If anyone is to “have a problem with” Christianity, Good Friday would be the day to resolve it. From different angles, and to different degrees, each pagan culture, including our own, comes up against a problem: men die. But here is a religion in which, at what must seem its key moment, “God is dead.”
A problem, one might say, in a human way, that Jesus Christ set for Himself. Notwithstanding the dark prayers in Gethsemane, or rather in light of them, He walked into his own Crucifixion with what we call open eyes. Being God as well as Man, He knew implicitly and explicitly how it must end.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” in this world, and in the extreme, it is impossible that the Man who embodies perfect goodness will not be executed. When and where might be open to discussion; the pretexts will be quite flexible; but the fate of the perfect saint is sealed from the beginning. So it has been with Christ’s martyrs through the centuries; and so it began with Christ himself.
Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: “Jesus the Nazarene King of the Judaeans.” This was the charge nailed to the Cross, above Jesus himself, and in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, lest anyone mistake it. It was meant for mockery; but also as formality.
Note that He was “hanged” (on the Cross) not for claiming to be God. Then as now, that probably only got one put under restraint. No, the high crime and misdemeanor was in placing himself above the State; in presenting Himself as law-giver.
Whether from the Roman or from the rabbinical perspective, this was the highest treason. It could not be “walked back” with any words, such as “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” That would, given the rest of His doctrine, overheard even partly, be taken as facetious.
Jesus himself did not attempt a defense, and left poor Pontius Pilate (I can easily imagine the Roman governor feeling sorry for himself) at a loss. It is a strange, because commonplace, dialogue that Pilate is left having with himself. He sounds every inch the Ivy League, or Oxbridge graduate. Jesus has confuted him with His silence.
Pilate knows it: I have great sympathy for him. He is that (once again strange, because commonplace) combination of cynicism and decency. He’d very much like to let Jesus go. Turning to the mob for their opinion was, however, the wrong way to do this; democracy always fails in the pinch.
That indeed could be construed from Christ’s own teaching, which does not overlook original sin. Left to their own judgment, men will always take counsel among themselves; and having taken counsel, they will elect to kill you. Do not look for mercy from humankind. They’d have killed Barabbas, too, if Pilate had given them the “both” or “neither” options.
Jesus Christ must die, not because he is the Son of God – that they may only find out later – but because He is an affront to the State; to the duly constituted order of things; and to the pride of all men who would be their own masters.
He has insulted Power. To the ancient pagan mind, more sophisticated than ours in some ways, less so in others, He could still beat the charge. If, as He claimed, He was God’s proxy, He had only to summon the legions from Heaven. Angelic warriors could, presumably, make short work of them all.
Hence the taunts to this man, suspended on the Cross. Notice that while they deny Christ, they do not deny God. Even among the polytheists of that era, as among Hindus and others to this day, the notion of many deities is not in conflict with that of some Vishnu, or “supreme soul.” This “ultimate” seems hard-wired in us, like the propensities to food and language.
In common speech, then as now, “God” could be evoked without qualification. Even the more obnoxious atheists mention “God,” quite obsessively I’ve noticed, for even they cannot escape the mysterious focus. They must renew the denial every morning, lest they slip.
“The problem with that” – with the Christian revelation – is that it becomes a little too clear about the attributes of God. It was, for that matter, a criticism also hurled at the ancient Dvaita (“dualist,” but not in our Western sense) school of the Vedanta. By separating out what is “Godly” from what is “creaturely,” they were getting too specific about God.
That is inconvenient. We humans would rather have a God who can be anything we want “it” to be; one which will not too much impose “its” values on ours; one who doesn’t get so personal. Let us, by all means, worship this “force,” and ask it to be with us, but not if the messaging goes both ways.
Christ, to the ancients, as to our neo-pagan selves, is the worst kind of God imaginable. One can understand wanting to kill Him, finally, just for being what He Is; and for coming to save us, finally, from ourselves; for bothering our conscience (also somehow hard-wired), and bothering it the more, the closer He approaches.
Here, for instance, is a problem: Who killed Christ?
We did. Every Christian learns this in his heart, or must spend his life learning it. Of course, we’d rather blame the Jews, or the Romans, or “the times,” or anything else that we could damn and punish. But nothing else works. For even if it is true that others participated, insofar as we are human, we were also there, and the words, “Crucify him!” came from our own lips.
In the mystery of the Sacrifice of the Mass, we acknowledge this; in the Confession of our sins, we recall the many occasions in which we caught ourselves out, denying the Christ; and in mortal sin it goes farther, for we kill Him again.
*Image: What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (Ce que voyait Notre-Seigneur sur la Croix) by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]