Stations: Humiliation

1102014731_univ_cnt_2_xlAnd now Jesus ascends the hill; his long walk is over and the end is near, but there are still humiliations to come. The soldiers strip him of his clothes; forget all those works of art where Jesus wears a loin cloth, the fact is that people were crucified naked. This is, after all, a public spectacle; crucifixion isn’t just about killing someone – a dagger and a dark alley would deal with that with far less hassle – but about stripping them of their dignity and their self-respect and their basic humanity. And so no-one’s going to step in and spare the modesty of the Messiah – they want him naked and ashamed.

Maybe this feels like an humiliation too far. Pain and beatings are one thing, but this is more calculated. This is designed to show who’s in charge, to rob Jesus of his agency and his dignity. The fact that soldiers start gambling for his clothes is just another twist of the knife – imagine being stripped and seeing even your clothes being passed around as trophies. This is a part of the crucifixion we often overlook, but it’s one of its vilest elements.

The Australian church leader and activist Jarrod McKenna recounts how, during a protest over the rights of refugees, he and his colleagues were arrested and strip-searched, in what seems to be more of a calculated attempt at humiliation than any real security concerns. And in re-reading that story I’m confronted with the injustice and the dehumanisation that often takes place under our radar. Jarrod later staged a protest in his underwear as a way of drawing attention to what had happened; it’s confronting and challenges our concepts of public modesty, and maybe we need to remember that Jesus isn’t crucified in a way that makes him look good for the portraits, but in a way that takes on the worst the world has to offer.  And we should pause and recognise that, because we’re too close to the story, we know how this ends. We’re too quick to jump to Easter Sunday, or even the darkening skies of Good Friday. At least there’s power there, at least there’s hope.

But for now, Jesus stands naked and alone, smirking eyes catching him at his more vulnerable. And now one soldier leaves his group and picks up a hammer, as his comrades-in-arms continue to throw dice. The game goes on with no great urgency. Everyone knows who lost.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Palm Sunday: The Art of Looking Ridiculous

Jesus doesn’t march into Jerusalem at the head of a vast army, nor does he wave from the back of a tank. There’s no fly-past from a squadron of fighter jets, there are no nuclear silos on standby. Anachronisms aside, this isn’t how Jesus rolls.
Instead he sends the disciples into town to find a donkey; a colt, the foal of a donkey. Jesus, a full grown man, is going to make his triumphal entry on a donkey that’s way too small for him. He’s going to look ridiculous. Maybe that’s the point, maybe this is a piece of prophetic theatre.

After all, this is Jerusalem, full of Passover pilgrims and simmering tensions. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous; Pilate will have war horses riding into town, and chariots, and gleaming armour and sharpened swords. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous, Rome will be looking powerful, intimidating, dominant.

Palm Sunday is, among other things, a piece of satire. Jesus announces his Kingdom in a way that mocks the imperialists and the occupiers of the time, mocks those who so worship earthly power in all its iterations. And in doing so he may look foolish, feet dragging on the floor as the untrained donkey veers this way and that, but still people look at him and shout “Hosanna!” Lord, save us.

This whole ride to the rescue becomes increasingly bizarre over the course of the week, culminating in crucifixion. And if the story ends there then it is ridiculous, just another protest that ends in violence.

But it doesn’t end there; the tomb is empty and all the Powers of the world are unable to overcome a thirty-something carpenter riding a donkey that’s too small for him. The Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules and never will.

And so we follow our King and embrace the foolishness, part of the community but dancing to another song. We respond to things in a different way, rejecting the binary choices presented by the world and offering compassion and grace instead. We lay down our swords in the face of a thousand empires; we continue to ride our donkeys.

Or do we?

Stations: Burden

 

Both Jesus and Dismas are now walking towards the place of dying. They carry their own crosses, heavy, violent pieces of wood, splinters biting with every stumble and digging into fresh wounds.

The Cross is just one load to carry; Jesus also carries rejection, fear, public humiliation, the memories of betrayal, the faces of those who weep as he walks. And bound up with all this is the weight of the world, a burden of brokenness and ancient transgressions. He carries all this – it’s no wonder he stumbles.

So the Romans grab some random passer-by to get Jesus up the hill and Simon Cyrene is press-ganged into history. He takes up the Cross, sharing the burden; you could probably a clever theological point about that.

Well, you could, but watch Simon help Jesus to his feet. In the face of betrayal and abandonment and condemnation, for a few metres at least, Jesus isn’t alone. The disciples have disappeared, there’s a stranger carrying the Cross, but the final walk is no longer taken alone; even the messiest mercy is still grace.

Not every burden is a tragic public parade. There are hidden epidemics all around us – epidemics of loneliness, of poverty, of despair, depression, anxiety. People carry these burdens alone, suffering in silence because of embarrassment or pride. That’s when we’re pulled into service, called to bring grace and hope and love into situations that appear to be hopeless. Sometimes that means bending down and taking up a cross, helping another to bear the load and to show they’re not alone, that they’re not abandoned.

Simon wanted to mind his own business, but his nice quiet life intersected with the infinite; I guess that happens to us more than we realise. And step by step the walk goes on. The destination, drawing everything towards it by an ominous gravity, draws into view, anticipating the liminality of this particular lynching.

But there’s one more stop to make on the road, one more conversation to be had, as from the crowd comes the sound of weeping…

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Stations: Dismas

dismas-crossBut while Jesus sets out towards Calvary’s hill, another man is beginning a similar journey. We remember this man as a thief, a bandit, but it’s possible that’s a quirk of translation and that he was just as much a political prisoner as Jesus himself. What you call this man depends on how you view his cause: if you think the Jews had a point and were right to violently rebel against Rome, then he’s a freedom fighter; if you think, say, stabbing tax collectors and collaborators to death in a dark alley somewhere is indefensible then maybe he’s a terrorist.

Either way, he’s facing death, heading towards a cross and nails just like Jesus. We don’t really know his name, although tradition knows him as Dismas; we don’t know what brought him to this point, what got him into criminality, how he got radicalised. His life, like thousands of others, was lived in parallel with those who’d go on to become more famous, never intersecting ’til the last possible moment.

His anonymity is the power of his story. Two thieves hang either side of Jesus, one spitting curses, the other seeking mercy, two responses to Jesus in the face of infinity. Dismas, either through second-hand knowledge or the insight of a dying man, recognises the King beside him. Maybe, for a criminal fighting for every gasp of breath, the Crown of Thorns was a prophecy.

“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus, lungs screaming, turns to Dismas and promises that they’ll walk side by side into a different world, whispering hope through the pain.

Dismas is immortalised in that moment of grace, his image part of so many Easter scenes, his name even running through cult films. His hanging body comes to be an embodiment of mercy, forgiveness overriding everything so that while we don’t know the nature of his crimes, we do know where he found himself after taking that final walk.

And as we watch, grace threads its way around the nails and the wounds and the grain of the wood as Jesus looks at the man next to him and remembers.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Stations: Terror

It may be a plane crashing into a tower block or a car driving through pedestrians. It may be a fanatic with a gun or a suicide vest, it may be waterboarding in a rendition centre, it may be a burning cross erected on someone’s lawn. Whatever form it takes, we’re never free of violence in the name of politics and religion and ideology.

Jesus is in the hands of the authorities, and he needs to be shown his place – or rather, everyone else needs to be shown their place. That’s what this is all about – crucifixion is the Empire’s ultimate deterrant, a public spectacle to quash rebellion. The vicious, inhumane torture received by Jesus was all part of the branding, all part of the theatre. This is tantamount to a lynching, a state-sanctioned act of terror.

There’s an issue of identity here. The violence is to demonstrate Jesus’s weakness, his impotence in the face of power. It’s intended to subvert the values of the people watching, to take control of the narrative. Jesus isn’t tortured to get a confession or to extract information, he’s tortured to stop his ideas taking hold and to demonstrate the superiority of one worldview over another.

The violence isn’t just physical – Jesus is mocked mercilessly, in an attempt to break him before death. That’s why he’s given a purple robe, a symbol of royalty. That’s why a crown of thorns is forced onto his brow, piercing in both pain and mockery. They think they’re undermining his whole message.

And yet that message endures, because the mockery points to the truth, and in doing so reveals a king who stands alongside the abused, the broken, the wounded and the terrorised. He stands not with the executioners but with the crucified, and through the mystery of the Trinity, God lies beaten, mocked, bruised and scarred and yet not beaten, healing in the heart of the agony.

As I write this, a terrorist attack has taken place in London and people have died. And there’ll be many voices shouting how to respond and about how to exercise power. And while these questions need to be asked, pause a moment: pause and remember those killed, and in the midst of those thoughts and those prayers, see Jesus alongside the bleeding, the wounded and the dying. See him there and remember how the Kingdom is shaped by its wounded King, our God-with-Scars, not by terror, not by fear, not by hatred, not by rage.

And now Jesus picks up his cross and in agony sets out upon his final walk.

The other posts in this series can be found here.