My guide strode on, purposefully, following the dusty road out of the city. At least the thronging crowds had thinned somewhat, enabling me to gulp deep breaths of morning air as I struggled to keep up with the tireless pace. As the track levelled off I could at last get alongside my guide and ask the question which had been buzzing in my mind as we wove in and out of every narrow street and bustling square. “Yes”, he answered, “Soon you will find what you are seeking. You will look on Love itself. Real love, solid love, fresh as the sea breeze, strong as the towering cliffs.”
My heart was racing. Where I come from people talk a lot about love. But words and reality are often strangers. Many say love when they mean sex; my needs, my desires. And then emptiness. Others say love when they mean whim, or the missing of a heartbeat. Something you fall into, fall out of. The impetuousness of youth before cynicism sets in. Love in books, in films, plastered on billboards, so thin you can see your hand through it. But now I was to discover the truth, the Thing Itself of which all earlier experiences were at best distorted reflections, at worst ugly parodies. “I will show you”, said my guide as he strode on.
Like a slap in the face I realised where we were. That place. My feet had followed while my heart was wandering. Skull hill! Hardly the place to hold the answer to my quest. My guide stopped and motioned ahead. A small group of soldiers were pushing around one of the poor wretches who was to be strung up. What? Didn’t you know? Skull hill is execution hill. Though you might have guessed from the name. The rubbish tip for those out of favour, you might say. Criminals, rabble-rousers, scum. I turned away, preferring the clear blue sky to the cruel play of the soldiers. But my guide pointed again. Having kicked the prisoner about and stripped him, the guards were now gambling for his clothes. “That’s not love”, I objected, “That’s greed”.
Not far from where we had stopped another group was forming, like carrion around rotting flesh. Surprised to see that lot here! The religious, you know, with their flowing robes and leering eyes. Not the sort of people to cross – very influential, and fight like cats. It suddenly dawned on me that they too had an interest in the prisoner. They’d come to gloat. “This pretentious upstart, this rustic nobody has dared to take us on, the elite, the guardians of truth? He’s got what was coming to him”. One and then another started to taunt. Like puss oozing from a sore, the malice and wounded pride spilled over from normally calm, stoic faces. I tried to turn away, embarrassed at the intensity of their scorn for the Beaten Man, but my guide stopped me. “That’s not love”, I croaked, “That’s hate.”
Time passed. Clouds amassed in the now foreboding sky. A chill crept over me, despite the Middle Eastern sun beating down, harsh, relentless. He was finished now, the Hated Man. Nailed up on a stake of wood, gasping for every breath. But no anger. I wanted to get away, to hide. I wanted to melt into the very crowds that had earlier seemed an obstacle and a nuisance, to forget what I had seen. But my guide took me by the hand and led me towards the dying man. “That’s not love”, I breathed, “That’s pain”. And humiliation.
“He carries a heavy burden, you know”, said my guide, breaking into my thoughts. “The weight of a world which hates him.” “Why are you showing me this?” I angrily retorted. “You promised I’d see love”. Then I looked at the man on the cross. On his body the marks of the soldiers, in his ears the taunts of the priests. “He stands between God and humanity. Though innocent, the weight of the Maker’s wrath falls on him.” My guide fell silent again. So I dared to look into his eyes, this man who took the guilt of others, who felt the pain of God and quenched his anger. What notorious crimes were bowing his head even now, I wondered. But in his eyes I saw only my own reflection. Then I realised, and horror gripped me. He was suffering for my faults, my selfishness, pettiness, pride. My petulant desire to get my own way, my studied ignorance of God. My shame. “He will bear those away too, if you will only ask him”, said my guide, answering my unvoiced question, “but you must trust him”.
“But who is he?” I asked. A carved sign above his head raised more questions than it answered – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Then I understood.
This was love, which gave itself freely – suffering so that I might be free. Free from the ugly weight of my shortcomings dragging me down to hell itself. “I did not expect love to look like this”, I whispered to my guide, blinking back tears, “But I am not disappointed”. “Nor will you be”, replied my guide, laughter in his eyes, “for this love is stronger than death. His and yours”.