Jesus was taken away, and went out, carrying the cross himself, to the place called The Skull (in Hebrew, ‘Golgotha’); there they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in between. . . . After this, Jesus, aware that all had now come to its appointed end, said in fulfillment of scripture, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar stood there full of sour wine; so they soaked a sponge with the wine, fixed it on hyssop, and held it up to his lips. Having received the wine, he said, ‘It is accomplished!’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:16 ­­- 30)

Too often on Good Friday, we lapse into abstractions, grasping for a way to make sense of this horrifying scene. We talk perhaps about redemption. We say that Christ bears the burdens of the world’s sin, our sin. We lean on this event for a strange strategy of salvation. Sometimes we simply turn our heads, walk away.

But I am struck on reading this passage once again what utter loneliness Jesus must have felt. It breaks my heart to read that Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha by himself, alone. Then, hanging there in profound humiliation, he pleads for a drink, he the one who offered living water instead of sour wine. His heart is surely crushed looking down on his forlorn, broken-hearted mother. Having tasted the bitter wine, finally, he bows his head, and declares: “It is finished.” Yes, how stunningly alone. This scene, in all its vivid, specific detail, overwhelms me.

Is this the end? Is this a failed Messiah, as so many believed? Is this the fate for a failed revolutionary? “King of the Jews”—they shout in a rage, scandalous to the Jewish leaders, outright foolishness, though possibly threatening, to Pilate. This could be the end of the story.

We have to choose whether to enter the larger, unfolding drama. John’s reference to fulfilling scriptures tells us this horrifying event is part of a much bigger story. What happens over the next few days changes everything. But everything depends on whether we enter the drama, first the cross, and then. . . . what? We don’t get to Easter with easy faith, with glib conclusions. We get there through this rugged cross. If we truly enter this scene on that skull of a hill—into that awful loneliness, into all the ugly betrayal that leads to this moment, into this humiliation—the faith required to claim this crucified one as the new King of Kings demands of us everything. This choice is costly. It requires courage. Otherwise the cross spells the end.

But listen, if we do believe, we are rescued, our burdens are lifted, our self-accusations are blown away like fog, our regrets and our failures are wiped away, our fear for the future is brightened. We are forgiven! Something big happens here. If we enter this scene with our whole selves—body and soul and mind—forgiveness becomes deeply, transformingly personal. If we live into this scene, the abstractions enter our bodies, our souls. Something takes place deeply, something changes. We are rescued, yes, redeemed, personally. The whole world is changed. This is a turning point.

No wonder the Apostle Paul called this scene both scandalous and foolish. It was then and remains so in our own day. People don’t know what to do with this scene. It is overwhelming; it is ridiculous, repulsive, violently grotesque. Maybe it is the end. But, wait, if we step into the unfolding drama, we can imagine how this very Jesus—yes, King of Kings, Lord of Lords—lifts the heavy weight of enormous guilt we carry around all day. We are forgiven. Because he hangs out there so utterly alone, we walk freely from the burdens of our own ragged lives. We become different. We become somehow new people.

It is finished, says Jesus—and we walk away with our burdens lifted. We become light and free to begin again. We learn something about love we never knew before. Because we enter the whole drama, we walk toward Easter, not denying the death and pain and loneliness, but knowing all will be lifted in the morning of a bright new dawn.