Ave Crux, spes unica.
Hail Cross, our only hope.
— Edith Stein
On one episode of the irreverent sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Charlie, Frank, Mac, and Dennis having a “managerial meeting” at Paddy’s, their fictional South Philly bar. As they haggle through items on their list, they come to a final one scrawled on their sheet of legal paper: “having a crucifix in the bar.”
Mac, surprised, wonders, “why wouldn’t we have a crucifix in the bar?”
Charlie, equally surprised, deadpans, ”Because we’re a bar.”
Mac, in return: “Yeah, but we’re an Irish bar!”
Arguments then ensue over the size of the proposed crucifix, whether there should be blood, and its placement in the bar. They eventually compromise, and reach an agreement that there can be a crucifix in the bar, but only in the back, and only if it’s “a tasteful crucifix.”
That scene was telling: it illumined me about just how far we are from the cultural soil from which the Jesus-story comes. Today, the cross of Jesus of Nazareth is the most universally familiar symbol in the world, and is largely seen as tasteful decoration: crosses decorate buildings, hang from necklaces, feature in oil paintings. In my neighborhood in Palm Beach, crosses are tattooed on the collegiate flesh of spring-breakers every year.
It’s easy, even for those of us who are long-time Christians, or who are involved vocationally in Christian ministry or academic life, to forget the irony that in the world Jesus lived, the cross was also universally-known — but not no one thought of crosses as tasteful, or thought anything religiously devout or uplifting about them.
In the first century, everyone knew the sights, sounds, and smells of crucifixion. The Romans reserved crucifixion for the worst kind of criminals, and for insurrectionists, slaves, and enemies of the state. As they put it, a crucified person was “damnatio ad bestias”- damned to the death of a beast. In a word, the cross was obscene.
It is startling, then, even two millennia later, that there was a fast-growing movement that spread the world proclaiming that a degraded, condemned, crucified person was the true King of the world, and in some way to be identified with God himself.
The Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge, in her spiritual and theological tour de force The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, makes this point:
Christianity is unique. The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man. The early Christian preaching announced the entrance of God upon the stage of history in the person of an itinerant Jewish teacher who had been ingloriously pinned up alongside two of society’s castoffs to die horribly, rejected and condemned by religious and secular authorities alike, discarded onto the garbage heap of humanity, scornfully forsaken by both elites and common folk, leaving behind only a discredited, demoralized handful of scruffy disciples who had no status whatsoever in the eyes of anyone. The peculiarity of this beginning for a world-transforming faith is not sufficiently acknowledged.
I’ve had this scandalous beauty, that the worldwide Church meditates on today, come home to me in a new way this Holy Week.
A few weeks ago, I tested positive for COVID-19. My symptoms, thanks be to God, were comparatively mild, but I nevertheless would have a couple of weeks of quarantined time on my hands I hadn’t anticipated. Knowing that I’d be back for Palm Sunday, and that the church I serve was planning to do a service of Scripture lessons and music narrating the death of Christ in John’s Gospel, I decided to use the unplanned time I now had to internalize St. John’s passion story. So, over a week or so, I memorized John’s telling of Jesus’ suffering and death.
I’ve spent years explaining the death of Jesus, unfolding this and that theory of the atonement, applying his cross’s significance to matters of modern life. But this Holy Week, rather than interpreting the story of Jesus’ cross, I simply entered into it. Whereas before I’d analyzed Jesus’ death, this Holy Week I’ve been interiorizing it. Instead of explicating Jesus’ crucifixion, I was dwelling in the mysteries of it.
And, I’m experiencing the wonder, sorrow, and joy that the Church around the world will hymn today.
O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown!
O sacred Head, what glory,
what bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call thee mine.
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered
was all for sinners’ gain.
Mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
’Tis I deserve thy place.
Look on me with thy favor,
and grant to me thy grace.
What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.
-Bernard of Clairvaux, from “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”