The crucifixion of Jesus is “Roman imperial terrorism” writes Marcus Borg. Crucifixion is the use of violence, suffering and death to pierce the heart of citizens for the sake of peace – the Pax Romana. It was reserved for runaway slaves and for rebel insurgents.
While they did not invent it they used it well. Crucifixion was not simply capital punishment.
Hung close to the ground for birds and dogs to devour, it was supreme in its suffering, in its humiliation, in its complete consumption of the body by the state. So complete was this public disappearance of the person that there was nothing to be buried. In fact only one body has been discovered in an ancient family tomb. The forensic evidence mimicking the suffering wounds of our lord.
Crucifixion was a public warning.[i]
Crucifixion is a public warning.
Scholar Raymond Brown writes: "The other gospels mark Jesus' death with miraculous signs in the ambiance: The Temple curtain is torn; tombs open and bodies of the saints come forth; and an expression of faith is evoked from a Roman centurion. But the Fourth Gospel [The Gospel of John] localizes the sign in the body of Jesus itself.” Very few words are spoken by Jesus.
In John’s Gospel Jesus’ last words, "It is finished" are a victory cry and not some pitiful words from a dying prisoner.
John's words have a triumphant nature and give us a sense that in this moment we have victory. In the moment of his physical dying there is victory.
Jesus in the fourth Gospel accepts death, in all of its pain and suffering, as the completion of God's reconciliation of the world (its earthiness and creatureliness) with the Godhead. That heaven and earth be combined – united – never to be torn apart again.
The fourth Gospel's death scene from the cross is a song of victory.
It relishes the death of death, the finality of sin, as the falling cross bridges the gap once for all between heaven and earth.
Brown explains it this way, "In John's theology, now that Jesus has finished his work and is lifted up from the earth on the cross in death, he will draw all men to him. If "It is finished" is a victory cry, the victory it heralds is that of …[obedience].
[These words are similar to the phrase] "It is done" of Rev. 16.17, uttered from the throne of God and of the Lamb when the seventh angel pours out the final blow of God's wrath. What God has decreed has been accomplished."[ii]
Crucifixion is a public warning.
And, Jesus’ words are a public cry of victory.
They are “words that comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”[iii] We are “marooned in our own heads,” in our hearts, and in our lives. “We are curved in upon ourselves,” says Augustine. In this moment of victory Christ calls out and allows us access into the other – into God.
We come to this moment of public victory to experience and to know that we do not suffer alone. We do not die alone. We may feel alone, but we are not. We are not alone in this reconciled world where empathy is possible and victory is certain.
In Jesus God is forever identified in our pain and we are forever identified in Jesus’ suffering. In the cross we see more clearly our own suffering as part of the whole. We see the suffering of others. We are united with God and with one another in the mutuality of death.
It is this public warning – this crucifixion - that unites us to God and God to us. We see that God knows and understands and feels our suffering. Not as a God from beyond but a God who is with us - A God who is so obedient to his love for us that he becomes us and dies like us and with us.
For the truth is that we harbor inside a silent and private dread of loneliness and angst about death. As David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, says: “[we have a collective] dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), [it] has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”[iv]
I believe that in the crucifixion God is acting out and redeeming us – but as in all good reconciling acts we must first come (as Wallace says of art) “face to face with what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”[v]
The crucifixion as public warning has been turned upside down and in upon itself to become the sign of public victory over the powers of this world. What was a victory cry in the first century against an oppressive invading imperial force today is a victory cry over everything that oppresses us, our “culture’s mediated gratification”, image of perfection, and consumption.[vi] The cross of Christ itself becomes a warning in its victory, an antagonization of our senses and pricks at our conscience’s self-perpetuated lie that death is finality; loneliness is all there is, and loss is inevitable. It challenges the powers-that-be who depend on our attention and money for increased wealth and power in this world.
What is poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it threatens everyone who invites this public disobedience in a spiritual and emotional way. Crucifixion’s contemporary public warning is that you risk looking foolish, uncool, “melodramatic, naïve, unhip or sappy.” Those who wish to live within the shadow of the Christ’s victorious cross must be willing to sort of die in order to be moved and to move others. To actually live a life freed from the power of crucifixion and under the guiding reality of Christ’s victory cry we must have a kind of courage.”[vii]
To behold the cross of Christ is a public act of courage, and art of living, to confront loneliness, death, and loss and in so doing to receive life and live into Christ’s public victory.
Crucifixion is a public warning.
Jesus’ words are a public victory.
To behold the crucifixion is to engage in the personal art of a public dying.
For as Christians we believe that the cross of Jesus Christ, is a power greater than ourselves, and can restore us through an acceptance of death into life.
Jesus’ words are a public victory – Jesus’ death is a cosmic one. Victory is certain and we are not alone.
As D. G. Myers, author and literary critic, in his essay on dying writes: “We are today and everyday entirely ready to have God receive us exactly as we have become, without the opportunity for additional effort”[viii] or success having tried our best and failed many times over.
Edna Hong in the Downward Ascent writes: “There are so many fake props to knock down. And the end of the painful road is not perfection, but perfect humility. Not morbidity and self-loathing, but a humble and contrite heart.[ix]
So, we humbly ask Him to make light of our failures… and we stop all magical thinking that we are becoming ever more perfect.[x]
Living in the victory of the cross is always and everywhere an act of defiance that death does not have the last word and nor does culture or the powers of this world.
Jesus’ words are our public victory.
Crucifixion after all is a public warning…that to behold Christ Crucified is to engage in the art of a personal and public dying for sake of living.
[i] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, 2006, 146.
[ii] Raymond Brown, John, vol II, Anchor Bible, 931
[iii] 1993 interview by Larry McCaffery with David Foster Wallace author of Infinite Jest. http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-david-foster-wallace-by-larry-mccaffery. The images I am using of what is taking place in our witness to the crucifixion are adapted from this interview.
[viii] D.G. Myers on the Art of Dying http://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2014/04/dying-is-12-step-program.html
[ix] Edna Hong, The Downward Ascent, 50-51.