"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (St. Luke 23:34.)
Our Lord has now traversed the Way of Sorrows. Calvary is reached, and the Cross is lifted from His shoulders and laid upon the ground. The air is rent with the din of angry shouts. The multitude is pressing upon Jesus. It is with difficulty that the Roman guard restrains the crowd and forces it hack, as the soldiers demand space in which to execute their work. A clearing is made. The implements of crucifixion are collected and brought nearer. There is perhaps a sudden hush, as Jesus deliberately lays Himself down upon this hard bed upon which He is to die. Without a murmur He surrenders Himself into the cruel hands of His executioners. He straightens His Body, as of His own act, upon the tree of shame, He places His Feet together upon the wood, and as giving Himself up for the sins of the whole world, extends His arms upon the breadth of the Cross.
Upon what now follows, we could not have borne to look; nor can we now, even in imagination, dwell upon its terrible details. The Roman soldiers have carried out their orders. The demand of the Jewish multitude in their cry of "Crucify," has been fulfilled. Jesus is nailed to the Cross.
It was probably during these first moments of the agony, and perhaps at the very instant when the blows were struck that nailed the sacred Hands to the Cross, that our Lord breathed forth the prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The prayer and this supreme act of surrender go together.
It is so that the Psalmist associates them: "Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice." And truly the word and the act are suited to each other. It is as if He said: "Behold, O Father, what I am receiving at the hands of men, yet look not upon it to take vengeance upon their deed, but to forgive this and every sin. They who do this with their cruel hands, know not what they do. But I know what I do, for I came to do Thy will, and therefore I lay My Hands upon this Cross, I stretch them out of My own free will, that receiving in them the price of sin, I may pay that price to Thee, and by the lifting up of My Hands make expiation for the sins of the whole world."
We must keep therefore in mind throughout all our watch by the Cross, the great truth that our Lord is here making expiation for sin. Reverently we have drawn near, that with hearts full of gratitude and love we may look upon Him "Who His Own Self bare our sins in. His Own Body on the Tree" (I. St. Peter 2:24). And as we connect these sayings from the Cross, with that other saying of our Lord, in which He likened His Body to the Temple, we shall be helped both to realize our need of His expiation, and to understand better how perfectly He has met and satisfied that need. Our hands, our lips, our eyes are, as it were, the outer court of the temple of our bodies. It is through these principal gates of the senses that for good or evil, we have our conversation in the world, and are brought into contact with a multitude of human things both good and bad that throng about our life, and press within the avenues of our senses. It was in like manner that a promiscuous crowd habitually mingled within the outer court of the temple, and streamed back and forth through its gates, so that the worship was disturbed by the noise of the traffickers. Our Lord whose zeal twice purged His Father's House of this abuse, and which even went so far as to forbid that one should carry a vessel through the Temple, cannot be indifferent to what takes place in the temples of our bodies. In the Sermon on the Mount, words are spoken by Him which, as we listen to them, make us realize how strict is the scrutiny of His all-seeing eye. It is as if He entered these temples of ours, and, as once in the Temple of Jerusalem, paused and "looked round about upon all things" (St. Mark 11:11). As He does so, our eyes, our lips, our hands, all come under His scrutiny. He notes the words of our lips, and He who elsewhere warns us that "every idle word that men speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment" (St. Matt. 12:36), admonishes us, "Let your communication be Yea, yea, Nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (St. Matt. 5:37). He looks into our eyes and notes whatever defiles them, or turns them away from God. "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil thy whole body shall be full of darkness" (St. Matt. 6:22). "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee" (St. Matt. 5:29).
And He looks also upon our hands.
Ah! there is One to whom our hands indeed reveal a history. Think of Jesus, as if taking your hand within His most pure and holy Hands, He said: "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (St. Matt. 5:30).
As He now stretches forth these holy Hands of His upon the Cross, we are present to His Mind as truly as if for us alone all these sufferings were borne. All our misdeeds He foresaw. He beheld the long series of sinful acts which we should commit against His holy will. Nor was it only as far off that He knew them. He felt them as in their power to hurt they were made present by the hands of the wicked men into which He was contented to be betrayed, and whose work it was to nail Him to the Cross. Alas! with what awful fidelity our guilty hands were there represented. An officer of the Chief Priest with his hand struck Jesus, and others smote Him with the palms of their hands. Hands of men blindfolded Him, buffeted Him, entwined the crown of thorns and pressed it upon His Head, bound Him, scourged Him, led Him forth to Death, and, as we saw just now, nailed Him to the Cross. In every such act our sins were present. Our lust, our anger, our grasping selfishness, were all there, and the malice of our sin was felt in the -wounds inflicted in the sinless holy Hands of the Son of God.
And yet it was for this He came. Long before this, His Voice had spoken through the Prophet Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her sucking child that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, she may forget, yet will I not forget thee." And then, as the proof of that love which time should reveal, "Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of My Hands" (Isaiah 69:15, 16). He had looked upon the flood of sin increasing upon the earth, and overwhelming in its tide such multitudes of men, and had foretold the salvation His Cross should bring: "He shall spread out His Hands in the midst of them as He that spreadeth out His Hands to swim" (Isaiah 25:11). He had anticipated the surprise with which men should behold the strange contradiction of the Cross, "One shall say unto Him, What are these wounds in Thine Hands? Then shall He answer, Those with which I was wounded in the House of My friends" (Zech. 13:6).
As then we behold Him on the Cross, where our sins have nailed Him, let us consider wherein lies the efficacy of this perfect Sacrifice, and how it is that these Hands have made Atonement for the sins of the world.
First, He who bears this punishment is Himself innocent. The Hands laid upon the Cross for us are unstained by any touch of sin. The earthly priest before going to the altar has need to wash his hands in token of his sense of defilement, and of his need of cleansing before he presumes to handle holy things. "I will wash my hands in innocency and so will I go to Thine Altar" (Psalm xxvi. 6). But the great High Priest who here goes up to the Altar of the Cross, needs for Himself no cleansing. He who ascends the hill of the Lord, who shall afterwards, His Sacrifice completed, rise up to intercede for us in the Holy Place, has the clean Hands and the pure Heart of the God-Man.
These holy and venerable Hands now made fast upon the wood, never offended. Instruments of His mercy as He stretched them forth in the days of His ministry in healing and blessing upon the sick and afflicted, their last work for us is to suffer without resistance during these hours of the Passion, that so they may be stretched forth for evermore in mercy and forgiveness upon all who turn to Him for pardon.
But what is chiefly to be remembered, since everything depends upon this, they are the Hands of God. "The hand of the Lord." How often is the expression used in Holy Scripture! These are the Hands that created the world. And yet their work in creation was not so wonderful as their work here. It cost these Hands no effort to make the world, but what do they not suffer in order to redeem it! It was by these Hands that the Almighty showed His wonders of old, when He redeemed His people Israel leading them through the Ked Sea and through the wilderness and with His mighty Hand and His stretched-out Arm brought them into their inheritance. In these Hands "He bare them and He carried them all the days of old" (Isaiah 63:9). Be it remembered, then, that no mere creature, however exalted, or however holy, could have wrought salvation for us. He who suffered on the Cross, though He suffered in man's nature, was not a human person, but the Person of the Son of God in human flesh. By sharing man's nature, He is able to suffer for man, and by laying human Hands upon the Tree of the Cross to atone for the transgression which began when in Eden human hands reached forth in disobedience upon the forbidden tree. But while He suffers as Man, it is His true Godhead which gives efficacy to His Atonement, and obtains the answer to His prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Our watch by the Cross to-day should tighten our grasp upon the blessed truth of our Lord's Atonement for sin. While the world goes on its way, boasting its progress, and making light of its sin, God forbid that we should glory save in the Cross of Christ. We have a double reason for spending these hours beneath the Cross. For, first, what the Son of God, the Holy, the Innocent, the Undefiled here suffers, He suffers at our hands. This is the Prince of Glory whom we, by wicked hands have crucified and slain. We come to lament the work of our hands, as with the sons of Jacob, we confess, "We are verily guilty concerning our Brother" (Gen. 62:21). But O, thanks be to His infinite mercy and love, there is another reason. The injuries He receives from us, consecrated by the touch of His sacred Hands, are turned by Him into blessing. The cruel sufferings our sins have inflicted upon His sacred Humanity, the Power of His Godhead applies to the Salvation of our souls. Truly He could say, "They know not what they do." They know not the wrong they inflict upon Me. They know not the miracle of My love, the chief manifestation of My power in turning even this into their deliverance from sin.
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