It is easy to forget – and we must not forget! – the huge transformation that the disciples have to go through in their thinking of the Christ. The standard assumptions would have been strongly influenced by the legends of David passed down through the ages. At the very least, the Christ would meet some acceptable criteria of human success. Little if anything in current thinking prepared them for a Christ who would be vulnerable, apparently defeated by the powers that be, left to die an ignominious death like a criminal on a Roman cross for the passing world to mock.
Let us pause for a moment. We approach this story knowing the end. These are three huge days, all interdependent, each giving meaning to the others: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Day. The disciples who witnessed the crucifixion, however, would not have thought to call that day “Good Friday”. It was in fact the most horrible day they had every experienced! Can you sense anything of that horror?
Nearly thirty years after the death of Jesus, St Paul finds it necessary to address this issue of the kind of Christ God has sent: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). A little further on in the same Letter, Paul exclaims: “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (2:7-9). The glory of God is seen in the crucified one. What is more, it is also our glory.
In today’s Gospel – John 12:20-33 – written about thirty years after these words of St Paul, the same issue arises. John, like St Paul, recognizes in Jesus’ being “lifted up”, the manifestation of God’s glory. John places great emphasis on signs. Thus John says of the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, “this was the first of Jesus’ signs” (2:11). The ultimate “sign” of the truth that “God so loved the world he gave his only Son” (3:16), is clothed in the horrors of the crucifixion.
Bearing in mind the experience of those first disciples for whom that horror was only too real, we should take time to let the truth of Jesus’ being “lifted up” speak its real truth to our hearts now. Yes, we know the ending of the story – sort of. The post-Friday and pre-Sunday moments that dot our days – the tedium of routine, the stress of others, our own anxieties and fears, the presence of tragedy etc – can bring us to truly know the horrible beauty at the heart of our faith.