Image: “Crucifixon”, contemporary Indian artist F.N.Souza
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It has often been said you can’t get to Easter morning and an empty tomb except by way of Good Friday and the cross of crucifixion. But since boyhood, that pilgrimage of Holy Week seemed like the same old story and well trodden path. Palm Sunday always started out well enough with glory, laud and honor. But by Maundy Thursday things had always seemed to take a turn for the worse, leaving most children like myself to wonder just what was so good about Good Friday.
The standard line – as best I could figure it out – was that whatever was bad for Jesus, was good for us. And then a few days later — as it turned out — it was good for Jesus too; since obviously you can’t get yourself raised to new life unless you’ve first died. Bummer.
However, that last part at least has become a truism for me in my own life thus far. The number of times a little part of me has died along the way has always subsequently been met by a new lease on life; and, most importantly, not of my own making. There’s that, as well as the gift of knowing through personal experience that losing something of one’s life has led to gain elsewhere.
Most of us who have made it to middle age, and then pressed on towards our own ultimate demise, have done so with a certain knowing and appreciation that eventually – one way or another — life is all about recovery; usually, that is, recovery from whatever has preceded it that left unchecked would stop us in our tracks.
Sometimes one is so utterly changed, some would call it transformation. But even with the certain knowledge of my own mortal imperfections and feet of clay, the eyes of my imagination can still glimpse what one might at least call a hint of that other word, resurrection.
As a preacher’s son wandering my own early paths of unknowing, I could only wonder about the non-sense of a story that was referred to as the “Passion” for some strange reason. So the innocent, good and righteous sacrificial savior suffers a horrific death so we wouldn’t have to do so ourselves? Still makes no sense. Never did, never will.
The carved wooden crucifix that hung on the wall of my father’s study where he would write his sermons was far more illustrative to me than any orthodox doctrine he would subsequently pound out from the pulpit. With eyes transfixed on the woodworkers craft, I was always fascinated by that twisted torso, the pegged feet, the outstretched arms, and the head hung in utter subjugation with a spiked crown of thorns that inexorably expresses the human capacity we all have for cruelty and human violence.
In contrast, I have always found most objectionable the most common depictions of the crucifixion in two millennia of artwork where a thorny crown gets replaced with a golden halo, and the bloody and tattered loincloth is replaced with the royal robes one would be more likely to see worn by those earthly monarchs and pompous clerics Jesus was so apt to criticize.
If Jesus died for anything, he laid down his life like most social prophets and martyrs as a complete and utter refutation and relinquishment of any such vestiges of earthly kingdoms. Whatever the subsequent followers of the donkey king would retrospectively make of him, he was regarded by the powers that be as nothing more than a nuisance. As more than one biblical scholar has pointed out, the real significance of Jesus’ crucifixion lay in the fact that anyone subsequently noticed and cared about the execution of a nobody. But it is the way of a nobody, not a somebody, that has so often altered the way of an otherwise weary world.
Recently the secular media has been enthralled with the resignation of a papal prince and the election of his replacement. Live coverage breathlessly covered every moment of the transition of papal power; from Benedict’s departure, to the “smoke cam” vigil, to emergence and debut of Pope Francis.
While press and pundits speculated on how this mega-corporation might deal differently now with its administrative nightmares like alleged financial corruption and mishandled abuse cases, celibacy and the role of women in an institution more akin to the Middle Ages, little attention has been given to any discussion of the arcane doctrines which even many of the church’s members no longer follow or believe; let alone the gospel premise upon which the institution would presume to claim any legitimate right to exist in the first place.
Much has been made of Pope Francis’ re-emphasis on the church’s mission to the poor; while naysayers undertaking their own post-election vetting process of the Holy Father have resurrected decades-old allegations that Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, once cooperated – if not collaborated — with Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship; when many priests sympathetic to those who opposed the regime’s treatment of dissidents were regarded as no more than a nuisance. They were allegedly identified by the church hierarchy, arrested, imprisoned, tortured and even killed. Time and again throughout human history, it seems, we see the Passion play reenacted; only to have the names and places change, but the actors are seldom out of character.
At the same time, simple gestures and symbols matter. The introduction of Francis to a watching world at the very least suggests a rebranded image of a peasant Pope. It has been said the fisherman’s ring on his finger is gold-plated this time; whereas his immediate predecessor’s was solid gold. Still, such a choice was hardly ever a dilemma for the Galilean peasant sage; let alone those first followers who struggled to make sense of Jesus’ words, his deeds and early demise.
Over my morning coffee last month I happened to catch the live coverage of the former Pontiff’s departure from the public eye. The television cameras followed every small step the old man would take, as he emerged from his impressive Vatican residence, impeccably adorned in his pure white cassock. He would walk past dozens of members of his household staff who would bow and curtsy, to a polished black limousine, adorned with a shiny silver papal seal on the door, and two flags posted on the front bumper like any other head of state.
A short drive led to a helipad, where a gleaming white papal helicopter waited to whisk him off to the Apostolical Palace, where he would temporarily reside until a renovated monastery is completed for him. Somehow, the monastic life never looked so, well, opulent.
At the same time as all this was occurring, on the other side of the globe in the Capitol in Washington, DC, President Obama and congressional leaders were attending the unveiling of a statue commemorating the life and work of Rosa Parks; who helped ignite the American civil rights movement on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested for civil disobedience in violation of Alabama’s segregation laws.
The statue depicts a 42-year old African American woman in a heavy woolen coat, seated and gazing out an imaginary window to an unknown future, while awaiting her arrest.
“This morning, we celebrate a seamstress, slight of stature but mighty in courage,” President Obama said at the gathering. “In a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America and change the world.” Then the President went on to speak of how one lacking wealth and living far from the seat of power had touched off a movement.
Anyone who knows anything about our nation’s story knows about the day Rosa Parks stood up to entrenched power and suffered the consequences; striking a blow against bigotry and injustice, with a kind of freedom that could not be silenced or denied by simply arresting and prosecuting her; but instead would bring release to both the cultural captors and captives in an entire society.
But what is often overlooked is the fact that Rosa Parks had been a civil rights activist and fighter for racial equality long before, and after, that particular December day in 1952. It had been a lifetime of words and deeds that culminated in her own particular moment before the arresting authorities in her own Gethsemane. It was quite literally her own via de-la-Rosa!
Rosa Parks had been a civil rights activist and fighter for racial equality long before, and after, that particular December day in 1952. It had been a lifetime of words and deeds that culminated in her own particular moment before the arresting authorities in her own Gethsemane. It was quite literally her own via de-la-Rosa!
In this same way, one cannot read the story of Jesus’ death and the early followers claims of some kind of “resurrection” apart from the life of the one who died, but whose words and deeds of a nuisance and a nobody have remained vitally alive for them. As Stephen Patterson writes in Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus:“One of the great mistakes of Christian theology has been our attempt to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from his life. The first followers of Jesus did not do this. All four of the New Testament gospels tell of Jesus’ death as part of the story of his life. Jesus is put to death for the things he says and does. … To celebrate his death apart from the cause for which he lived would be ridiculous and meaningless. Yet this is what we have done for the most part with Jesus. For most Christians, the Apostle’s Creed is quite sufficient: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.. His death is the sacrifice that ensures our forgiveness before a God torn between anger and compassion. What need do we have of his life if it is his death that ensures our salvation? But this was not so for the earliest friends and followers of Jesus. They were profoundly devoted to his way of life, and they used his death to call attention to his life. Virtually every word spoken about the death of Jesus among his first followers was calculated to resurrect the significance of Jesus’ life. They spoke of the movement he began as “the way” – his way of life. Even though Jesus was dead, he was not dead to them.”
While centuries of Christian art have often portrayed a royal, haloed Jesus, triumphant even on the cross, some artists have depicted a crucified Jesus as less of a sacrificial victim who overpowers and vanquishes death by his own death; and more a martyr, whose death is but an ultimate expression of the way he lived his life.
F.N. Souza, who died in 2002, was just such a contemporary artist. Born in the Catholic province of Goa in India in the 1950s, he was among the first of the post-Independence generation of Indian artists.
Souza’s Crucifixion [pictured above] is a jagged and jarring image of Jesus in all his suffering. As one critic puts it: “His depiction of an agonized black Jesus expresses the artist’s own feelings of religious conflict, as well as cultural tensions between black and white, Christian and non-Christian, and the oppression and collaboration of the power systems that so often come with colonized societies ruled by empires.”
The early followers and gospel writers of “the way” provide multiple accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a retrospective, pointing clearly to the fact these were hardly historical accounts; but rather personal transformative experiences, shaped by post-resurrection faith communities. They had no more tangible proof of Jesus’ still-living presence than we have today.
My friend and biblical scholar, Harry Cook, makes a similar point with regard to what is generally agreed to be the earliest of those canonical gospel accounts. “In Mark’s telling of the Easter story,” Harry conjectures, “he leaves the women at the empty grave astonished, unsure and afraid to tell anyone about it. That’s where Mark’s gospel ends — and with a conjunction, no less, as if the scribe had lifted his stylus from the page in mid-sentence. Some of us who study such texts think the ending was deliberate as if to say, “If you want to know how this story turns out, finish it yourself.”
For those of us who have long sought another path to Easter, it would appear the resurrected Word and way is known to us. Alleluia, Alleluia.
© 2013 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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