Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness”. A Tenebrae service is a service of readings and meditations that move from light to darkness as candles are extinguished. This service depicts the journey of Christ to the cross, where he would bear the sins of the world as a demonstration of God’s great love for us. The following post includes the readings and meditations from this year’s Tenebrae service at Trinity Lutheran Church. You can also listen to the audio here.
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom me hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
(Isaiah 53:1-3 ESV)
As Jesus came near Jerusalem, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “I wish you knew today what would bring you peace. But now it is hidden from you. The time is coming when your enemies will build a wall around you and will hold you in on all sides. They will destroy you and all your people, and not one stone will be left on another. All this will happen because you did not recognize the time when God came to save you.”
(Luke 19:41-44 NCV)
For several years I worked in the city of Chicago ministering to college students. One fall, we decided to go out onto the streets of the city to do some ministry among the homeless. We packed meals and care packages filled with basic toiletries and set out to give them to those in need. On our walk through the streets we met countless men and women who were just struggling to make it from one day to the next. We were humbled and privileged to be able to show them that they had not been forgotten and to hear their stories.
But of all the things about that night that I remember, there is one encounter that I will never forget. We had just come out of one of the train stations when we ran into a man who was begging. We started talking with him and he said that we he really needed was a little bit of money so that he could buy a meal. We weren’t carrying any cash, so we offered him one of the care packages that we had. And you would never guess what happened next: He looked at the care package, then he looked at us and said the following words: “I don’t take handouts.” And he walked away.
Now, there could have been many reasons why he turned that meal down that night. But, based on the smell of alcohol on his breath and the trembling in his hands I can guess. My hunch is that what the man really wanted was something to feed his addiction. And that addiction kept him from taking the one thing that he said he needed most: food.
There is nothing more tragic, nothing more heartbreaking, than seeing someone desperately in need and then watch that person reject the very help that could save his or her life.
And so we can begin to understand why Jesus was moved to tears. His whole life has been building to this moment. Finally the King has come to Jerusalem. But he has come not to be recognized, but to be rejected. He has come not to be crowed with gold, but to be crowned with thorns. And so he weeps. He weeps because the ones he has come to save have rejected him. The one who came to give his people peace and hope will, instead, be greeted with violence and condemned to death. And so be weeps. Jesus weeps not for himself, but for his loved ones who have rejected his love. Jesus weeps for those who need to be saved and have rejected their Savior. Jesus weeps for you and for me.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
(Isaiah 53:7-8 ESV)
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no answer, so that Pilate was amazed. Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
(Mark 15:1-15 ESV)
Two thousand years ago, a revolutionary was born in Israel. And this man would grow up under the oppressive shadow of the Roman Empire. He gathered disciples around him and he proclaimed the inauguration of another kingdom, a Davidic kingdom, a kingdom that would overthrow the might of Rome and re-establish the covenant kingdom of God on earth. And he, along with his disciples, would murder countless people and rise up in violent rebellion against the very armies of Caesar. And in this great battle, this revolutionary, this messiah, would be captured, imprisoned, and brought before the Roman governor, Pontus Pilate, to stand trial. This man’s name was Jesus.
Is this story true?
We are introduced to this violent revolutionary in our meditation for tonight. The gospel writer Mark introduces him as “Barabbas”. We learn that he was a murderer and was captured in an insurrection against Rome. But a contemporary of Mark, the gospel writer Matthew, gives us more details. He tells us that his true name was Jesus. We read:
“Now it was the governor’s custom to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ For he knew it was out of self-interest that they handed Jesus over to him.”
(Matthew 27:15-18 NIV)
And so the crowd is given a choice: Which Messiah do you want? Which Jesus do you choose? To call the trial of Jesus Christ a miscarriage of justice would be a gross understatement. For what we see in this incident is less a courtroom proceeding and more a popularity contest carried out by a fickle mob and administered by a spineless bureaucrat.
On the one hand there is Jesus Barabbas, the rebel: a charismatic leader of a revolt against Rome. He offered his followers freedom from Caesar and a chance to get even with their oppressors. He preached a kingdom of power and glory, of victory and conquest.
And then there is Jesus, the humble carpenter from Nazareth. A man who preached about the love of God and His upside down kingdom. A man who said that eternal life is not won by human effort. A man who claimed that to enter into the Kingdom of God, one must be humble, become like a child, admit one’s wrongdoings and neediness, and who called people to repent.
So which Jesus do you really want? Much as we might hate to admit it, I think we find common cause with the people in the crowd. When we are faced with life’s challenges and disappointments we often look to earthly answers. We turn to politics when things go wrong, criticizing leaders and parties, and scrambling to elect new ones, thinking that will solve society’s woes. We turn to Hollywood and Wall Street to tell us what success looks like. We consume self-help books and pop-philosophy, telling ourselves that we’re pretty good people and that, with just a little bit of effort, we can clean ourselves up and change the world. We like leaders like Barabbas: a self-made man, charismatic and strong, idealistic and full of conviction. We like a man who empowers us: a man who tells us to take matters into our own hands and change things now: to build our own kingdoms today. Sure, Barabbas has made some mistakes. Yeah, he’s killed people: but they were pretty bad people anyways, right? And so we shout for his release.
But Jesus Christ? The one who embraces the people that make us feel uncomfortable? The one who tells us we need a Savior? The one who dares to call us to repent? He makes us uncomfortable. But what we need to realize is that he is not on trial for himself, for even corrupt Pilate knows that Jesus has done no evil. No. Jesus is on trial for us. For you and for me. His trial was supposed to be our trial. And that makes us uncomfortable. So we shout, “Take him away. Crucify him.” And Jesus, without a word of protest goes, for he was not sent to the Cross, he went to the Cross for you and for me.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:4-6 ESV)
And as they led him away [to be crucified], they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:26-28, 32-43 ESV)
Why is Jesus on the Cross? Because he was rejected by the religious leaders? Because he was condemned by the Romans? On the surface, the answer seems pretty straightforward. Jesus hangs between two criminals as one condemned. The charge stands above his head: “this is the king of the jews”. It is a mockery: placed there by the Romans to establish, once and for all, that only Caesar is king. It is a warning to any would-be rebels of the consequences for defying the Empire. And so, hanging between these two criminals, men whose crime was rebellion against the power of Rome, we find Jesus dying a rebel’s death.
Or could there be more to it than that? For, in a final, desperate plea, we hear one man cry out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This rebel, a man who has spent his life fighting authority, rebelling against kings, cries out to the king hanging next to him: “please…remember me when you come into your kingdom.” As his friend continues to shout curses at the authorities, as his partner in crime continues to rage against the machine, this criminal sees something else. He sees Jesus for who he truly is: the king. The one true king. The innocent one, who, counter to all appearances, is the one person who should not be hanging there. Of all the people in Jerusalem who watched this miscarriage of justice, it is this lone criminal who sees the truth.
Why is Jesus on the Cross? Jesus is on the Cross, not because he deserves to be, but because he chooses to be. Jesus is on the Cross, not as a criminal, but in the place of criminals. This rebel sees it and he begins to understand. And so he asks, in humility and hope, shame and tears: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is a cry of desperation. It is a cry of faith.
And Jesus, through the pain and agony of the Cross, speaks these amazing words of hope and of love: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus promises this man that, in that moment, a great exchange has been made. That though they hang condemned, this rebel has been forgiven. In the shadow of death, the door of paradise has been opened and this criminal has been lovingly ushered into the kingdom of God.
This is why Jesus is on the Cross. He hangs there to die for criminals and rebels. He hangs there to die for all those who have rejected him, spat on him, and beat him. He hangs there to die for you and for me. He hangs there to take the punishment for all the crimes we’ve committed, for all the times we have rejected and rebelled against God, for all the ways in which we have fallen short. And through His Cross, Jesus opens the door to paradise for you and for me. And we who were once sinners and rebels have been ushered into the kingdom of God. This is Jesus Christ, our suffering King.
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says. “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
(John 19:23-27 ESV)
She remembers the first time she heard him cry. How, from that first breath, she cradled him in her arms, to comfort him. But what comfort can she give him now? How can she soothe him when cruel men with instruments of death stand between her and her son? How many times must she have wanted to reach out to him: to touch him and tell him that everything was going to be okay. But how can she console her baby boy when he hangs there, wrapped only in pain, embraced only by death?
These must have been the gut wrenching questions and emotions that raged in Mary’s heart as she stood at the Cross. But even faced with such a horrific scene, she dared not turn away. She was not going to leave her child.
But the response from her son is even more heartbreaking. As he hangs suspended between heaven and earth, as he spans the gulf between God’s perfect love and just wrath, as he wins redemption for all of humanity, he, in his immense and beautiful love, reaches out to her. In comfort, he reaches out to the one who, for so many years of his life, was his comforter. In the midst of his pain, he extends his heart to his mother. To the one who raised him, who risked everything for him, who cared for his every earthly need, he now extends care and protection. He asks his friend, his confidant, to take care of the parent he now has to leave behind. It will be the last earthly gift that he can give her.
And so we glimpse the intimate heart of Jesus. Even in the midst of winning redemption for the whole world, he is not so far above it that he cannot also extend intimate grace and unconditional love to a lonely, elderly widow standing on a deserted hilltop. On the Cross, in this small interaction, we see the love that God has for each and every one of us. The grace that he pours out upon us is not an abstract theological concept. It is an intimate, tender, self-sacrificing act. It is a grace expressed in familial love.
On the Cross, we behold the one who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man. We see the one who came from heaven, but was born of a virgin’s womb. We see the one who holds the Universe in his palms and, yet, embraces humanity. Jesus Christ, the child of Christmas, the baby of Bethlehem, crucified for us, that we might be reconciled to God. And so our hearts sing: “What child is this, who laid to rest, in Mary’s lap is sleeping? The King of kings, salvation brings. Let loving hearts enthrone him. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.”
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
(Matthew 27:45-54 ESV)
“There was darkness over all the land.” And so creation itself lends its commentary: judgment has come. Darkness descends. For three hours the sun would not give its light. For three hours, the shadow of death would reign. And after three hours of pain, his body barely recognizable from vicious beatings at the hands of the Roman soldiers, his lips cracked and dry from the loss of blood, Jesus cries out in anguish: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the cry of one who is tormented and alone. This is the cry of King David in Psalm 22:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircle me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare at me and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
(Psalm 22, selected verses)
In this final moment of darkness, this song from ancient times is found on the lips of Jesus Christ. He speaks it because it expresses the deep torment of his soul: the feeling of being forsaken by God, condemned to death, with the weight of the world’s Sin bearing down upon him. And so he cries out, in a voice that expresses all the pain and loneliness that he feels.
And yet…this is no cry of defeat. For even as he stares Hell in the face, Jesus finds hope. For Psalm 22, the psalm of which he speaks, does not end in defeat. No. It ends in vindication, for it reads:
“But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me…You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendents of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendents of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help…All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations…They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!”
(Psalm 22, selected verses)
This cry is one of hope. This cry is one of victory. For Christ, in that final hour knows that he is triumphant. He has fought the battle that he was always destined to fight. He has born the sins of the entire world, past, present, and future, and stared Death itself in the face. He has died so that all the ends of the earth would remember and turn to the Lord. This cry pierces not only the darkness, but reverberates through the halls of the Temple in Jerusalem. It tears the curtain in the Holy of Holies in two. That curtain, which symbolized our separation from God and from Paradise, has been torn away. This cry opens paradise for all those who look to Christ, and it signals grace, forgiveness, refuge and peace to all who have faith.
Christ’s victory has become our victory. His death has brought us life. His moment of darkness has become the moment of our salvation. And so he gives up his spirit. He returns to the Father fully vindicated as the one who was faithful, the one who was obedient, even to death on a Cross. And he returns to the Father in triumph, for by his blood we have been bought from death to life, and by his wounds we have been healed.
And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
(Isaiah 53:9-12 ESV)
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.
(Matthew 27:57-60 ESV)
It is done. The final bell has tolled. His body hangs lifeless and empty from the rough wood of the Cross. He has been faithful. He has carried his burden to its final resting place, and he has laid it down. Jesus has poured out his life for us, he has paid the price in his blood.
So what’s to be done now? For Joseph, one of Jesus’ friends, one of his disciples, there is only one thing that can be done. He goes and asks Pilate for the body of his friend. With great care, he took his Master’s body from the Cross, lovingly wrapping it in strips of linen, and then laid it in a tomb. And so, Christ, the King of glory, now lies broken on a cold stone slab beneath the earth. He has died the death that we should have died. He occupies the tomb that we should have occupied. This was his sacrifice. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, hundreds of years before:
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of this generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth…because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
(Isaiah 53:8-9 & 12b)
For all the pain that he endured, for the death that he embraced, Christ has bought us back from death. He has taken our punishment upon himself and has made satisfaction for our sins. And though we end this night in darkness, we know that darkness does not have the last word. For Christ, in his death, proclaimed, “It is finished”. Our forgiveness and our eternal lives have been won. As the prophet says:
“He will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.”
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have been passed over. By his blood we have been freed from Sin. Thanks be to Jesus Christ: our Passover lamb, our sacrifice of atonement. For by his death, we have received life eternal. Amen.