It had been a very beautiful place. Not beautiful like a green hill far away, as the old hymn says. It was a hill, but it wasn’t green at all and hadn’t been green for years. It was brown, mostly, but not just brown but a crazy patchwork of rust and shadow, all hazy and shimmering with dust. It wasn’t green, and it wasn’t far away from anything. It rubbed its rounded shoulder right up against the city wall; its wide foot nudged the bustling roadway that poured into one of the many city gates that gaped in the wall like mouths wide open. It wasn’t green; it wasn’t far away. It wasn’t idyllic. It wasn’t quiet. It wasn’t pastoral or peaceful or picturesque. It was a hill, like lots of little hills, but it had been beautiful.
It’d been beautiful because it had been, years so, a place of vital, and constant, activity. This hill had hummed, buzzed with busy men climbing up and down its paths with chisels and hammers and ropes. The face of the hill was in perpetual motion – day and night, men went up, stones came down, wave upon wave, and everything utterly awash with noise. The hill thundered with the boom of the mallet’s thump, with the deep crack of the rocks when the chisels found their way home, with the creak of ropes as stones were lifted and tied and dragged and dropped, and with the groans and sighs and laughs of men.
Masons, they had been, stonecutters, who had worked this hill their whole lives long. They had climbed this hill since they were old enough to swing a hammer, and cut it apart, piece by piece. They had cut and climbed for years, for generations, breaking out blocks of limestone that was as treasured as gold or as diamonds. For it was stone from this hill that had given shape to the very city it sat next to; stone from this hill that had formed the walls of Jerusalem, strengthened its gates and its passageways, maybe even grounded the very temple itself. And this stone had given shape to the lives of the men who worked to pry it out of the earth, who spent their youth and then their old age crawling over and into the sides of this hill, and to the women who worked at home and waited for their husbands’ return, work-weary and dusty but proud of their beautiful brown hill and its strong white stone.
But one day, one man threw the weight of his body into the final blow of his hammer and heard a sound that no one on that hill could remember ever hearing before. It was a dull thunk, and a shushing, as a wide crack crumbled open in front of him, right in the center of the hill. Pebbles and earth and flakes of rock sloughed off in sheets, and what was left behind, underneath all of that valuable limestone, meant that nothing would ever be the same on this hill again. For the hill had had a secret, hidden deep within its heart – a flaw, a fault line that no one had ever known was there. The men stood before this flaw for hours, it seemed, shaking their heads, scratching their rough chins, the younger ones making suggestions about how they might work around it, but the older ones knowing in their own hearts what this discovery really meant – that the hill was a ruin, that no rock would ever be quarried from it again, for no rock from this hill could ever again be trusted to bear the weight of the world. This hill, they knew, was done. It was finished.
And so the hill sat, abandoned, for years and years. Its paths, once so familiar and well-worn, quickly became choked with brush and dry weeds. The limestone which had once shined so clean and white in the sun was soon drowned in the dirt, and it, like the hill, soon was forgotten, as men traveled along other roads to other hills to quarry other stone. And the hill which had once been so beautiful because it had once been worth so much to so many, sat quiet and invisible, meaning nothing to no one.
Until one day, a single man stood on the Jerusalem road and looked up at this wreck of a hill and had an idea. Would not this place, as worthless and ugly as it was, be the perfect place for a dump? Not a dump for refuse – old baskets and broken pottery and stained cloth – but for the true trash of the earth – a place for dumping people, criminals, threats to the imperial power of Rome. Would not this place, as worthless and ugly as it was, be the perfect place for an execution?
And so the hill that had once been so valued and so beautiful became a place that struck fear in the hearts of men. Women rushed by it on their way into the city, eyes averted, looking at anything but those heights where men went to die terrible, agonizing deaths. Children dared each other to climb its slopes before bored soldiers or protective mothers could discover what they were up to. And week after week, some horrible procession made its way up its paths, now widened to accommodate their new travelers. Week after week, some prisoner was stabbed and prodded and kicked up the hill, while soldiers jabbed the latest wooden cross into place along one of the wide gashes in the stone. Week after week, some new torture, some new blood and tears, some new death. Week after week, the condemned went up, and the corpses came down. And the sides of the hill that had been carved out and put to use, giving new life to a wall or well somewhere, now looked empty and haunted, like vast eye sockets staring numbly at the city walls. Locals began to call it the place of the skull – perhaps because of its shocked, empty eyes or perhaps because of the hundreds of skulls that were beaten and bruised on its bloody slopes.
And all the while, that great seam of ruin, that fatal flaw ran down the center of the hill, mocking all who looked up at it. This place that used to give life now has nothing to offer but death. This place is broken and destroyed; it is full of weakness and fault, and there is no health left within it. It is a hill beyond hope, beyond redemption, always in shadow, always in night. The place of the skull, the place of evil and death, Golgatha.
One day, three more prisoners are prodded and kicked up the hill. And soldiers stab another cross into the crust of the earth. And one more man gasps and wheezes and bleeds. But this man, when he looks out from high atop the hill, sees not ugliness and pain and death, but beauty. He sees only beauty, only the devotion of the people who have followed him here, only the love of his mother and his cherished, beloved disciple. He sees only the thumbprint of God in the people who look up at him from the foot of his cross, even the soldiers whose fingers roll stones and gamble for his clothes right under his feet. He sees only grace here within the embrace of his outstretched arms, only holiness in this place that can bear so much pain. This man looks out upon this hill, upon these people, upon all of these fatal flaws running right down the middle and says no more. You are all forgiven. You are all redeemed. You are all so beautiful. After that, there was nothing to be said. The ugliness was done; it was all finished. So the man bowed his head and gave up his spirit. And the little hill and everyone on it felt the shift in the earth, the crack in the cosmos, as everything was changed.
Of course that little hill is now beautiful again. It is crowned with glory – covered with chapels and holy places and gold and diamonds. People have brought stone from other places to lay altars and tabernacles there; people come from all over the world to climb this little hill. And that is all well and good. But this hill didn’t become beautiful again because of engraved candlesticks and jeweled crosses; this hill became beautiful again because that of that great love, held high upon the cross. This hill became beautiful again because of that man who looked out upon the dust of that brown and broken place and said You are not forsaken. There is nothing so broken in you that I cannot fix. There is nothing so awful in you that I cannot love. There is nothing so dead in you that I cannot revive. There is nothing so sinful in you that I cannot redeem. There is nothing so ugly in you that I cannot admire. For your heart, your flawed, broken, sometimes dusty, sometimes lonely heart, is worth everything to me, for it is mine. And it is a beautiful place.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
3 April 2015 - Good Friday
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia