The story Christians tell on this day, this Friday we insist on calling “good,” is quite familiar. The story is familiar not only to those who have attended church our whole lives or who have the read the Bible through many times, but even to those who may have never attended church or read the Bible even once.
Crucifixion was actually very common in the ancient Roman Empire. It was one of the tools deployed by imperial power to maintain control over unruly provinces. There were times in that period of Israel’s history when the roads leading to Jerusalem were lined with dozens and dozens of crosses, rebels and agitators hanging from them. Anyone who has ever feared state power or law enforcement knows this story.
We should note as well the sexual shame and humiliation that was likely part of this moment of physical torture. We don’t often think about that because it’s not mentioned directly in the biblical text; the biblical writer didn’t have to mention it because first-century readers would have known quite readily that aspect of this form of execution.
As one scholar has noted, “a striking level of public sexual humiliation” was most likely part of this story, what we would today classify as sexual assault, with all the bodily degradation it would have carried both then and now. Far too many people today and throughout human history know exactly what that kind of shame feels like.
There are other reasons why this story is so familiar—it’s so thoroughly human. Is there anyone who hasn’t known at least some kind of betrayal from a friend? Hasn’t everyone felt the fickle loyalties of a crowd, the dread of an angry mob, the terror of a tyrant—whether a neighborhood bully or an imperious thug? Haven’t all of us shrunk from our duties, hid from our obligations, denied our associations with the righteous troublemakers, even just once?
Living through a global pandemic, hasn’t everyone been reminded viscerally of their own mortality? Certainly not everyone has felt it to the same degree—privilege can still blunt the sharper edges of an otherwise precarious life, but certainly not forever.
The arc of this gospel story is, in all these ways, both quite particular and still also universal. This is precisely the source of its transformative power. It’s the familiarity of this story that grabs our attention, how easily it’s recognizable, how quickly each of us can find ourselves in it at least once if not multiple times.
Just there, in its horrifying familiarity, is where we might start to grasp the “goodness” of this day.
I should note first at least two ways in which I have come to appreciate how the story we Christian tell about this day is not “good.” First, it is not good to use today’s story as a way to justify violence as the means to achieve greater purposes. Second, it is also not good to suppose that God the “Father” killed his only “Son” in order to forgive our sins; I actually do embrace the vital notion of atonement as part of the good news of Christian faith, but God doesn’t kill anyone to achieve it.
That point deserves repeating: the purpose of the horrific act of humiliation and torture that Jesus endured is not somehow to placate an angry God; honestly, that’s a monstrous idea. No, what is on display in this violent story is instead a profound and even beautiful moment of deep solidarity between God and God’s creation, between God’s own beloved and us.
God freely chose to enter into our own vulnerability and fragility, to know it and embrace it. And God freely chose to do this because of unimaginable love.
The poet Sylvia Sands has written about this as she reflected on Jesus falling beneath the weight of carrying his own cross to meet his death. This is what she wrote:
We all like to see the mighty fallen.
Here’s God in the dust…
crumpled and tumbled beneath his cross
he resembles nothing so much as
Grown-ups don’t fall down, do they?
Well, not often.
Not unless they’re
drunk, crippled, down and out,
mugged, starved, queer-bashed,
frail, raped, stoned,
or plain suicidal.
He’s there in all those of course.
Dear Jesus of the gutter,
Friend to all humankind,
I cannot forget it was Roman feet you saw,
ready to kick you onwards…
Just as later,
your sisters and brothers
would see jackboots in Auschwitz.
So it is hard to watch you squirm,
debased, degraded, filthy,
beneath your cross.
But where and how else could we understand
your solidarity with the dispossessed?