Sounds of the Passion Rev. James E. Butler, D.Min., pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, Springfield, Massachusetts
Sounds of the Passion: Part 1 Ripping Cloth
Ash Wednesday/Lent 1 Joel 2:13 Ripping cloth. Tearing fiber from fiber. It’s a hurtful sound, a lonely sound, a killing sound. Listen. For centuries, the ripping of clothing was a sign of mourning, repentance, and outrage among the Jewish people. Whenever the people of Israel were in great emotional pain, they ripped their clothes as a sign of mourning. Even in Neil Diamond’s version of the movie The Jazz Singer, the father rips his clothing as he disowns his son. Throughout the passion of our Lord Jesus, men and women rip their clothes in emotional pain. Priests and laypersons, Pharisee and sinner—all are in pain and distress at the passion of Jesus.
LISTEN TO THE SOUND OF RIPPING CLOTH, AND HEAR THE MESSAGE OF GOD’S LOVE.
It’s the wee hours of Friday morning. In the hall of the Sanhedrin, the council of the 70 elders, Jesus’ trial is taking place. It’s really not much of a trial; the conclusion is forgone. It’s like the old television mystery show Columbo—you already know the murderer; the only question is how Columbo will figure it out. They already knew Jesus was guilty—of troubling them. The only question was how they could make the verdict stick. They had tried to get him to talk; he refused. They tried bringing in some people to lie about what Jesus had said; they couldn’t get their stories straight. Finally, the high priest had had enough of this nonsense. If they couldn’t make any of the charges stick, they’d force Jesus to admit his guilt. Standing up, the high priest pointed at Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt 26:63). “‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (v 64). What a confession! Not only did Jesus claim to be the Son of God, but he also claimed to be God himself. All the power and majesty of God himself was his. The high priest was so angry he could barely contain his rage. Reaching up to his ornate robes, the symbol of his office, he tore them in fury. “You have heard the blasphemy!” he called out. “What do you say?” Suddenly, the sound of ripping cloth echoed around the room as the members of the Sanhedrin shouted, “Guilty! He deserves to die!” Slowly the night crawled on. With the dawning of the day, the council took Jesus to Pontius Pilate. Pilate was in shock. What had caused these men to tear their clothes in such a fashion? They had a man with them, but Pilate wasn’t sure who he was. The priests pushed him toward Pilate. “This man deserves to die,” they said. “He tells the people they shouldn’t pay their taxes, and he claims to be Christ a king!” If the stakes hadn’t been life and death, Pilate would have laughed. He knew the priests didn’t care about taxes or claims against Caesar. The only thing they cared about was keeping their jobs. Apparently this Jesus had gotten under their skin. Still, the charge of treason was a serious one. Although he didn’t believe the priests for a second, Pilate decided to interrogate Jesus just to be sure. Taking Jesus into his palace, Pilate asked if he were a king. Jesus said something about truth and how those who listened to the truth would listen to him. Pilate had no idea what Jesus was talking about, and now he didn’t care. All the truth he needed he could find at the end of a Roman spear. At any rate, it was plain to him that Jesus was as innocent as this spring day was already too long. That was all he needed to know. He decided to set Jesus free. He went outside to announce his verdict.
But things had changed while Pilate was gone. No longer was there simply a small group of priests; now there was a huge mob. They were out for blood. No longer would it be enough to say Jesus was innocent and set him free. No, the blood fever among the crowd would have to be sated. So Pilate decided to have Jesus whipped. Surely that would be enough. Once again, the sound of ripping cloth filled the air as the clothes were torn from Jesus’ back. Then the whip, and the tearing was Jesus’ own flesh. His skin was slashed to ribbons, and blood poured from the fresh wounds into the tattered cloth that hung from his shoulders. Unfortunately for Jesus, the blood on his back and the beating with the whip failed to calm the crowd’s hunger. If anything, the punishment only increased their bloodlust. They tore their clothes. They threw dirt in the air. They cried out for Jesus’ death. They didn’t want a whipping; they wanted a crucifixion. They wanted Jesus dead. Pilate gave in to their demands. He signed the order. Jesus would be taken to the hill outside the city. There he would be crucified. The Romans came. They put what was left of Jesus’ clothing on what was left of his back and laid the cross bar over his shoulder. Then they forced him to carry it ahead of them. All through Jerusalem was the sound of ripping cloth, as Jesus’ followers cried aloud. They tore their clothes in sadness as they saw what was happening to Jesus. They tore their clothes in anger at the injustice of it all. But ultimately, they tore their clothes in guilt and frustration, for they were helpless and afraid to do anything to help their Lord. All they could do was tear their clothes and cry aloud to God. The Roman soldiers marched Jesus out to the place of crucifixion. They nailed him to the hated tree. They hung a sign above him, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Now it was all over but the waiting. Yet what a day it was! Never before had anything like this happened! The sky changed. The sun, which was burning brightly in the sky, began to darken. Soon, in the middle of the day, everything was black. Never had darkness come upon the earth like that one—darkness so deep you could touch it. Then suddenly, a cry pierced the darkness. Shouting, crying at the top of his voice, Jesus yelled, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46b). And then silence. Someone ran and got Jesus a drink of sour wine. A few minutes later, another cry, and Jesus died. Jesus’ followers wailed and mourned his death, beating their chests as they cried tears of anger and sadness (Lk 23:48).
But listen! Over the sound of wailing comes another sound. It’s the sound of tearing cloth again, but not the short, curt sound of clothing being ripped. It’s a long, noisy tear that seems to last forever. It comes from the temple. For there, hanging in the temple from floor to ceiling, is the long, heavy curtain, separating the Holy Place, where the priests ministered, from the Most Holy Place, where God dwelt. At the moment Jesus dies, the curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom, in one long, continuous rip. The sound, the tearing of cloth, which meant anger, disgust, sadness, and mourning, now meant joy! Despite all evidence to the contrary, the death of Jesus did not mean defeat, but victory. His death tore apart the curtain of sin that hung between us and our God. No longer would creature and Creator be separated by a barrier of sin that could not be removed even by us trying our hardest. For in Jesus’ death, the powers of sin were torn asunder, and a new life with God was made available for each person. In Jesus’ resurrection, the gates of hell were blown off their hinges. Jesus is the Lord of all, and he grants freedom and new life to all who believe in him. This 40 days, Jesus calls us. He doesn’t want us to tear our clothes, but our hearts! He wants us to understand ourselves before him and experience his presence more deeply. He calls us to look at ourselves and see the times we’ve sinned against him and speak of those things to him. He wants us to see the places of our life where we are not living in obedience, and turn from them. He wants us to tear down our self-centered lives and centre our focus and goal on him. and his word. As we do he promises forgiveness and life. He casts our sins “as far as the east is from the west” and remembers them no more, says the psalmist (Ps 103:12). He tears our sins from us and sees only the holy people of God, washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. We are cleansed and forgiven by Jesus for his own sake. Listen! The sound of tearing! Tearing in hurt and pain. Tearing in repentance. Tearing in joy. The curtain of sin has been torn asunder by Jesus, and we are welcomed into God’s presence. So, seek the Spirit’s power to tear yourself away from sin and death. Tear yourself away from the things that are not pleasing in God’s sight. “Rend you heart and not your garments,” says the Lord, “for [the LORD your God] is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”