‘We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’. 1 Cor. 1.23
I think one can confidently say that the modern world is a world well familiar with the sight of Cross and Crucifixes. We see them in various sizes in our churches, as well as in many other places. And perhaps, because we have become too familiar with seeing cross and crucifixes, our senses have become numb, it has become dull – we fail to grasp its extreme nature. People of the ancient world, and those who were subjects of the Roman Empire, like us, were familiar with the sight of cross, but they were also familier with its ugly nature.
All who lived under the rule of the emperor knew that the Cross was the worst kind of death the empire had on offer. Oh, there were other types of cruel death, and those who represented the emperor had all kinds of executional means available to them: stoning, releasing prisoner to facing wild beasts, burning, and even boiling in oil. But the Cross, was a special type of death, it demonstrated the brutal glory of Rome. It sent a lingering message to the enemies of Cesare, informing them of the fate awaiting all who dared entertaining rebellious thought against the empire. As one historian points out, the Romans used the Cross as ‘an act of state terror’. The Cross, was important to the Romans, for it was visible. The empire subjected its enemies to a shameful, painful, slow death – a death void of dignity. Performed in public, where everyone was free to come and watch.
Perhaps one way of understanding the Cross in the ancient world, is to ask, what a figure of a crucified person might have communicated to Jesus’ contemporaries?
Well, it communicated the following: first: the crucified person was not a Roman citizen. He/she was a second-class citizen. It meant that the person is accused of sedition, or rebellion. If you were a Jew, you would have thought that the crucified person was cursed by Yahweh. If you were a Roman or Greek, you would have believed that the crucified have been cast to the lowest and worst possible place by the gods. And you would have certainly belived, that the crucified is weak, lonely and soon to be among the forgotten.
This being the case, the claim of St. Paul that ‘I boast in Christ crucified,’ (Gal 6.14) and that the crucified man is actually God. Plus, it is the way in which God has chosen to reveal himself, was perceived by the ancient to be pathetic and laughable, at best; and at worst, repulsive and blasphemes. For, how could a man pinned to a Cross, like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board, be God?
People were convinced that any human with a bit of dignity did not end up on a cross, let alone a god. For the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, lived far above human kind. Though they appeared in many forms to people, they did not live among them. And when it came to torture and punishment, the gods inflected punishment on human beings. They, themselves were not subject to it. In fact, they enjoyed tormenting human beings, they caused war and famine for their own amusement. Hence, torture and death belonged to the sphere of the low and weak – it belonged to the realm of mortals.
Yet, it is precisely this shocking horror of Christ crucifies, identifying himself with the weak, the marginalised, the criminals, and outcast, with those who suffer, experience pain, and death makes the claim of ‘We preach Christ crucified,’ so revolutionary an idea. Ironically, it was the news of this cursed God that erupted like a wildfire claiming the hearts and minds of countless Roman subjects – salve and free, Greeks, Jews and Romans. Eventually, the empire itself, declared allegiance to the Christ they pinned to a cross.
This, of course, happened because unlike the Greek and Roman gods, this God identified with the weak and the marginalized. This God, did not look at humanity from the comfort of his heaven. He became one of us – experienced first-hand, loneliness, wound, suffering, and walked to face our worst enemy, death itself.
The modern theologian Edward Shillito captures the revolutionary God of the Cross beautifully when he writes, ‘The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds but Thou alone.’
Throughout the centuries, individuals who have confronted the Crucified God with openness have been changed. In fact, their whole world has been turned upside down. Of course, St. Paul himself is a case in point. But I suspect some of you might have heard the story of a young polish boy whose life was turned upside-down by the Cross, in the aftermath of WWII.
The story was first told by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger – Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005.
The story goes like this: Three boys decided to play a trick on a local priest, by going to the confessional to confess all kind of wiled, imaginary sins. The first two did it then run away laughing. When the third one, whom happened to be a Jewish boy, had his fun, the priest said he would give him a penance which he should do. Then the priest indicated the large statue of the crucified Jesus at the East-end of the church. The Priest said to the young boy, ‘I want you to go up to that statue, I want you to look at the figure in the face and say three times, ‘you did all that for me, but I do not care’. And so, the boy went along with the suggestion, as it was still part of the fun, and he said it once. Then he said it again, and then he found he could not say it the third time. He broke down, and left the church changed. And the reason I know that story to be true, concluded Archbishop Lustiger, is because I was that boy’.