April 4, 2012


crux, from the Latin, cross
  1. The decisive or most important point at issue.
  2. A particular point of difficulty.

A wise friend who is dear to my heart asked me to clarify something critical:  Do you really see the cross of Jesus' crucifixion as a failure?

I actually think it is difficult from here, 2,000 years of Christian history later, to remember that in Roman Palestine, the cross was an ignominy, a sign of cursedness.  Now it's art, jewelry.  I remember being an adult, maybe even in my early 30's, when I first became aware of how many people were crucified by the Romans.  I had never given it a thought.  There were just those three in my mind, Jesus and the nameless men on his left and his right.  In reality, there were thousands.

If you don't already know -- as I didn't -- crucifixion was a punishment for rebels and slaves.  The convicted carried only the horizontal cross-beam; the upright would have been stationary.  He was stripped naked, denied the modest loin-cloth that depictions of Jesus crucified allow.  The crucified died of asphyxiation.  It took me a while to understand how that could happen, but it has to do with the weight of the body and the need to support that weight in order to allow the lungs to fill with air.  You can find a much more detailed -- and gruesome -- description somewhere on the internet, I'm sure.  It's a horrifying form of torture.  What's more, it's public and humiliating and it's meant to be a lesson to everyone about the power of the powerful.  I have heard that there is no depiction of crucifixion in art until after every generation of first-hand witnesses had died.  No one who had seen a crucifixion could imagine rendering it as an image for reflection or worship.  Crucifixion may be the cruelest means of execution ever to spring from the imagination of fallen Man.

I said in the earlier post about failure that a crucified messiah was necessarily a failed messiah.  The whole point of messiahship was about defeating Israel's enemies.  The proximate enemy was Rome, but in the context of Jewish history you could as easily substitute Babylon or Assyria or -- and especially -- Egypt, and tell the same story of oppression and injustice, the powers of the world in conflict with God's chosen people.  The best of the good-ol'-days was the time, a thousand years before Jesus, when King David ruled and defeated all of Israel's enemies and established the center of his kingdom -- God's kingdom! -- on Mount Zion, Jerusalem.  The expectation of messiah ("anointed"; Greek - christos) was for a re-establishment, finally, of that sort of kingdom, where all the world would know that God was king, ruling through His chosen, Israel and Israel's anointed king.  Crucifixion meant exactly that that was not going to happen.  Rome wins.  Israel loses.  The real messiah could not end up on a Roman cross and be messiah.  But Jesus did.

A lot of people think that, for Jesus of Nazareth, that was the end of the story.  People thought it 2,000 years ago.  Some people think it now.  In this post-Enlightenment world we have adopted this quaint notion that, somehow, ancient people didn't understand how death works.  In fact, even two thousand years ago, people knew that dead meant dead.  And they knew better than we that crucified meant Dead. 

So, Jesus of Nazareth, would-be messiah, crucified on a Roman cross, was a failure if that is the end of the story.

There's so much temptation to talk about Easter, empty tombs and the sunrise of new creation.  But let's not yet.  Let's wait.  Let's spend the next three days with those women at the foot of that Roman cross.  Let's spend a moment of awareness of the abject failure that it all appeared to be. 

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