gaze on the wonder of the Crib, let’s also accept the Way of the Cross. Let’s not just stop at the Crib and refuse the Cross.