Last night at a Good Friday service I contemplated this passage of Scripture:
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. (Luke 23:44-48)
Yes, it was marvelous that darkness fell while the light of the world was dying for our sins. Without hands or implements the temple curtain was torn in two, signifying that people now had direct access to God because of Jesus’s sacrifice–amazing! The Lord’s trust in His Father during His final moments was an awe-inspiring example of faith and a stunning fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. The Roman centurion, charged with making sure the death sentence was carried out, nevertheless testified to the Lord’s innocence–He was the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God, without blemish.
But the verse that stopped me in my tracks was the last: “And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.” The people who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, surely one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised by sinful humanity, had come for a spectacle.
Maybe some had come out of morbid curiosity, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Teacher who had overturned the tables, the Healer who it was said had opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead. Others came merely for entertainment, hoping to pass the time and perhaps have something to tell their grandchildren. Whatever the case, the crowds were there to watch, to take it all in, and then go on with their busy lives. They only wanted to be spectators.
When the spectacle was over, however, the people did indeed return to their homes, but they were not the same. They were beating their breasts, an ancient sign of grief and repentance. Seeking a spectacle, they had become a part of the story. Many no doubt were grieved by the injustice done to Jesus. Perhaps they felt complicit in this crime. Others, contrasting His beauty and composure with their own grubby selfishness, for the first time saw themselves as sinners in need of a Savior.
Little did they know that they had been swept up into another prophecy, uttered hundreds of years before.
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10)
This Holy Week, before we rightly celebrate the empty tomb, may the Lord give us the grace to beat our breasts and to weep.