One of my duties at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, where I chair the Theology Department, is to help our student music leaders select music appropriate for our well-attended masses. For a recent Wednesday in Lent, for offertory and communion the students selected “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” familiar to many, as well as “Glory Be to Jesus,” an eighteenth-century Italian hymn translated into English in the nineteenth.
The hymn we know as “O Sacred Head Surrounded” originated in Latin in the middle ages. The famous tune and words appear in the Passion Chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. German often sounds blunt to English ears, and the rendering of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden / Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn in the English hymn is as brutal as the German: O Sacred Head surrounded / by crown of piercing thorn! / O bleeding head, so wounded / reviled and put to scorn! The second stanza likewise speaks of death with cruel rigor and agony and dying. “Glory Be to Jesus” is similar, especially in the first stanza: Glory Be to Jesus / Who in bitter pains / Poured for me the lifeblood / from his sacred veins.
Having reviewed the lineup for the mass before the worship aid was to go to print, a member of our campus ministry team sent an email in which she wondered if the repeated references to Jesus’ corporal suffering weren’t a bit much, especially when presented in such a blunt and baroque fashion. My first thought was that it was deep into Lent, and so some lyrical reminders of the depths of the suffering of Christ were entirely appropriate. But our first reactions are not always right, and while we kept the hymns in place, in thinking about it I came to see my colleague had made a good point.
The hymns themselves are wonderful in tune and lyric; there’s nothing essentially wrong with them. But my friend’s instincts were good, for too often Christians focus on the gore involved in the torture and crucifixion of our Lord and miss out on the deeper violence of the crucifixion, the violence on which ancient writers and the Evangelists themselves concentrate.
For centuries, much Christian devotion has emphasized the extreme physical suffering Jesus endured. Grünewald’s contorted Christ of the crucifixion depicted on the famous Isenheim Alterpiece would be a famous example, or in our own day, the extreme violence depicted in the film The Passion of the Christ. And in popular devotion reflection on this violence is often employed to drive us to compunction. We’re supposed to feel bad because we put Jesus on the cross and feeling bad is supposed to change our behavior. An example: Some decades ago the Christian pop singer Ray Boltz recorded a song one still hears all too often on evangelical radio entitled “Feel the Nails”: Does He still feel the nails / Every time I fail? Does He hear the crowd cry / Crucify, again? / Am I causing him pain? Then I know I’ve got to change / I just can’t bear the thought / Of hurting Him. The lyric goes on (shall we say) in the same vein: But each time he forgives / What if he relives / The agony He felt on that tree?
Similarly, in college, my ministry team would go out to area churches who invited us and put on a service. Part of our routine was to act out a piece by the evangelical artist and evangelist Carman called “This Blood.” Even more than the Boltz tune, it reveled in describing the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus: The scourge sliced right through his olive skin / Just like razors through a sheet / Countless times the blood splattered / As each inhuman lash was given / Several times his knees gave way / As his flesh just hung like ribbons.
Having seen our performance, a thoughtful professor of religion challenged me on our use of this piece. Where, he asked, do we find this emphasis on the brutality of the passion in Scripture? Having neither received a Ph.D. in Bible nor having thought much about the matter, I was caught up rather short. I had just assumed that much of the point of our Lord’s passion had to do with its violence, for everybody knows that flogging and crucifixion are extreme torture, violent and painful.
Everybody in the ancient world knew what crucifixion entailed. It’s not like Jesus was the only person crucified. The Hasmonean king of the Jews, Alexander Jannaeus, once crucified 800 Pharisees who had crossed him (pun not intended—honest) for the entertainment of his guests. Upon crushing Spartacus’ revolt Crassus crucified 6000 slaves up and down the Appian Way. The Jewish historian Josephus records that at one point during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 Titus crucified 500 Jews per day; “their number was so great that there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies.” And while crucifixion has fallen out of fashion in the modern West, it retains its fascination for us, precisely because of its extreme nature.
The ancients recognized crucifixion as the extreme penalty precisely because of its violence. Julius Paulus, a jurist under several Severan emperors, ranks it as the most extreme punishment, over burning and beheading. Crux! thus became a Latin imprecation, more or less equivalent to the English “Go to Hell!” And indeed Deuteronomy 21:23 declares anyone hanged on a tree to be cursed by God.
Everyone knew what crucifixion entailed. Is that why neither the Gospels nor St. Paul nor any other New Testament writer dwell on the details? For they don’t; they refrain from recounting spattered blood, razor-ripped skin, and nails bursting arteries and veins. The Gospels are laconic, each presenting the fact of crucifixion simply, some variant of “They crucified him.” St. Matthew simply employs a participle in a phrase of three Greek words and moves on to the soldiers’ gambling: “And having crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.”
Do they need to describe the crucifixion? Everybody knew what crucifixion entailed. Maybe that’s why the New Testament spares us the gruesome gore. Or maybe there’s another reason: Cicero thought crucifixion so shameful that the very word cross should be “far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears.” Did they too find it too shameful to recount the details of Jesus’ crucifixion, as he was the Son of God, the Lord of creation? No; precisely the opposite. They glory not in the cross’ gore but rather in its shame. Here, in the shame, lies the theological emphasis.
St. Mark’s Gospel presents the starkest picture of Jesus’ death. Unlike St. John’s version, in which the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John keep watch, or St. Luke’s version, in which the penitent thief repents, or St. Matthew’s version, in which cosmic and apocalyptic phenomena at Jesus’ death precipitate the conversion of the centurion and those with him, in St. Mark’s version Jesus dies misunderstood, mocked, alone, naked, and forsaken, the picture of shame.
All Jesus’ followers have fled; again, St. Mark presents no Mary or John keeping watch. Jesus is stripped of his garments, as the soldiers cast lots for them; crucifixes with loincloths are a concession to modesty. The passers-by deride him, wagging their heads, mocking his weakness, as do the chief priests and scribes. In a moment of extreme irony, those suffering the extreme penalty along with Jesus and thus shamed like him choose to revile him; if they could move their crosses, they’d rotate and step back to side with the crowd against Jesus. Their hatred of Jesus is St. Mark’s way of illustrating the total solitude of Jesus in his death. No thief repents here and sides with him. There is here no honor among thieves, no solidarity among the damned.
He is then misunderstood: Those who hear his cry of Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani, Jesus crying in despair asking his God why He has forsaken him, think he’s calling in hope for Elijah. He dies with a loud cry, the content of which St. Mark leaves unrecorded. The curtain is torn in two, indicating not our access to God but rather God’s departure from the sanctuary in recompense for Jesus’ murder, and St. Mark’s centurion, who cannot see the temple veil tear, who is not confronted with St. Matthew’s apocalyptic and cosmic phenomena, and whom St. Mark describes as concentrating on Jesus’ most ugly death (“Seeing how he died…), far from confessing any faith in the Son of God, mocks his lifeless corpse: “Surely this man”—crucified, dying utterly alone, thinking himself forsaken—“was the Son of God.” Everything in St. Mark’s text marks this as a moment of sardonic irony: The centurion’s sarcasm speaks truth about the torn flesh of the Son of God in whom he doesn’t believe.
Thus dies the Son of God in Mark: in utter shame, separated from man and God, with no one seeing past the shame to the Truth, with the heavens silent.
Shame is meant to separate. Shaming is shunning. And thus the cross isn’t incidental or accidental or arbitrary, as some misguided theologians like Occam have thought. It’s necessary, but what’s necessary about it is not the physical suffering it inflicts upon Jesus, but what it reveals about the human race’s attitude of utter hatred towards God—Jew and Gentile conspire to murder God’s Son, making us guilty of deicide—and even more, how it separates Jesus from both humanity and God so that he experiences utter Hell for us. For what is Hell, ultimately, if not separation from all love?
That is the violence of the crucifixion. Many men have suffered horrific deaths, pained in body, mind, and spirit; none have suffered the separation from God and man that Christ endured, He who was and is God, He who by taking our nature in the Incarnation is closer to every man than any man is to himself. In this lies our salvation. Agnus Dei miserere nobis.