By Dr. Reggie Kidd
“O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
This Holy Week prayer from the Book of Common Prayer points us to the cross, “an instrument of shameful death,” that God made “the means of life.”
The shamefulness of Christ’s death on the cross lay, in the first place, in the fact that Jesus had been spurned by his own nation, and then had been turned over to pagan Romans for a degrading non-Jewish execution. Deprived even of the benefit of a “good” Jewish stoning or even a “dignified” Roman beheading, Jesus was given over to what Scripture had always thought of as a repugnant, cursed death for infidels: hanging on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:23).
The humiliation of Christ’s execution lay, in the second place, in the fact that Jesus, according to Roman custom, would have been crucified naked. Victims of what Cicero called “the unlucky tree” were stripped, and then nailed or tied to crosses prominently displayed in public places.
Even into the 4th century, Christians in Jerusalem would remember “the nakedness of Christ on the cross, who in his nakedness ‘disarmed the principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree’” (Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, Mystagogy 2). The marvel is that such shame worked such grace, such rejection effected such fellowship, and such a curse won such blessing.
Crushed but Not Defeated
We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
2 Corinthians 1:8b-9
You can see Christ’s triumph in Paul’s life, when he talks about being “unbearably crushed” and having “received the sentence of death,” yet relying on “God who raises the dead.”
You can see that same triumph in the likes of the 72-year-old Italian priest, Don Giuseppe Berardelli, who, stricken with the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic, maintained his greeting to everyone, “Pace e bene,” and then when it came time for him to go on a ventilator, insisted it go to another. “Pace e bene,” indeed: the eternal “peace and well-being” Jesus has secured through his death and resurrection.
The events of the past year have left all of us, I think, feeling naked, weak, and vulnerable. We’ve all been living with a walking “sentence of death.” Even if our own “sentence of death” has taken a lesser form, all of us, I’m pretty sure, have known others—relatives, friends, fellow workers, parishioners—who’ve been taken in this pandemic.
I pray that you and I can continue to bring a hope-tinged grace and beauty to the ugliness of the day. I pray that you and I, like the Apostle Paul and Father Berardelli, will discover the glory of Christ’s cross, and count our own share in its “shame and loss” as something gladly to be borne. I pray that the hope of resurrection on Easter morning gives each of us a sense that the way of the cross truly is the way of life and peace.