The Death of Jesus: A Lenten Meditation

I stood agape beneath a side-wall crucifix that seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had been watching the sanctuary at the front and only saw Jesus on the Cross after entering deeply enough for a parallel gaze once I turned. Dully illuminated, the body affixed to the wood at its usual three points was pulling downwards in the fashion of a true suspended corpse. He had the same pallor mortis I saw when my grandfather died under the frosty window in his bedroom, the skin greyed and tending toward greenish white. This Jesus wore a wig of human hair that hung to his shoulders, jet black and filthy with dust and cobwebs. Had I been in some less-developed corner of the world, I may not have been so taken aback. As it was, though, this was Germany, and I was thoroughly shocked by the unexpected sight––Jesus looked as dead as those who had made this hideous memorial.    

In the years following this encounter, I have often reflected on that crucifix and the countless others like it in little villages. How old was it? Had a man or woman really dedicated their hair to complete the look? Did the people, especially the children, of that village have only this singular image of the Savior? Was it wrong for them to make an object of veneration look like a cadaver? My guess was that the crucifix had been around for centuries and yes, some pious soul must have frozen one winter after dedicating his beautiful long hair to this grotesque manikin. Although there were likely additional images of Jesus in the stained-glass windows or at the Stations of the Cross, I was sure that the body hanging on the Cross had been the object of reflection for generation upon generation. And given that for most of its existence, the people of this village likely never travelled more than a few miles from home, the Jesus on this Cross was their Jesus. Admittedly, this crucifix, even in memory, stood for some time as both a scandal and foolishness to me.          

Recently, I have begun to reflect more deeply on the relationship between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In so doing I have been struck by the fact that if Jesus really Resurrected, he had to first really die. This is obvious enough, however, the lingering memory of that cold crucifix has returned to my thoughts. No doubt the villagers who saw the corpse on the Cross every week also believed in the Resurrection. “It was this Jesus,” they must have thought, “this tortured and lifeless body that rose on the third day.” Something in seeing a body on the Cross which really looks dead could, I presume, make the miracle of the Resurrection even more poignant. It is the same inversion as found throughout the Gospels, that the last shall be first, the least the greatest, etc. An encounter with the reality of the death strengthens the miracle of the Resurrection.

St. Paul surely apprehended this in his first encounter with the risen Lord who addressed himself to the baffled pharisee as the persecuted (Acts 9:3-7), the same Jesus whom Saul-turned-Paul subsequently preached to the Corinthians. “For I judged not myself,” he said, “to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). In turn, he evoked one of the earliest Christian creeds when reminding the Roman Christians that Christ’s resurrection was from the corpses––resurexione mortuorum (Rom. 1:4). The creed makers did not choose a collective noun signifying “the dead” but much more vividly and literally they had apprehended the Resurrection as being from dead bodies. Jesus shared, they make clear, in the same death that all are bound for. The Cross, perhaps most pointedly in its most graphic details, is foolishness to those who are perishing, but is the power of God for us who are being saved (1 Cor. 18).

It is a curious thing to consider that the Resurrection did not heal Jesus of his wounds. Jesus, having been killed, is the one who is also now living, and each time he appeared to his disciples he was such––the crucified one who now lives. As the visionary of the Apocalypse proclaimed, he is the lamb slain since the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). This is the opposite of a fairytale resurrection where the one killed returns completely transformed and lacking the death-wounds. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought his humanity with him, including the stamp of his death. The same is true for his return. It will be the appearance of Christ crucified, bearing his wounds and all, when, as the visionary proclaims, “…every eye shall see him, and they also that pierced him” (Rev. 1:7).        

The truth of this is made apparent in the Latin text of the Easter Preface number III in the Roman Missal:

Agnus qui vivit semper occisus

 

The normal translation is:

 

The lamb once slain who lives forever

 

But something is lost in that translation, which could just as accurately be rendered:

 

The lamb, who having been killed forever, lives

 

Neither English rendition does justice to the original, which uses the adverb “always” or “forever” for both “has been killed” and “lives”. Bringing this mystery into a comfortable vernacular seems to force a choice, and the Latin nuance is lost. And lost on me, while scandalized by the corpse crucifix, was the truth about the Resurrection––Jesus who is slain forever lives forever.

The focus is often placed so highly on the miracle of the Resurrection, which seems to affect the Crucifixion, making the death merely useful as a temporary vehicle, a setting of the stage for Easter. And yet that moment, the moment of death, is the moment captured on crucifixes since the beginning of the Church. By ascertaining meaning in this fact, that the most human image of devotion has always been the image of human mortality, we can more readily appreciate the mystery of the Resurrection as a part of our human destiny.

So instead of reminding ourselves from the other side, like men casting lights on the dark sea from the Resurrection lighthouses, we can also suffer in the waves, perhaps even sinking to death with Christ. Meditation upon the death of Jesus, his final words, his abandonment to the ultimate moment of “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani” and then to the death––when God incarnate became a corpse; meditation upon the reality of his death could, in my opinion, not be wrong. It is far easier to embrace the Resurrection, which dulls the blow of his death. Yet, if we can watch with him this one hour, and if we can remember for him the way he looked as he expired on the Cross, then the miracle of the Resurrection, having been longed for and seen from this tragic position, is elevated and made greater. A crucifix, especially a strikingly graphic one, is a lens into the most agonizing moment the world has ever known. Perhaps it was love of immortality that led the villagers to create so mortal a Jesus for their devotion.  

 

Originally published by Faith & Culture here.