In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s account of the crucifixion, another man, Simon of Cyrene, is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Christian tradition imagines Jesus, already weakened by the flogging he has endured, falling, as he lifts the heavy wood that will be the instrument of his torture and death. In this painting from Sieger Köder, we see Jesus crushed not only by the weight of the cross, but by the grey figures above, images of all the sins and sorrows he was bearing for us.
Isaiah 53:4-5 reads:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
As I read this, today, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I notice that, as he carries and, later, hangs on the cross, Christ bears not just our transgressions and sins, but also our infirmities and diseases. As Jesus collapses under the weight of his burden, as he fights for breath on the cross, so he walks in solidarity with those who lie, weakened, in hospital beds, those requiring oxygen, those attached to a ventilator as they too gasp for breath.
In the darkness of great suffering, whether that suffering is our own, or whether we are witnessing the suffering of others, the question “Where is God?” often comes to mind. We may feel that God is absent or, like the “we” in this passage from Isaiah, consider that such suffering is somehow a punishment sent by God. And yet, the passage points us to a greater, and more mysterious truth. The suffering of the cross, far from meaningless is, we learn, “the punishment that made us whole”, the source of our healing, the way of peace and wholeness.
During this Holy Week, as we enter into the sufferings of Christ, we do so not because we wish to glory in, or to glorify, pain, darkness, suffering and death. We do so in solidarity with those who suffer, and with those whose burdens are especially heavy at this time. And we do so because, paradoxically, it is at the cross, the place of deepest suffering and grief, that God shows forth most clearly his love for the world. It is at the cross where our deepest sufferings and griefs are taken up by God in Christ, borne, and healed.
Lord Jesus, you carried the cross through the rough streets of Jerusalem:
be with those who are loaded with burdens beyond their strength.
Lord Jesus, you were worn down by fatigue:
be with those from whom life drains all energy.
Lord Jesus, you needed the help of a passing stranger:
give us the humility to receive aid from others.
To you, Jesus, weighed down with exhaustion and in need of help,
be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever:
You might like to listen to this setting of Isaiah’s words from Handel’s Messiah: