In Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night he describes a scene in a Nazi death camp where inmates are hanged for stealing food and the other prisoners are forced to witness.
“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing. And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard a man asking:“For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
There is an unintended irony in this admission that is universal, disbelief that God might be found in the most derelict of circumstances, the place of utter abandonment. It is why I wear the crucified man on a chain close to my heart. It also explains why I strive to find the crucified man in me, and I in him. He is my hope.
The Cross of Jesus Christ is an odd and unlikely symbol. In its day, crucifixion was considered so repugnant that it was restricted to slaves and political insurgents. Roman citizens were not even supposed to gaze upon a crucifixion because it was the very dereliction of human dignity.
In John Stott’s epic “The Cross of Christ” he states: “The Christians’ choice of a cross as the symbol of their faith is more surprising when we remember the horror with which crucifixion was regarded in the ancient world... How could any sane person worship as a god a dead man who had been justly condemned as a criminal and subjected to the most humiliating form of execution? This combination of death, crime and shame put him beyond the pale of respect, let alone of worship...
Many other symbols could have been employed to commemorate Christ’s life and ministry. Why not something less gruesome? The crib, or manger in which he was born, the carpenter’s bench, the fisherman’s boat, or the dove descending from Heaven? Many icons from the life and ministry of Christ could have been chosen. And yet we gaze upon the Cross, the instrument of death and torture.
But its choice by Christians had a more specific explanation. They wished to commemorate as central to their understanding of Jesus neither his birth nor his youth, neither his teaching nor his service, neither his resurrection nor his reign, nor his gift of the Spirit, but his death, his crucifixion.”
How odd of God… veneration of a peasant in an obscure part of the world, who was tortured as a political insurgent, and sentenced to the worst manner of death possible, one of exposure, public nakedness, humiliation, and abandonment. Put on display as a mockery before the whole world. How odd of us all, to cling to this symbol which seems to radiate so much sadness, and so little possibility for good.
There is context however. It’s the issue of relatability. As an existential paradigm, Jordan Peterson has described it as “the worst possible thing happening to the best possible person”. There is likely nothing more relatable than suffering. It is the oft-neglected unmentionable, that a good portion of human life can be slogging through the desert, suffering in a myriad of ways, spiritually, materially, socially, emotionally, physically. You will end up in one or all of the above at some point. When you do you may look upon the crucified man and see him in some way as a friend. It is then, that you may have a glimmer of hope, that God indeed might be found in the most dererlict of places.
In theological terms as well, there is context for God choosing the crucified man. It is spoken of at length by the Apostle Paul, who was learned, dogged in his opinions, able to argue syllogisms, rhetoric and Greek logic and yet.. when he came to people he abandoned all of this and stated instead. “I choose to preach Christ, and him crucified”.
There is that matter about death which bothers people. Many would like to do away with the death of Christ as part of Christian observance, but it is the substitutionary death of Christ that is at the heart of our identity as Christians. What would Jesus do? Die apparently.
Not for silly reasons, like political misadventure or lunacy as has been suggested by such movies as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Not as an example of sacrificial love as some theologians veer to. It is because if man were to create a religion, he would not start with a crucified criminal. It would be too utterly absurd. No one would join up.
No, as the book of Corinthians states, “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.”
It is the “New Thing” prophesied by Isaiah, an apocalyptic interruption in the timeline of human affairs with a solution for sin and suffering that could never have been called from the human imagination; “From this time forth I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known. They are created now... Before today you have never heard of them.”
Something new and unexpected. Something no one thought of before. A crucified man, as God. Follow me if you can. We can, and we do, by the grace of God, who makes all things possible. That is why I am shilling for the crucified man, and with my last breath on this earth I hope and pray that the crucified man is shilling for me.
Why? Because such lunacy has the ring of truth. Christianity makes no sense at all. In the face of the improbable you really have to make a leap of faith. Either something so outrageous is true, or it is not. Tertullian expressed it like this: “I believe because it absurd”. I tried to come up with a better story but I could not. Yes, you couldn’t make this stuff up. A crucified man as the face of God. Unbelievable.
“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
Isaiah 53: 3–5