Detail of the Isenheim altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald (1512–1516).
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.
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.
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
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 intendedhonest) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 GodJew and Gentile conspire to murder God’s Son, making
us guilty of deicideand 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