Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 27:32-50) transports me to a hill far away, where an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame, has become a wondrous attraction, not just for followers of the crucified Christ, but for popular culture in virtually every medium. The symbol of the cross is imprinted in our art, our music, literature, film, even our comic books. John Lennon sang about it (Ballad of John and Yoko); Bono sings about it (Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me); Chris Cornell sings about it (Jesus Christ Pose). Characters as varied as Sgt. Elias in Platoon, Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, Neo in Matrix Revolutions and Gandalf in LOTR: The Two Towers struck that iconic pose to bring to mind the archetypal imagery of a hero’s sacrifice. Sometimes the image is used to intentionally offend the sensibilities and go over the edge with shock value; think Cartman in South Park. Perhaps the best example of this, though, happened in the over the top world of ECW wrestling, when the ultimate bad guy Raven crucified his arch-enemy Sandman, completing the act by putting a crown of barbed wire on the unconscious Sandman’s head. This stunt was not well-received by the fans, leading Raven to re-enter the ring to make an apology. Apparently it wasn’t offensive enough to keep rival WWF from following suit, though, as the Undertaker crucified Stone Cold Steve Austin, only to have a revived Stone Cold return the favor in the next meeting.
All this is rooted in a two thousand year old account of a public execution that took place on the fringes of the Roman Empire, something that was commonplace at the time. We only know about the crucifixion of Jesus through the narrative of the faith community that emerged after the fact; no extra-biblical sources from the time found the event particularly unique or spectacular enough to say anything about it in their chronicles of current events. And yet it is the central act of history, when seen through the lens of faith. The King of the Jews bleeds his life away between two bandits amidst a crowd of taunters. The Son of God experiences abandonment by God. The one who cried out for people to follow the Way of love gives a final cry, breathes his last, and dies. In all our familiarity with the crucifixion and the saturation of the image throughout our media, I wonder if our culture has lost the capacity to be shocked by a story bracketed by Emmanuel and Eli Eli lema sabachtani, God-With-Us and Us-Without-God.
For those of us who have the image of the crucifixion imprinted not only in our music and our art and our films and our cartoons, but in the core of our faith, the story indeed can be shockingly real; it can rattle our bones. It is the shock of living into the cruciform life, where we know at once both the striking presence and the startling absence of God. It is knowing both the rapturous delight and the raw despair of following Jesus all the way to the Place of the Skull. And I think if we go deep enough into the story, it may take us back to those very places in our culture where the cross has embedded itself. It will take us to the killing fields of Vietnam in Platoon, the brutality of prison life at Shawshank, the fantasy worlds of the Matrix and the mines of Moriah. It will have us singing Isaac Watt’s When I Survey the Wondrous Cross along with the Beatles’ Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me. We’ll hum George Bennard’s The Old Rugged Cross along with U2’s Batman soundtrack, They want you to be Jesus, They’ll go down on one knee, But they’ll want their money back, If you’re alive at thirty-three and you’re turning tricks with your crucifix. We’ll whistle the old spiritual Were You there When They Crucified My Lord along with Soundgarden’s you stare at me in your Jesus Christ pose, arms held out like you’ve been carrying a load. And we may even occasionally find ourselves glued to Raw, or paying to view the latest battle royal when WWF goes Over the Edge.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.