The scene in “Centurion” when the darkness comes. For more information, see today’s update and gallery of videos, images, and files on my crowdfunding site: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/centurion/x/4770418
Lucius noticed the sky behind her, a clotted darkness that tumbled toward the hill. It came not as the darkness of night, a welcomed end to the day’s work, but rather as a bruise inflicted by a sudden blow, first mottling the skin, then purpling it, and finally blackening it.
Everyone on the hill saw it. The heckling stopped as eyes widened, sighs and cries rising as they sensed an ill sign. The moisture in the air began condensing on their skin, and it seemed as if an ominous presence were breathing over them with its clammy breath.
“Whadd’ya think?” asked Massina, one of the soldiers on the hill, a Syrian conscript, as he nodded toward the sky.
Valassio shook his head, his eyes peering into the darkness as if to pierce its mystery.
“I don’t like it,” said Antonius.
As the darkness approached, so did the apprehension. Those huddled in the crowd filled the eerie silence with nervous chatter. What is happening? What could it mean? Is it a sign? If so, of what?
“What if we’ve angered the gods?” asked Antonius of Valassio. A nervous pause. “You believe in the gods, don’t you?”
“The Roman ones.”
“What if there’s others,” remarked Massina, “and you Romans, by giving homage to just your own, make the others jealous? Ever think of that?”
Antonius walked to the brow of the hill, studying the strange and foreboding sky. Lucius joined him. “Didn’t Virgil write somewhere that ‘the sun shall give you signs’?” Antonius asked.
Lucius searched his memory. “’After the Caesar sank from sight . . . the sun wrapped his countenance in darkened gloom.’” The two looked at each other. “The blotting of the sun,” Lucius went on, “It is said to happen at the death of a divine ruler.”
They looked back at the man in the middle, neither speaking.
Here is a slide show of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, showing an overview of the city, then various models of the Temple and the area surrounding the Temple.
It is followed by a lecture from Dr. Monte Luker.
The posts I did today on my crowdfunding site (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/centurion) all give context to the story of the centurion who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus.
So does the short video clip here. I have also included a link to a sermon by Tim Keller, which I think you will enjoy.
When I was a young Christian in college, I had a lot of questions regarding the hows and whys of everything from creation to redemption. I knew Christ died for the sins of the world. What I didn’t understand is why. Because he loved us, of course. I knew that. What I was unclear about was why the problem of humanity’s sin couldn’t be dealt with in another way? I mean, why couldn’t God just forgive everyone with one sweeping judicial pardon? He was God, wasn’t He? He could do whatever He wanted, couldn’t He? But if for some reason He couldn’t do that, why then couldn’t He have just swept everyone away in judgment and simply start over again?
I can’t remember specifically asking God to help me find an answer to that question, but maybe the Spirit of God translated those unspoken concerns into words and breathed them as a prayer on my behalf. Who knows? But dim the lights and draw the curtains, and I will show you how God answered those questions.
Two of the greatest love stories ever told. The one, at Camelot; the other, at Calvary. Two of the noblest kings ever to live. The one, King Arthur; the other, King of the Jews. The one is adorned with a jewelled crown; the other, with a crown of thorns. The one is staged in elaborate settings and costumes with scenes of pomp and pageantry; the other, shrouded in darkness, with scenes of hair matted from dried blood, of wounds throbbing with fever, of bones disjointed from the pendulous slump of weight that did not resist. The one is poetically carried along by musical interludes; the other, prosed in broken fragments of conversations, punctuated by the guttered tauntings of a mob thirsting for blood. The one is a stage and film masterpiece, play and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe; the other, a dark page from history, written simply by a few inarticulate friends of the deceased.
The comparisons and contrasts between Camelot and Calvary are many, but one scene from Camelot illustrates a great theological dilemma that only the Cross could resolve. Was there no other path than the rocky incline that led to Calvary?
A King’s Request Denied
Prior to his appointment with destiny on the brow of that fateful hill, Jesus agonized in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
The emotional atmosphere surrounding those words is heavy with sweat and tears. The verses following tell of Jesus “being in agony” and “praying very fervently.” So exhausting was the ordeal that afterward it was necessary for an angel to come and strengthen him.
Understand, on an emotional level, that this is the pleading of a son to his father. If your child came to you in such agony, asking, begging, and pleading with such a submissive heart, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to grant the request? “Which of you,” Jesus himself taught, “if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” Wouldn’t you give food to one of your children who came to you with such hunger? Certainly you would. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
But this Father, this time, didn’t. And that’s the theological rub. He denied the request of His son, His only son, His beloved son. In Gethsemane that son was asking: “Is there no other way?” The Father’s answer is found in the paragraphs following the request. The son is betrayed, arrested, deserted, denied, beaten, tried, mocked, and finally crucified. Tacitly the Father answers: “No, there is no other way.”
Instead of the removal of suffering’s cup, Jesus is given sour wine upon the Cross. An apparent stone for the requested loaf. A snake for a fish.
But why? Why was there no other way?
The Execution Scene at Camelot
I found the answer to that question in a scene from Camelot, where the adulterous relationship between Queen Guenevere and Arthur’s most trusted knight, Sir Lancelot, has divided the Round Table. When the scheming Mordred catches them in a clandestine encounter, Lancelot escapes. Guenevere is not so fortunate. The chorus sings her fate:
On a day, dark and drear,
Came to trial Guenevere.
Ruled the jury for her shame
She be sentenced to the flame.
As the day of execution nears, people come from miles around with one question in their minds:
Would the King let her die?
Would the King let her die?
There was wonder far and near:
Would the King burn Guenevere?
After the chorus posed the question, Mordred enters the scene:
Arthur! What a magnificent dilemma!
Let her die, your life is over;
Let her live, your life’s a fraud.
Which will it be Arthur? Do you kill
the Queen or kill the law?
The fact that Arthur was Guenevere’s husband, and, at the same time, her king, created the dilemma. If he carries out the sentence, he upholds the law and validates himself to be a just and impartial king. Yet, in doing so, he calls into question his love. “Would the King burn Guenevere?” His tender wife whom he affectionately called Jenny? Jenny, who gave sparkle to his eyes? Jenny, who gave joy to his heart?
His heart tells him to set her free. If he did, it would certainly remove any doubt of his love. But by bending justice and showing partiality, he would call into question his right to rule.
Tragically but resolutely, Arthur decides:
Treason has been committed! The jury has ruled!
Let justice be done!
The chorus continues:
She must burn. She must burn.
Spoke the king: She must burn.
And the moment now was here
For the end of Guenevere.
High from the castle window stands Arthur as Guenevere enters the courtyard. Accompanying her are two guards and a priest. She walks to her unlit stake, where the executioner stands with waiting torch. Arthur turns away, emotion brimming in his eyes, as the chorus continues:
Slow her walk, bowed her head,
To the stake she was led…
A herald mounts the tower where Arthur has withdrawn:
The Queen is at the stake, Your Majesty.
Shall I signal the torch?
Arthur is devastated. Again the herald calls, this time with greater urgency:
Your Majesty…! Your Majesty…!
But the King cannot answer. In the background the chorus adds:
In his grief, so alone
From the King came a moan…
Arthur’s love for Jenny spills from his broken heart:
I can’t! I can’t! I can’t let her die!
Seeing Arthur crumble, Mordred relishes the moment:
Well, you’re human after all, aren’t you,
Arthur? Human and helpless.
Tragically, Arthur realizes the truth of Mordred’s remark. Being only human, he is indeed helpless. But where this story ends, the greatest story ever told just begins.
The Execution Scene at Calvary
Another time. Another place. Another king.
The setting: a world lies estranged from the God who loves it. Like Guenevere, an unfaithful humanity stands guilty and in bondage, awaiting judgment’s torch.
Could God turn His head from the righteous demands of the law and simply excuse the world’s sin? If not, then could He turn his head from the world he loved? “Would the King burn Guenevere?”
Like the wicked Mordred, Satan must have looked on in delight:
God! What a magnificent dilemma!
Let them die, your life is over;
Let them live, your life’s a fraud;
Which will it be God? Do you kill your
world or do you kill the law?
Without even waiting for his Guenevere to look up in repentance, this King stepped down from his throne, took off his crown, laid aside his royal robes, and descended his castle’s polished steps into humanity’s pot-marked streets. Paul’s words in Philippians are thought by some scholars to be the lyrics of an ancient hymn, singing about the King of Kings…
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
God became a man so that Jesus, unlike Arthur, would be neither simply human nor helpless. He stepped down from his throne, giving up the luxury of the castle to live on earth. We were his Guenevere. He was both our king and the lover of our soul. And he gave up his Camelot for our cross. When he did, God satisfied both his love for us and the righteous demands of his law.
For me that scene in the movie was an epiphany of understanding. Suddenly it all made sense. I knew now why he had to die, why there was no other way.
I learned that when I was a freshman in college.
Not from college.
Not even from church.
From a movie.
“He had forty-five scars at the front of his body, but none on his back.”
Pliny, “The Natural History,” 7.101
The centurion starts his military service with smooth skin. But guarding the Frontier would come at a price, and he would have the scars to show how much.
Someday, we will have fought our last battle. And we will be gathered into the arms of angels, the way Lazarus was gathered at the rich man’s gate. On that day, when the one who inspects us turns to the other angels for help, may he say of you and of me—“He had forty-five scars at the front of his body.”
Then with a glint in his eye and the beginning of a smile . . .
“But none on his back.”
“None on his back.”
In my email box today I received this wonderful reminder by Frederick Buechner.
It is a nice application to yesterday’s post.
I DISCOVERED THAT IF you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly. . . . If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
– Originally published in Now and Then
If the premise is true, that all writing is autobiographical, then Buechner’s exhortation to “listen to your life” naturally follows. And on its heels, this . . . The better we listen to our lives, the better our writing will be. The more honest it will be. The more authentic it will be. And the more of a chance it will have to connect to the reader’s life.
But listening like this doesn’t come naturally, at least to most of us.
Keeping a journal helps.
The idea of keeping a journal has for me always had a nagging, “you’ve-got-to-do-it-every-day” tone to it. To keep one at all, I’ve had to slip off the stiff shirt of that routine and slip into something with a little looser fit, allowing me to skip a few days here, a week there. But although that felt more comfortable, it didn’t stop the nagging, which changed from “you’ve-got-to-do-it-every-day” to “you-need-to-catch-up.”
More often than not, instead of keeping a journal, the journal kept me. Kept me feeling guilty mostly. My feelings changed, though, when instead of serving the journal, I used the journal to serve me. I kept it close to me but not chained to me. I wrote in it, not because I felt there was something I was supposed to say but because I felt there was something I was supposed to hear.
Sometimes what I heard was whispered, other times it was shouted. Sometimes it was a word, an image, or simply an impression. Sometimes the message was clear, other times it wasn’t. As I started jotting down those moments, I began sensing that through some of those moments God was speaking.
In his autobiographical book, The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner writes: “If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we all of us have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all—just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.”
Before we can hear God speaking through the everyday moments of our lives, our heart has to be prepared to listen. That preparation involves several things.
First—and this seems to go without saying but I’ll say it anyway—there must be a sense of anticipation that God wants to speak to us and that He will speak. This anticipation stems from the belief that God is love and that it is the nature of love to express itself. The form of that expression, though, is remarkably varied. Sometimes love is expressed through words. Other times it is expressed through pictures or gestures or a variety of other ways, often very subtle ways that only the beloved might recognize. That is the nature of intimate communication. It is clear to the beloved but often obscure to everyone else.
Second, there must be a humility of heart, for where we are willing to look and what we are willing to hear will largely determine how many of those moments we will catch. This posture of the heart stems from a belief that words from God characteristically come swaddled in the most lowly of appearances, and that if we’re not willing to stoop, we’ll likely miss God among the stench of the stable and the sweetness of the straw.
Third, there must be a responsiveness to what is heard. A willingness to follow where we are being led, wherever that may be. A readiness to admit where we are wrong and to align ourselves with what is right and good and true. An eagerness to enter into the joy of the moment. Or into the sorrow of the moment, if that’s the case. It is this responsiveness of the heart that makes us most susceptible to the grace of the moment. And it is what prepares us to receive whatever grace is offered to us in the next.
If this is true, then it follows with almost syllogistic logic that there are no ordinary moments, no moments we can dismiss, none that are unworthy of our attention.
And it is because of this that Buechner can say: “All moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”