The centurion, knowing the nature of the charge against Jesus, looks on in awe and amazement and declares — “So he really was Son of God, after all.” Two days later, of course, God is going to declare, powerfully, that Jesus really was innocent, really was Son of God. But if we understand the cross we can see that, to the eye of faith, the evidence is already there. Because on the cross we see a love which is none other than God’s own love. Only God loves like that. Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But on the cross there was a greater love nailed up in public, when God gave his life for his enemies. We cannot understand the cross unless we understand the incarnation, and vice versa. As St Paul put it — God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. The words that Jesus himself spoke at supper on the night he was betrayed are, as it were, magnified into the words that God himself says, not with speech but with action, on the first Good Friday: “This is my body, broken for you.”

It is because in his death on the cross we see a love which can only be identified as God’s love that we Christians say: He was not just a great teacher, dying for his beliefs. He was not just a good man suffering innocently. He was, and is, the loving God himself, come as a human being to save men, women, and children from sin and death, and from all the stain and fear and guilt and shame which cling to our hearts, our memories, our imaginations, our lives. People still puzzle over how Jesus can be divine and human at the same time. It remains a puzzle if we assume that the word “God” refers to a distant, detached, supernatural landlord. Many people still think the word “God” refers to a being like that. But try imagining the Old Testament God for a minute—passionate, involved with his people in their wanderings and stupidity, loving them tenderly and rescuing them again and again, grieving over their folly and their pain, taking costly action to redeem them. What would that God look like if he were to become human, and live among us humans? I think he would look very much like Jesus of Nazareth; and never more so than as he hangs dying on the cross.

And, in Mark’s Gospel, written quite likely for a Roman audience, the centurion’s comment implicitly asks the question: Have you stood before the cross and recognised that here there is an act of love which marks out this man as none other than the Son of God? Have you allowed yourself to accept what was there accomplished on your behalf? Do you still, like so many, regard Good Friday as an awkward, somewhat embarrassing moment, stuck between the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and the Hallelujahs of Easter Day? Or have you learnt to recognise that, on Calvary, Jesus — even through his fear, his doubts, his final bitter temptations — was completing the obedient vocation he had undertaken? And have you attempted to bring the pains and puzzles and tragedies of your own life into the searching, but amazingly loving, light of that cross? If you have, you may have begun to realise this great truth: that here we cannot reduce the cross to either an abstract idea of “atonement,” or to a set of “bare historical facts.” Instead, the cross itself summons us to rethink and remake the whole fact and idea of knowledge itself, belief itself, life itself. Here we are unmade; here we are remade.

In Bach’s St Matthew Passion, towards the close, the centurion’s words (“Truly, this was the Son of God”) are given not to a soloist, as you might expect, but to the whole chorus, singing softly and penitently. They are not in the key one might expect for soloist or chorus, but are transposed into the key normally reserved for Christ himself. And into the bass line Bach has woven the musical letters which represent his own name. That, I suggest, is a true reading and re-presentation of the centurion’s words. They are the response of the awed and grateful people of God to this all-but-unbelievable revelation of love; and within that response we are, each of us, to write our names into the chorus. And the key in which we sing is not our own, a merely human key: it is the key which conforms, as now at last because of the cross and the Spirit we can conform, to the initiating sovereign love of God in Christ. He has been singing his own song to his people all this time; and now, because of his death, we are at last able to respond in the same key. Truly, we say, this man dying for us is the Son of God. On the cross we see dying love, and we recognise it as the undying love of God.

-N. T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire, 53-55

 

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