Today’s reading is Mark 15:21-32:
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.
It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews.
They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “But he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Poland is strewn with crucifixes. During my two summer months there, serving as an English teacher in rural communities, I was assaulted daily with images of the bloody, battered Jesus: mouth agape, eyes partially closed or stretched wide, body muscled or emaciated, draped in rags or stripped to skin, all depending on the artist’s interpretation. The crucified Jesus hung in cathedrals, of course, but also in supermarkets and pools, bedecked with ribbons and posted in fields, placed over living room mantles and in the backs of classrooms, draped around aged necks.
Looking at Jesus on the cross so frequently, particularly in the midst of the everyday, made me a little uncomfortable. I don’t think it was because of the gore. Most of the crucifixes refrained from portraying excessively graphic wounds. Even if they did, the physical suffering of Jesus was something I had been indoctrinated with. The barbarous scourging with a glassy whip (Mk 15:15), the crown of thorns jammed into his scalp skin (15:17), the asphyxiation on the cross, side speared into a deluge of blood and water: these details, as many goosebumps as they may raise, are both familiar and foreign to me. They are familiar in that I have heard them preached so many times—foreign in that I have trouble contextualizing them within the comfortable memories of my suburban past. I can understand that Jesus suffered an enormous amount of physical pain to absolve the sins of the world, and for that I can be nothing but astounded into worship, thankful in a dumbstruck sort of way. But can I understand what that pain felt like? I’ve never had a broken bone, I have no allergies, I’ve never been hospitalized. When I comprehend Jesus’ physical suffering, I intellectualize, but I can’t quite feel.
What made me turn away from the crucifixes in discomfort, then, was not the physical trauma they displayed, but the abject humiliation. This shame I could feel. It disturbed me deeply to see the blameless Christ of both myself and most of Catholic Poland stripped naked, face contorted, not glowing with holiness or clasping a child upon his knee or standing in front of a crowd leading boldly, but turned into a mawkish spectacle. The horrors of physical torture I could not internalize, but humiliation I could. And this segment of story confronts this discomforting humiliation head-on, casting it in simple, unadorned prose. Jesus is forced to carry his own cross up the hill: a physically exhausting task, yes, but perhaps more importantly, a hugely public one. Insults are hurled at him by passersby and by the criminal companions on the crosses beside him. His clothes are divided up. A mocking sign, “King of the Jews,” is tacked above his head. This snapshot is not of physical torment, but of deeply psychological embarrassment.
I turned my eyes away from the humiliating crucifixes as I do when an over-eager evangelist in my ministry group offers to pray for a suffering non-Christian friend; when her offer is disdainfully rejected, garnering incredulous eye rolls. When a woman I see at the library, a classmate who read one of the testimonies I wrote for a creative writing class, loudly and publicly accuses me of being insensitive to other worldviews. When noses wrinkle at how you spend Friday nights—in “worship.” When an interviewer or a classroom of peers or even your own parents and loved ones cast judgment on you as a heretic, a non-intellectual, a crazy person, a lunatic: just as the crowds and criminals did to Jesus.
There is a cosmological role to be played by humiliation in the Christian life. Psalm 22 prefigures the crucifixion with its opening question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalmist writes that he is “a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:6-7). He moans that “they divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:18). Stories of humiliation, of the emotional torment of shame, of social ostracization, overflow the Old and New Testaments: of prophets and martyrs and misunderstood leaders, giving up worldly position and fame to do God’s work. As with so many of the thematic trails of Christendom, this story of humiliation comes to a head in a naked, possessionless man on a cross: the man who deserved it least of all.
It has always been, will always be, a particular brand of suffering that permeates the authentic Christian life. For American Christians living in a predominantly peaceful Boston, this is the kind of suffering we need to look most intently at. This is the kind of first world suffering we have to expect—and it is a suffering that will matter. While most of us will never be scourged or bled out or robbed, all of us will face the scorn of our peers and superiors and inferiors for the things we will say and do for Christ. Just as Jesus refused to have his humiliation dulled by wine and myrrh, so must we refuse avoidance strategies—embracing the humiliation, shame, and discomfort that He who deserved these things least showed us how to bear. We must look at the crucifixes with reverence—taking seriously the emotional burdens we are required to bear, yet always steeled and encouraged by hope.
Kate Massinger ’16 lives in Kirkland House and concentrates in English.