In Holy week we remember how Jesus, the Son of God, an innocent man, was betrayed, arrested, beaten, humiliated, and forced to carry the cross he would later die upon. His journey would take him out of the City of Jerusalem to a nearby hill – Golgotha – ‘The Skull’.
For the past 46 years Christians in Sunderland have gathered together on Tunstall Hill for a Good Friday service and to place a huge cross high above the City, as a symbol of hope.
When we meet on solemn occasions such as this, our imaginations are tuned-in to the events of 2,000 years ago and our hearts and minds are fixed upon Jesus.
Our service begins at the foot of the hill where a group of willing volunteers take up and carry the two wooden beams.
I think of Jesus and his willingness to do his Father’s will, no matter what, and take up his cross.
This year I join a team of students from Sunderland University to carry the cross for part of the way. At one point there were 8 of us carrying the larger rough hewn beam that would become the stem of the cross. I don’t know what others were thinking or feeling at the time but I can share some of the things that crossed my mind.
The first thing I notice is that many of us are wearing gloves – protecting the skin of our hands against any splinters or grazes as we jostle with the weight. Not so Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. He took up his heavy burden in his bare hands and began the slow journey to his lonely hill.
I begin to reflect on the harsh reality of Jesus’ final steps.
Our pace is determined, Our aim is to reach the hill top, however my arms strain under the heaviness of the beam . A few steps more and it hits me that while we bear the weight of this tree as a group, Jesus did so alone, for most of the time, helped only by Simon of Cyrene.
I am in awe of the physical stamina and spiritual strength of Jesus in his darkest hours.
Just past the half way mark on Tunstall Hill and the terrain is suddenly much steeper. With arms beginning to tire the wood rests on my shoulder – and my knees begin to feel the extra weight. Despite several layers of clothing I quickly roll up a knitted hat to provide an extra buffer between me and the cross, however there was little or nothing between the Lord and his cross.
I look at the cruel, abrasive surface of our beam and think of Jesus.
The footpath beneath our feet becomes more uneven as we manoeuvre a small fence and prepare for the final ascent on soft green grass. Our well-heeled teamwork is a far cry from the painful ascent of the Lord. I have so many questions.
Did he struggle barefoot? Did the heavy weight of the cross crush his feet into the dust and stones? Was each step more painful than the last? By the day of his death was his entire body wracked with pain? Were his wounds infected and sore? Did his head pound from the painful crown of thorns? Did his whole body ache? Were his bones disjointed from violent blows?
Here we are, choosing to take part in a symbolic procession in all our twenty first century comfort. Our backs are not breaking, and we only carry a piece of wood, while Jesus carried the sin of the world.
I think of Jesus in extreme pain and poor physical condition, and all that he endured.
As we walk together in silence, I wonder what it must of been like for Jesus to hear so many insults hurled towards him? How things change. Only days before, he arrived in Jerusalem to cheers – but the people were turned against him – now it was jeers. On trial with Pontius Pilate the crowd screamed “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Jesus had gone from ‘Hero to Zero’ in less than a week. No palms waved now, only fists, while his disciples looked on and wept.
I examine myself, have I said anything that may have hurt others? I ask for forgiveness.
Our crowd is silent. We reach the top. Greeted by breathtaking panoramic views of Sunderland. Everyone is still. Hundreds of people and not a sound except for the clang of a hammer as two beams are fixed together to make a cross. We all have our private thoughts as we look on. I listen to the hammer, reminded of nails that pierced Jesus’ flesh – hands and feet fixed mercilessly in to place.
The rhythm of our hammer is beating time…for Jesus’ suffering was almost at an end.
On Tunstall Hill the cross is slowly raised. Our service begins again. Revd. John McManners from St. Gabriel’s Church leads us through. Our collective gratitude that Christ died for us is reflected in our prayers. We pray for our City as we look on, hands raised, asking God to bless this place and all who live or work here.
In the harshness of Good Friday we offer the harshness of life and pray for many who struggle with their own cross each day.
Even though Good Friday is a place of pain it is also a reminder of hope as we look forward to Easter Sunday, and the resurrection.
I remember that Jesus conquers death, and the power of God is displayed for all to see, for all time.
One of our hymns was written around three hundred of years ago by Isaac Watts and I realise we are connected with the generations that have gone before us, in our sadness, our wonder and our gratitude to Jesus.
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride…”
Every year Christians around the world commemorate Holy Week. Every year it is a time of reflection that offers us an opportunity to discover and re-discover our relationship with God. His love for us is so deep, so wide, so never-ending that his only Son, the King of Kings, was born among the poor, lived that we may learn how to live and died a cruel and gruesome death to rescue us from sin.
Easter is a time of new beginnings, new life, an opportunity to set aside the things that hold us back and move forward with hope.
In death Jesus paid a ransom to set us free.
What we choose to do now with all of that freedom is the next step in our journey of faith.
For more photographs see:
Good Friday at Messy Church (for Marie):