And being found in human form, he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
One of the earliest pioneers of film D.W. Griffith chose to make a movie about the ugliness of the world. He titled the film Intolerance. Released in 1916 it is a four-part three-hour silent epic that horrifyingly displays the miserable condition of the world. His film includes the political drama of a king’s court, the tensions of romantic jealousy, the utter confusion of war, and the complete desperation of imprisonment. The majority of the film is unsettling though cinematically stunning.
For the audience members who wait for the climatic finish Griffith takes you from complete horror to absolute elation. Amid the chaos, hatred, and desperation suddenly the sky fills with an optical superimposition of the cross. What the director is conveying is the return of Christ. Cut by cut Griffith revisits the ugly scenes the viewer had seen before, but in the light of Jesus Christ the events are entirely transformed.
A prison teeming with convicts dressed in stripes is covered in the light of Christ depicted by the radiant cross filling the horizon above the prison. Suddenly the walls begin to disappear until the prisoners stand in the midst of a celestial field clothed in white. The absolving light of Christ gives them total release. They are free. Another scene shows men on a battlefield skewering one another with bayonets only to see the cross of the second coming of Christ and they drop their weapons and begin to embrace. That scene closes with two cherubic little children holding hands among the soldiers embracing and kissing one another’s cheeks. The scene recalls in many viewers’ memory the words of Psalm 85, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss.”
Griffith’s images are so breathtaking because of their contrast of absolutes. What Griffith depicts is an either-or proposition. There is either war or peace, imprisonment or release, condemnation or absolution, hatred or love. And the only thing that stands in the center of them, the only thing that can transform the world, is the wondrous light of the cross of Jesus.
Our Scripture lessons this morning are contrasts in absolutes as well. As we enter Holy Week we have scene after scene that depicts once again the miserable condition of the world. Our week begins with a jubilant crowd hopefully greeting a man crying hosanna, which means God save! Our week will end with the crowd scattering, abandoning this man, to be replaced with teeming and fiery crowd yelling crucify him.
Scene after scene of Holy Week shows us the utter misery and despicable nature of mankind. Look at our gospel lesson alone. The crowd is there shouting accusations. Barrabas, a notorious prisoner and criminal, without a doubt guilty of his crimes, will be released by the crowds. This was a miscarriage of justice for which the world only had itself to blame. The scene shows a governor who wants more than anything to prevent a riot at the expense of the truth. His wife desperately urged him to wash his hands of this mess for she had been suffering because of the man the crowds hate. The chief priests, scribes, and elders, the religious leaders, “spiritual” men, rabble rouse, demand Barabbas’ release, and another’s death.
Then there’s the soldiers who spit, strike and mock. They force unsuspecting Simon of Cyrene to carry the weight of an instrument of execution and death. They play games for a dying man’s garments. Two robbers hang as well and they join in with the crowds taunting the man between them. Those who passed by along the road joined in hurling insults, breathing out hatred, and vengeance.
The scenes of Holy Week and Good Friday are microcosm of the world Griffith depicted in his film and we live in each day—jealousy, abuse of power, self-righteousness, hatred, despair, suffering, mob-mentality—sin! Everyone is at war within themselves, with one another, and in their suffering they find a target and unleash their pain.
Where is the sweet climatic relief of the likes of a D.W. Griffith epic? This morning it is only hinted at, but still you can’t miss the absolute contrast. An officer of Rome who had not stopped the brutal soldiers from beating this prisoner, mocking, and gambling now watches Jesus from below the cross. When he saw this innocent man breath his last the ground shook beneath him and he voiced his first thought, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
The absolute contrast to all the world’s confusion, hatred, bloodlust, and pride stood there silently and bore it all. God in the flesh stood in the very center of all our wreckage and let us do our worst to him. Like a lamb uncomplaining, like a sheep to the slaughter, he did not retaliate. Any word he spoke was for peace. “Father, forgive them.” “My God why have you forsaken me?” “Unto you I commit my spirit.”
The crowds, Barrabas, the governor, Pilate’s wife, the rulers, the soldiers, the thieves, the passers by, and the Centurion: we’re to see ourselves in them all. All the little wars within in us, all the larger wars in our homes or workplaces and in the world, all the disquiet of mind, body, and spirit that we see during Holy Week is ours too. In the midst of all that we confess “Truly, this was the Son of God.” We are sinners and saints. We know the miserable condition of the world. We also know the light of the cross that has bore the burden of this world and overcome it. In Jesus’ forgiveness we stand with Him at the center. We stand with the only One who can transform this world and take it from one absolute to another: from war to peace, condemnation to absolution, imprisonment to freedom, slavery to release, hatred to love.
Christ crucified and risen is what inspired a saint like D.W. Griffith to create a masterpiece of that day when all the sadness of this world will be swept away. Griffith’s film was saturated with the mind of Christ; the mind of self-sacrificial love that would achieve our peace.
We will be taken from one absolute to another. We will be once for all be taken from the prison house of sin and death and placed in the celestial pasture of God’s paradise. We live according to this promise and vision today. It is this promised future that all the events of Holy Week accomplish. It is this promised future that lead Paul to encourage the church to always have this mind of Christ’ among us as we love one another and wait for that glorious day of resurrection.
So, dear sinner-saints, redeemed of our Lord Jesus Christ, begin Holy Week and the days and months to come remembering to “5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Amen.
SDG-Rev. Eric M. Estes