It’s hard, even agonizing, listening to the details of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, even when we know there is a “happy” ending. Despite the gratitude and love we have for Jesus because of his willingness to give up his life for us, we can’t help but feel the horror of his suffering . That horror makes you want to turn away, close your ears, and shut out the knowledge of all those ghastly details. I’m sure this desire to push away the horror of the Crucifixion has something to do with the reason why several Protestant evangelical denominations don’t have a Good Friday service, or even any kind of Lenten observance. They go straight from Christmas to Easter in their liturgical year.
I can understand why you might want to skip over the Crucifixion. It’s indescribably painful to hear how Jesus was betrayed by his closest friends, his followers, and the religious establishment. I can understand why people wouldn’t want to deal with the scourging, the mockery, the torture, and the brutalizing of Jesus. It’s why I have never watched Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”.
At the root of our revulsion and horror at Jesus’ suffering lies something else that we don’t often talk about, or even name to ourselves—and that’s the humiliation that Jesus was subjected to. Humiliation, of course, is one of the most soul searing emotions, and it’s something that most of us have had some kind of experience with in the course of our lives. More than likely, your particular memory of humiliation still has the capacity to make you wince, cringe or even cry—humiliation attacks the essence of who we are, and it destroys our dignity.
The Romans understood the power of humiliation very well. Let me give you a short primer on Crucifixion, a sort of Crucifixion 101. For the Romans, crucifixion was not just about putting a prisoner to death—it was designed with a couple of other aims in mind. One of these aims was to inflict the maximum amount of physical pain—excruciating would be a good way to describe the pain, particularly as the word excruciating comes from the Latin term “from the cross” or “out of the cross”. To ensure that happened, the Romans carefully calculated the measure of pain so that the person wouldn’t pass out…if that looked like it was going to happen, they would give the person being crucified wine mixed with morphine—not to ease the pain, of course, but to prevent him from passing out so that he would have to endure the pain even longer.
And that’s not the worst of it. Crucifixion was designed with an even more callous intent. It was designed to humiliate the person. The person was stripped naked before the crucifixion so that he was fully exposed in the most vulnerable and humiliating way possible (especially in an extremely conservative society such as first century Palestine). Our depictions of Jesus typically show him on the cross draped modestly with a cloth…but this was not how Jesus would have been crucified. There would have been no cloth to cover him. The other aspect of this extreme humiliation was that when the prisoner, Jesus in this case, had to urinate or defecate, he had to do so in full view of those standing there. Additionally, at the moment of death Jesus’ bowels would have loosened, and he would have defecated. This, among other reasons, is why the disciples ran away and abandoned Jesus after the crucifixion. They couldn’t reconcile this type of brutal humiliation with the coming of God’s kingdom.
We have tended to downplay this aspect of the Crucifixion. We have, as the Protestant German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann puts it, “surrounded the cross with roses, with aesthetic and antiseptic wrapping towels”. And that’s not surprising really since, as I said earlier, humiliation is one of the most soul searing emotions there is, and our instinct is to avoid acknowledging it at all costs.
Humiliation comes in lots of forms…and it starts very young, doesn’t it? Perhaps you were the kid on the outside of the popular group at school, who the other kids talked about or made fun of behind your back, because of your clothes or your quirky behavior or, worst of all, because of something about your mom or dad.
Then there are the humiliations which families can inflict on one another…the father who constantly taunted you with your inadequacies because nothing was ever good enough for him, or the older sister who mercilessly teased you in front of her friends, or the spouse who lied to you and cheated on you before leaving you for someone else. As adults, many of us have had the unpleasant experience of working with a boss or coworker who is out to get you, who looks for each opportunity to undermine you or to belittle you or to make you look foolish. Workplaces can be rather like the school yard, can’t they? You know…the whispering cliques, the silences that descend on the group when you walk by.
Our natural response to humiliation is anger, fury, and bitterness. When the humiliation is inflicted by someone else, we want nothing more than to put up a defense, all too often by revenging ourselves in some way on the person who has humiliated us so we can get even. We actually celebrate this response in popular culture…I’ve been watching with some fascination the ABC series called “Revenge” about a young woman’s desire to wreak revenge on the family that destroyed her father. “Revenge” captures rather well what I call the cycle of sin…which is the tit for tat, the ratcheting up of insult for insult, hurt for hurt, wound for wound. The problem is that when we are in that place of humiliation and woundedness, we can’t think straight. In fact, we can’t think past the hurt we are experiencing—we can only feel. The thought of ratcheting down the tit for tat behavior or stepping back from our anger is almost unimaginable. But I want to be clear about this: however understandable those feelings might be, what we’re engaging in is the cycle of sin, which is death to the soul.
What does the humiliation we experience have to do with Jesus’ humiliation…and more importantly, how does all this tie in to Easter Sunday and the glory of the Resurrection? Paradoxically, a certain depth of soul can only be attained through a certain depth of humiliation. Ask yourself the question: what experiences have made me deep? Most likely, those experiences will include incidences that you feel some shame in acknowledging: a powerlessness you could not protect yourself from, an abuse against which you had no defense, a mistake you made which publicly demonstrated a lack of strength, the way you treated someone else for which you now feel shame or regret, or a weakness of body or mind which has left you vulnerable.
All of us, like Jesus, have been hung up in some way publicly, and humiliated. And we have depth of soul to just that extent. But depth of the soul comes in different forms…we can be deep in graciousness, forgiveness, understanding and character. Or, if we never get past the original response to the humiliation, the tit for tat behavior and the cycle of sin, we can be deep in anger, resentment, bitterness, and revenge seeking. Now ask yourself “What is my depth of soul rooted in?” It takes courage to answer that question honestly.
If at this moment there is a dawning realization in you that at least some of your depth of soul is rooted in your ability to hold a grudge, and to remain obdurately unforgiving and angry, then you are caught up in the cycle of sin which is the death of soul. But you have a choice as to how to handle that wound, however far back it goes, because of how Jesus chose to respond to his humiliation and betrayal.
Jesus’ crucifixion and humiliation stretched his heart and made it huge in empathy, graciousness and forgiveness. His crucifixion, death and resurrection didn’t just vanquish physical death, it vanquished the soul death brought about by sin. He was able to forgive at the most humiliating, excruciatingly painful, life destroying moment of his human existence. He broke the cycle of sin, and brought life everlasting, not just to the body, but to the soul.
At this point, it’s a good bet that at least one of you is thinking “But Jesus was divine, he was the Son of God—of course he could forgive.” I am profoundly sure that in his dying moments, as he hung on the cross, naked, alone, vulnerable, covered in his own excrement, Jesus was never more human.
It is through the love of Jesus Christ and through the power of that love, that each one of us can make a choice to step back from anger. We can make the choice to begin to let go of whatever we are holding on to, whatever we cannot forgive, whatever humiliation is keeping us locked in the cycle of sin. The power of Jesus Christ can reach into and transform even the deepest hurt, if we allow it to….and that means turning to Christ in prayer, knowing that we cannot do this alone without Him. The choice is in our hands…Christ is there, waiting for each one of us. We have but to ask Him to help us move from the place of Crucifixion, where we hang suspended, to the place of Resurrection, the place of everlasting life, love, forgiveness and peace.