The Beginning Of The End

     The materialists say that there is nothing beyond the veil of Time, that the material is all. They say that life begins, and ends, and is over. But then, they say a lot things. They have a lot to say… and one can’t help but get the sense that their aim is mainly to exalt themselves: “Look how hard-headed and remorselessly rational I am!”

     Their pitch does have some power. But it is transient. It is as the clatter of cymbals or the braying of brass. It sounds, and it passes, and is forgotten. It lacks the resonance with which to course through the centuries. It will not be remembered as is this story:

     And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
     Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
     From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
     At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 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. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

     [Matthew 27:34-54, NRSV translation]


     Christians know how the story goes from there. But if we take the tale to have an end, where is it? Is it with the Resurrection, or the Ascension? Perhaps it arrives on Pentecost.

     Myself, I don’t think so. I don’t think the story has ended yet. I think it continues on in each of us who has read the story and accepted it.

     To accept it is to accept Him.

     There’s a telling exchange, near the conclusion of the movie The Case For Christ, in which rapidly despairing skeptic Lee Strobel, played by Mike Vogel, consults a medical researcher about the possibility that Jesus didn’t actually die on the Cross:

     Strobel: “I have a real problem with most of the experts that I’ve talked to here.”
     Researcher: “Which is?”
     Strobel: “Which is that most of them are not impartial, and if I’m to take a guess, I would say that you’re not either.”
     Researcher: “And you would be correct, sir. For I have learned that most impartial travelers who undertake this journey rarely remain so.”

     The story has power. It’s a peculiar sort of power. It doesn’t rely upon a great mass of forensics or the sworn testimony of a host of “experts” in a formal court proceeding. It’s just a mass of words that have been relayed down the centuries, translated and re-translated from one vernacular to the next. Somehow, despite the little differences in emphasis and delicate shades of meaning among those translations, the power of the story remains.

     One who lives with the story year after year, and with the demands of “experts” that it be doubted or dismissed outright, learns its true power.


     In an essay about the value of skepticism, I wrote that “the vogue is to regard religious belief as a variety of insanity.” And indeed, that is the vogue among the detractors of the Christian faith. Their variety of skepticism differs from mine.

     In all humility and candor, for a time I was swayed by their kind of skepticism. Its subtext appeals to the ego: “Be one of the smart guys.” It didn’t last. At a time when I was at the lowest ebb of my life, the power of the story took hold of me. Each year, when the Easter Triduum arrives, it shakes me afresh. Though nearly two millennia have passed since the events it narrates, the story remains vibrantly alive.

     Today, Good Friday of the Year of Our Lord 2024, take a few minutes to refresh your memory of the story of the Crucifixion. Perhaps at three this afternoon you will kneel, as I will, and give thanks for the greatest act of love ever recorded. As terrible as it was, it was conceived out of love.

     There can be no greater love. Did Jesus Himself not say so?

     This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. [John 15:12-13]

     That’s why we call it the greatest story ever told, but you knew that, didn’t you?