“God’s anonymous: the women at the cross”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
It’s easy to say that the cross of Jesus Christ is the best-known symbol of Christ and Christianity around the world. We see it almost everywhere, both inside and outside the church, on jeweled necklaces and high atop steeples, as well as on wrist tattoos and even minivan bumper stickers.
And that’s just the way it should be, for more than anything else, the cross tells the story of unmatched humility and sacrifice, about a King who put Himself last, and us first.
What are some of the most amazing crosses in the world?
The world’s tallest cross can be found just outside of Madrid in what’s called the Valley of the Fallen. Not only is it five hundred feet tall, it stands on top of a granite hill that’s five hundred feet high. On a clear day, you can see it from twenty miles away!
The tallest cross in North America is found in southern Illinois, in a town called Effingham, alongside highways 57 and 70. Called “The Cross at the Crossroads,” it’s made of 180 tons of steel and is seen by 50,000 travelers every day. They would have made it two feet taller, but the FAA said then they’d have to put a light on top!
The largest illuminated cross is found on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the country of Lebanon. Called “The Cross of All Nations,” it stands 242 feet tall and is lit by 1,800 spotlights.
But one of the most interesting places to find the cross, (or rather, quite a lot of crosses), is found in northern Lithuania. Though no one knows for sure exactly how many there are, locals say that there are some two hundred thousand crosses there, on what’s called the “Hill of Crosses.” There you can find a cross, (and even place one if you’d like), of literally every shape and kind.
But of all the crosses the world has ever seen or known, the most important one of all is the one that once held our Savior Jesus.
I’ll read the words of Matthew chapter 27: “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” (Matthew 27:45-50).
The hour had finally come. Everything Jesus had meant to do and to say to all who followed Him came down to this one defining moment--His suffering and death on the cross.
And though today we tend to romanticize the cross with our jewelry and pictures of a cross on a hill far away, the actual place of crucifixion was the absolute worst place of all in Jerusalem. It would have been beside a busy roadway, so everyone could see and mock and be terrified by it. It was meant to deter crime and rebellion, and to cause anyone who thought they might challenge the rule of Rome to think twice--or else they too would endure this horrible death.
And who was there as Jesus suffered and died? Of course, Roman soldiers were there. The Bible says that not only did they drive nails through His hands and feet, they gambled for His last piece of clothes.
The chief priests were there, along with the scribes and the Pharisees, for the Bible says they mocked Him, saying, “He saved others, but He can’t save Himself. Let Him come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”
And the apostle John was there, for it was to him that Jesus said, “Behold, your mother,” and to Mary He said, “Behold, your son.”
But in addition to the soldiers and the chief priests and the apostle John, there were more. As Matthew wrote: “There were also many women there” (Matthew 27:55).
“Many women,” he wrote. That’s strange! Understanding just how horrid and horrible crucifixion must have been, the cross is the absolute last place we’d ever expect women to be.
Yet there they were! They had been with Him throughout His life and ministry, and now they would remain with Him till the very end.
In the words of early church father Theophylact, “And so the order is inverted, for the Jew kills, and the Gentile confesses; the disciples fly, and the women remain.”
So who were those women? Matthew wrote: “Among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56). If you were to glance at the other gospel accounts, you’d find that there were at least seven women in all.
So who was there?
Salome was there, the wife of a well-to-do fisherman named Zebedee, and mother of two disciples--James and John. Once wanting only the best for her two sons, she asked, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at Your right and Your left when You come into Your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21).
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Jesus said.
Mary Magdalene was there, the one once possessed by seven demons, who loved much, Jesus said, because she was forgiven much.
Joanna was there, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager(!) From the moment Jesus healed her of disease and evil spirits, she would follow Him to the very end.
And best of all, His mother Mary was there, now an aged, widowed, peasant woman. Her clothes marked the poverty of her life. Her care-worn face, gnarled hands and graying hair marked the years of her life.
And as she looked up at the cross, what did she see? She saw the One God promised would come, announced by angels, worshiped by shepherds and adored by wise men--a Light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to His people Israel. Yet now, as old Simeon onced promised, a sword has pierced her soul.
In an article entitled Now I Know What Mary Felt at the Foot of the Cross, author Teresa Nugyen writes, “When I got ‘the phone call,’ the first thing I did was to run to the nearest church. Then I walked straight to the front of the empty chapel and I plopped myself on the floor. Then I looked up to the crucifix on the wall and said my frequently used prayer, ‘Why God?’”
In December of 2015, two people came into a health clinic in San Bernardino, California, killing fourteen people and wounding twenty-one more. One of the lives that was taken was her cousin.
And since the chapel was one place where she said she didn’t have to keep up walls or come up with perfectly composed sentences, a place where she could be herself, she brought all her frustrations, her anger, her questions, her hurt, her deep sadness, and she sat at the foot of the cross. And there she fixed her watering eyes on the crucifix hanging on the back wall.
And as she looked at the horrific death Jesus endured, she thought of her cousin and what must have been her last terrifying moments on earth. She thought of how much evil there was in the world, of all the people who had become so numb, and of those who had lost hope. Her heart felt broken, even pierced with every breath she took.
And in that moment, she realized just where she was sitting. She was sitting where Mary was when she stood at the foot of the cross.
And what did she learn at the foot of the cross? She learned that we are never alone. Just as Jesus and Mary weren’t exempt from experiencing agonizing pain, neither are we. And when we suffer, we become united with Christ on the cross, bringing us to the same vulnerability that Mary once knew at His crucifixion.
So no matter how traumatic or even seemingly trivial our suffering may be, God calls us to surrender and to kneel at the foot of the cross. He calls us to stand where Mary stood, and to kneel where Mary knelt. And He calls us trust in His unfailing love.
And when we surrender and say, “God, my heart is broken and my world feels as if it’s falling apart,” we can hear Him respond, “I know you, My child. I know precisely the pain you feel. I know the ten thousand thoughts that run through your heart. And though you may feel misunderstood, I understand you completely. You are not alone. I am here. Will you trust me?”
That’s what you find when you stand at the foot of the cross.
It was the spring of 1865, and all those who were living in and around Richmond, Virginia were struggling to come to terms with their changed circumstances. In the space of only a few weeks, they had witnessed the collapse of their political, economic and social order. After all, they had lost the Civil War. Four war-torn years had suddenly and traumatically come to an end, and those who once served at its highest levels of government were now either prisoners or fugitives.
Even worse, their city, the capital city, had been destroyed. Worried that their stores of cotton, tobacco and firearms would fall into the hands of the North, everything, even houses, had been burned to the ground.
Two months later, in June of 1865, at the northwestern edge of what was now called the “Burned District,” members gathered inside their church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, for Sunday morning services. And one of those in attendance that day, having walked from his home just around the corner, was General Robert E. Lee.
And as their pastor, Charles Minnegerode, finished his sermon and prayers, he invited his members to come forward for communion. That’s when a well-dressed black man stood up and took his place before the altar.
For a moment, there was absolute silence as the rest of the members remained fixed in their seats. Even the pastor himself stood motionless, not sure at all what to say or do.
Suddenly, without a word, General Lee got up from his family pew halfway down on the eastern side. Then he walked toward the chancel rail, and knelt down beside the stranger. Those who were there said the lesson that day was unmistakable and the effect was magical. By his action, the living embodiment of the South showed that whether black or white, slave or free, we were all one in Christ.
Later he said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
In the words of a hymn: “All my sins were washed away; sin’s dark night turned into day, when I met Jesus at the foot of the cross.”
You have brought us again, dear Father, to that place that only a few were once privileged to see. Grant even us mercy and grace at the foot of the cross, for Jesus’ sake. Amen