Friday, April 10, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Good Friday

    The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

          --T.S. Eliot, East Coker
There is nothing remotely new that I could possibly write concerning the events of Jesus' trial and crucifixion. But in the vein of re-reminding us of how revolutionary Jesus' message had been in its original context, and how unsurprising it is, after all, that his message and actions would lead to his rejection, not only by the religious leaders, but by the people as well, it might be well for us to remember how odd and unexpected and unfitting would have been crucifixion as the mode of God's redeeming humanity. It's so easy for us now to parrot, "Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day." We forget that neither the Jews nor anyone else could possibly have expected this. As Paul writes to the Romans, "we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," (1 Cor. 1:23).

The Messiah was the hope of Israel's deliverance from foreign domination. To be crucified by that same foreign power would have been the last thing the Jews would have been looking for in their Messiah, and if they had truly thought he was the Messiah, they would not have delivered him over to Pilate or cried out for his crucifixion. Actually being crucified, if there were any doubt, would have disqualified him in the eyes of the Law: "anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse," (Deut. 21:23).

For the Greeks and Romans, the idea of a crucified god was the height of idiocy: paganism worshiped beauty, honor, and power, not weakness, helplessness, and shame. The pagan philosopher Celsus mocks the very idea:
You acknowledge that he openly suffered. How is it credible that Jesus could have predicted these things? How could the dead man be immortal? What god, or spirit, or prudent man would not, on foreseeing that such events were to befall him, avoid them if he could; whereas he threw himself headlong into those things which he knew beforehand were to happen?...
So the crucifixion makes no sense either to Jews or to pagans. And yet, this is the means by which God chose to save the world. It made no sense. The nonsensical nature of it should not be lost on us today. Because we've come into a time in which the crucifixion is once again nonsensical. But it nonetheless woke the hearts of many, even as it brought the scorn of some, and so may it do today. Let's not be afraid of the foolishness of the Gospel. It's wiser than the wisdom of humanity.

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