I was a child when the Shroud of Turin exhibit came to Atlanta. My family had made plans to go downtown and to experience an in-depth exposition on Jesus’s burial cloth. It was the Saturday before Easter, I believe.
In the mid-fourteenth century, a long cloth was discovered in Europe that had the faint image of a man imprinted upon it. The fabric appeared to be the kind of cloth that would be used to wrap a body in for burial. Tradition holds that the person whose image had been mysteriously reproduced on the cloth is Jesus of Nazareth. The likeness--and the details that suggest an individual’s violent end—was uncanny in its similarity to the crucified Christ. Kept in a sealed case in a cathedral in Turin, Italy, many faithful Christians have regarded it as a genuine relic from Jesus’s grave.
Studies, investigations and well-regarded research have, however, made its authenticity unclear. The exhibit that my family attended in Atlanta so many years ago revealed the differing theories and ideas behind the shroud’s history.
The exhibit, with its high walls, massive images, and displayed artifacts, wound through a cavernous convention center. The path through the exhibit was like a labyrinth. The lighting increasingly dimmed—so as to prepare the visitor for the illuminated images that had been reproduced—and eerie music filled the hall. Along the way, the exhibit told the story of Jesus’s final hours. It described the crucifixion in starkly gruesome terms. It told about Jewish burial customs. It was fascinating. My attention was rapt. I was also terrified.
As a child, and up to that trip to the Shroud of Turin exhibit, I could testify that I was very familiar with Jesus’s violent death and his subsequent resurrection. But I was unprepared that day to see the unique horror that Jesus must have experienced that Good Friday. With each step that I took along the path to Jesus’s final breath in the exhibit’s storytelling, a feeling of inescapable dread washed over me. I remember that I wanted to retrace my steps and to retreat from the reality in which I had been immersed. I wanted to erase the feeling of dread and sorrow that I felt. I wanted to run and hide from a world that crucified God.
These many years later I still want to escape the reality of Jesus’s terrible death on the cross. The story of Jesus’s Passion feels too hard to handle, and certainly too heavy to bear. I don’t want to hear the details of Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t want to see and touch a thorny crown, nor consider the nail-scarred hands. The image of Jesus on the cross still haunts and frightens me.
So, I can certainly empathize with followers of Jesus who wish to leapfrog over Jesus’s passion to a celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Why spend any more time on the road with Jesus to the cross when we know that’s not how the story ends? Since Jesus overcame death on the cross, perhaps we can omit that dark chapter from the broader story that we tell.
Protestants do not typically have crosses that depict the crucified Jesus. The crosses that we have in our own sanctuary are a case in point. Jesus is not on our crosses. Our Catholic brothers and sisters, though, have crucifixes that reveal the crucified Christ. These differences in tradition mean something. Catholics tend to emphasize the salvific power of Christ’s suffering—that is, his Passion—whereas Protestants place more emphasis on the empty tomb. And since an empty tomb is hard to symbolize, an empty cross usually suffices.
Neither tradition has it right or wrong. And yet, our starting place in our thinking about Jesus’s death and resurrection can have both strengths and liabilities. For protestants, we may prefer to sanitize the story of Jesus’s death in an attempt to quickly reach Easter Sunday morning. This is certainly revealed in my own experience and thinking about Jesus’s death.
I don’t want to dwell long in Jesus’s final hours. It hurts too much.
But Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross and to follow him. Since Jesus walked the Way of Sorrows out of obedience to the Father and out of love for us, we cannot allow our own sorrows to become barriers to journeying alongside Christ to his death. We remember Jesus’s brokenness because he has commanded us to do so. We follow in Jesus’s footsteps because that is what a disciple does. We become an observer with Jesus in Jerusalem on that Good Friday out of a desire to be in solidarity with our Lord and to bear witness alongside other faithful followers some 21 centuries in the making.
Early on, followers of Jesus went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross. But as travel to the Holy Land became more and more difficult, if not impossible, churches in Europe began to offer their own pilgrimages on church grounds. A path, then, was laid out in sanctuaries and cathedrals where the faithful could go station to station remembering Jesus’s final steps on the way to the cross.
This Good Friday, I invite you to our church sanctuary to experience a solemn pilgrimage to the cross with Jesus. It will not be easy, and you may be inclined to quit the journey before it is completed. Just the same, I pray that you will choose to accept this challenge and to recall Jesus’s final hours even in its difficulty. The path, though ghastly, is also filled with grace and with mercy. We see an obedient Christ, full of love and full of strength, seeking to bring about the salvation of the world. I pray that you will say yes to the invitation to journey the last few steps with Jesus to the cross.
The church sanctuary will be open to you from 9 AM until 5 PM on Friday, March 29th. Upon arriving at the sanctuary doors—whether from the hallway in the back, or from the foyer off of Main Street—you will find a guide with directions for your journey. It reveals that the Stations of the Cross experience is a self-guided trek that you may take at your own pace. Beginning in the foyer and up the stairs to the balcony, you will be guided sequentially through the 11 stations of the cross. You will read a passage from the Passion narratives in the Gospel at each station. Additionally, you will have the chance to be silent and to consider what it must have felt like for Jesus and for his disciples that Good Friday so many years ago. Some stations will invite you to hold a particular question, and to touch sharp thorns, and to feel the weight of a hammer, and to physically trace the arc of Jesus’s life and ministry. The experiential journey is appropriate for your family—especially for children ages 8 and up.
I know. It’s a heartrending trail. There are many other things you could be doing with your time. The story of Jesus’s death is scary, and it is terrible.
But it’s also the Path to our own Redemption.