What happens when you mess with Rome
“Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot,” claims W.H. Auden. “The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.” This evening, at Bescar Methodist church, we will be watching Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.” Not that I want to, much too gruesome for me – hence the 18 certificate. Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert even deemed it “the most violent film I have ever seen.” The film is unbearably realistic, even to the weight of the cross. At 60 kgs. it is more than half the weight of a typical Jewish man. Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus, experienced a shoulder separation when the cross was dropped onto his shoulder. His pain was not acted. Neither was the pain of his being whipped. During the scourging scene, the actor accidentally got whipped on two occasions, wrenching his hands from the shackles while leaving a 14 inch scar on his back. For the record, Jesus took all thirty-nine, and not just two. For the reality of Good Friday is an exercise in human cruelty, what we are capable of doing to each other. And so we find all kinds of ways of averting our gaze from the punishment meted out on the innocent Jesus. This Monday, during the terrible fire at Notre Dame cathedral treasured artefacts were rescued from the blaze. This included the crown of thorns, allegedly the actual one thrust on Jesus’ head by the jeering soldiers. Whether or not this is the real thing, this braided circle is held together by golden thread, such is our instinct to venerate and so anesthetize this object of torture. In fact, most of the crosses in our churches are made of gold. Some are very beautiful. Alternatively, we can avoid the cross of Jesus by making it into some abstract concept, a religious metaphor. We may say the right words but these have lost contact with the actual reality. We no longer shudder at the word. In fact, writing some 75 years before the cruel death of Jesus, Roman senator and lawyer Cicero described crucifixion as "a most cruel and disgusting punishment", and suggested that "the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” However, Gibson’s film seeks to do the very opposite, by making us confront the cross along with the standard Roman routine of flogging the prisoner. What they called “half death” because it must stop short of actually killing the prisoner. For the whole point of crucifixion was that the victim should not only suffer and suffer terribly, even over several days, but that it should be on full public view. The Gospel writers recount how those who were passing by actually derided the dying Jesus (Mark 15:29). Hence the sign which Pilate had placed over the cross, “the King of the Jews.” In other words, Don’t mess with Rome. Such is the power of the cross of Jesus that as far as I am aware no theologian denies its historicity. John Crossan is as liberal you can get but even he considers that the crucifixion of Jesus is as certain as any historical fact can be. The reason is very simple: no-one in their right mind would argue that the cross could be considered a victory. A crucified Messiah is a complete embarrassment or in the words of the apostle Paul, utter foolishness. He writes: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24) For this why we may do our best to avoid the cross. It demands a decision. Even the film critic Ebert concedes this. He concludes his review: “This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it.” One of the most powerful Christian books I have read is John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, published 1986. He writes: “Nothing could indicate more clearly the central significance which Jesus attached to his death. It was by his death that he wished above else to be remembered. There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” (page 81) So how do we respond to the cross of Jesus? In this evening’s film, as the nails are hammered into Jesus’ wrists, it is in fact Mel Gibson's own hand which drives the first nail. Here is the central truth of the cross. In the words of the Old Testament prophet: “We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins! (Isaiah 53:5) Our sins, us. We crucified Jesus.