“Father forgive them for they know not what they do” Luke 23:34
In Cambridge there is a common called Parker’s Piece that is just outside of the main city centre. Half way across the common is a lamp post that had been named ‘reality check point’. Students some times needing to get away from the intensity of the University would come to ‘reality check point’ and go out into the ‘real world’ to reorientate themselves before heading back to the twilight zone of university life.
So often we can find ourselves disconnecting our spiritual life, with its mystery, numinous and other worldly nature, from our normal every day existence. We may even find ourselves after a moving spiritual encounter in prayer or worship saying, ‘ O well, back to reality.’
Our encounter with the Cross is a clear remedy to such wayward thinking. As we contemplate the crucified we discover with an intense shock that, far from other worldliness, here is a brutal reality. This is an encounter with our ‘reality check point’ which we must stop at even though we’d rather rush by in our haste to enter the joy of Easter. At this our ‘reality check point’ we encounter the paradox that in this senseless act of cruelty and violence of the crucified we are forced to come to our senses – to come face to face with the reality of ourselves, who and what we are.
True, brutalised Roman soldiers carried out the crucifying of Jesus and yet we realise that we, with the crowds of the first century, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday will cry out “Crucify him!” The shocking reality we face is that we continue to cry out “crucify him!” with every act of betrayal, unfaithfulness and cruelty leading from our rejection of God’s commandments to love him above all else and our neighbour as ourselves.
In the light of the ‘reality check point’ of the Cross, I see more clearly the many delusions I have created for myself and which I present to others. In the One on the cross I become aware that he is my Alpha and Omega, my beginning and my end. This truth is not for me alone however. Here is also the axis on which everything turns from the smallest particle to the immensity of the universe itself – everything finds its true meaning and purpose in the presence of the One on the cross. In contemplating Jesus as he hangs on the cross I see what and who I truly am – there is no hiding place from this concrete reality of the crucified one before me.
I have to come to my senses like the Prodigal Son and return to the father and confess ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your Son.’ It is in the first moments of our returning, our repentance, that we hear those incredible words, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ It is like the rushing embrace of the father as he runs to gather his son into his arms at the first sight of his returning. In the cross we not only see the truth about ourselves but we are confronted with the shocking reality of the nature of God.
Basil Hume spoke of the sense of urgency in Jesus’ words of intercession, as if He was looking for anyway possible way for us to know forgiveness. The one we thought shamed and humiliated by the cross reveals the truth that it is those who crucify, who allow and participate in mans inhumanity to man, are the ones shamed and humiliated by our actions. Even in the agony of this perfected form of torture and death Jesus shows us something of the heart of God and his compassion and concern for us who have wondered far from home and are alone and lost bowed down by our pains, hurts and sins.
The Cross our ‘reality check point’ then is not just about us but we come to understand that it is primarily about the reality of the nature of God and his love for all that he has made. Timothy Radcliff says that what comes first at the moment of our return is not condemnation, begrudging accommodation, humiliation, accusation or punishment, all of which we might have expected and in some ways felt we deserved but instead forgiveness. The Father is not going to deny his son when he pleads ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. Indeed Jesus reveals the very will of the Father in pronouncing these words. This is a pure gift of grace which cannot be earned by any works of ours and can only be received as a free gift in all humility.
Timothy Radcliff goes on to say that every sin we have or will commit is already forgiven here on the cross. The triumph of this sacrifice of divine love has once and for all defeated sin and death. ‘I saw Satan fall like lighting from heaven.’ (LK10: 17-18). Is this cheap grace? Does it not belittle the seriousness of sin? Here at the foot of the cross one cannot escape from the brutal reality of the seriousness of sin. Jesus himself is the one who tells us to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin (MK 9: 47). This is no cheap grace. Yes, our forgiveness is already assured, made ready like a present for us but it is up to us wether we appropriate it or not. This free gift of forgiveness can only be grafted into our hearts by our hearts being made ready by true repentance and humility – pretending to be sorry will not do and does not work. Just saying the words I am sorry, as if it were some magical formula, while not being truly sorry just doesn’t wash. To stand before this ‘reality check point’ where all pretences are banished and all truth is laid bear is no easy place to be and why so many rush on by.
But stay here a while so that you and I with all that the past has been and whatever the future might be, are able to hear those words of Jesus, ‘ Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’