If I’m honest, I have to admit that today’s reading is not the one I would have chosen for Christmas Day. I’m afraid I was more concerned with completing John’s Gospel by the end of the year. However, there is a sense in which this is exactly the right passage for Christmas Day. The message of the angel to the shepherds was that a Saviour had been born. Sometimes we are more comfortable in talking about a baby in a manger than man giving his life on the cross. The fact is that Jesus came to die for sinners, it isn’t comfortable to read and it wasn’t nice; it was nasty and cruel but it was for a purpose.
‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’
The power struggle between Pilate and the Jewish leaders didn’t end with Jesus being condemned to death. Pilate may have been pressurised into doing something against his will but it did give him the opportunity to have a dig at the Jewish leaders. The notice above the head of the person being crucified would normally carry details of their crimes but for Jesus Pilate wrote simply; ‘King of the Jews’. It was an insult; it was saying to the leaders and the nation as whole; if this is your king, what does that say about you? He is the King of Heaven but he allowed himself to be used as a pawn in a petty power struggle between inadequate men.
If ever there was an illustration of being preoccupied with possessions it’s here. Jesus didn’t actually own anything other than the clothes he wore but those became the property of the soldiers charged with the crucifixion. It gives a glimpse into just how degrading and inhumane the practice was. What must it have been like to die naked in such agony in public while you watch soldiers sharing out your clothes? Again, it was not surprise to Jesus, he quoted Psalm 22:1 from the cross (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34) so he would certainly have known verse 18 of the same Psalm;
‘They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.’ (Psalm 22:18)
The soldiers’ attention was fixed on owning a garment when right before them;
‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19)
It was the most significant moment in all history but their focus was elsewhere. It’s easy to see their error but it can be so easy to make the same mistake.
All through this awful process there has been a distinct lack of compassion but here we see love and compassion displayed in all its beauty. The startling thing is that it comes from the man on the cross – from Jesus. We can only imagine the turmoil that Mary was enduring as she watched her son die, the warnings had been there almost since his birth (Luke 2:35, Matthew 2:11) but that wouldn’t have made it any easier. Jesus spoke from the cross and gave instructions to John (‘the disciple whom he loved’) and to Mary about her care. ‘From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.’ So John took Mary and cared for her. The word translated ‘time’ (hora) is often translated ‘hour’ and many of the most accurate translations (ESV, NRSV, NASV) have chosen to use it here. For me, it does fit with the context that John, under instruction from Jesus would take Mary away from the cross to ease some of her pain. I’d hesitate to say anything could be typical for Jesus as it implies the sort of insight that is beyond human understanding, but as we read the Gospels his character is revealed. He is one who put the interests of others before himself, who went to the cross for sinners like me. So fighting for breath, bearing the sin of a broken world as he dies and then thinking of his mother? Yes, that’s typical Jesus.
‘Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”’ (Charles Wesley)