A Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Power and Wisdom of God. Amen.
“The cross is foolishness,” says Saint Paul. Or perhaps we should translate the Greek a little more closely and let the full, insulting weight sink in: the phrase is literally μωρὸν (moron). The cross is moronic. It’s a jarring phrase.
More jarring? The Roman reaction to crucifixion. One ancient piece of graffiti found in Rome mocks Christians for their mornic deity: A man stands at the foot of a cross as a donkey-headed person is crucified. The image is accompanied with the words “Alexamenos worships his god.”
It’s difficult for us to conceive of such an insulting view of the crucifixion because, for centuries, the cross has been glorified in paintings, turned into jewelry crafted out of precious metal, and decorated buildings across the world. And the images we do have often clean up the scene, presenting an idealized vision of Jesus. (So often, the expression on Christ’s face is calmer and less panicked than the grimace I make when my annual flu shot.)
One almost expects him to wake up in the tomb, walk out, and turn to the guard with a casual, “Well that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” It’s almost as if the most emotion he can muster is a beleaguered sigh. What could be so moronic about the crucifixion?
To understand how the cross could be foolishness or a stumbling block, we have to move beyond our sanitized images – to strip away the gold and silver, to move past the placid images of a man hanging on the cross as though it were only a minor inconvenience. Noble heroes, mighty kings, and gods weren’t crucified. Nobody looked at the cross and saw the symbol of divine majesty. No, crucifixion is an intentionally cruel form of capital punishment used to send a message. It was deemed too awful to use on Roman citizens but a perfect way to warn Roman subjects that if they get too uppity, they will end up on the cross. As scholar Paula Fredriksen puts it,
Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.
This form of death sentence was spectacularly cruel, designed to prolong the suffering. The description in Scripture is that Christ died within hours, but some crucifixions lasted days. Those hung from crosses would die from a variety of horrific causes: heart failure, asphyxia, pulmonary embolism being attacked by wild animals, or sepsis – either from the wounds of the nails or from being flogged. If death was taking too long, soldiers would break the victim’s legs.
The event was so terrible that Jewish historian Josephus tells of seeing three friends crucified. He desperately appealed to the emperor-to-be, Titus, who had the men taken from the crosses and tended to be a physician. Even under a doctor’s care, two of the three died from their wounds.
So when Saint Paul tells the Corinthians that the crucifixion is moronic to those outside the faith, understand what he means: it’s a barbaric and bloody spectacle of torture aimed at humiliation to send a message to any who passed by, considered too horrible a punishment for a Roman citizen. This is not what anyone would have considered a good, noble, or virtuous death. Quite the contrary: even the Torah recognizes it as a curse; in Deuteronomy, we read:
…anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
(And for that reason, a Messiah hung from a tree by an occupying army is, as Paul puts it, a stumbling block – literally, a scandal.)
The good news of salvation has never been about power as the world understood it. It’s for this reason that last week, as Jesus predicted his own death, Peter rebuked him. Who could fathom a Messiah subject to the violent whims of the powerful? But God’s saving work in the world has always sided with those deemed weak or foolish in the world’s eye. From the Lord God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, wandering nomads rather than monarchs, to the deliverance of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, all the way through to the Annunciation, when the Blessed Virgin and Mother of our Lord sang that God has lifted up the lowly and brought down the mighty from their thrones, up through the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the story we see unfolding is God’s continued decision to identify with and to bless the poor and the oppressed.
In the crucifixion, we see the Christ who identifies more closely with those under Rome’s thumb than with senators, governors, kings, and emperors. On the cross, we see a God who sides with and suffers alongside the victims of the lynching tree of the Jim Crow South rather than the white moderate. Jesus Christ is the God of those who suffer at the hands of the unjust powers, the God behind the barbed wire, the God with a cop’s knee on his neck. Jesus Christ our Lord identifies with the “strange fruit of Southern poplar trees.”
It is foolishness to those who are being toppled from their thrones, a curse to a world that is perishing. But to those who are being saved, it is the very power of God. Because in Christ’s death, we see the God who identifies with the weak and the foolish, and in Christ’s resurrection, we see the God whose weakness is stronger than human might, whose foolishness is wiser than human intellect. In the promise of the Resurrection, we glimpse the coming Kingdom, the time when the poor shall inherit the earth, the hungry shall be fed, the lowly lifted up and the lofty brought low.
As we move towards Jerusalem and the cross, let us remember: when we came to the Font, we were baptized into Christ’s death – foolish though it may seem – and joined to his Body. In the holy waters of Baptism, we were made to identify with Christ – and through him with the poor, the oppressed, the powerless. We have no choice in the matter, for we are now members of Christ.
For that, we may suffer at the hands of the world. Perhaps it may be simple insults, as though we worship a crucified donkey. Or it may be a punishment turned into a spectacle, as we witnessed this past summer, when Christians, clergy and lay alike, face down tear gas, rubber bullets, and handcuffs to side with the suffering. In doing so, they joined with faithful Christians through the ages who have felt the piercing nail, the sting of the whip, the rope around the neck. To join the throng of sainted martyrs is well worth the smell of pepper spray.
We can risk it all, we can be fools and morons for Christ in the eyes of the world, not because pain is good but because the glory of the Cross and the Empty Tomb point us to a divine promise: that sin, suffering, and death will not prevail.
Trusting in the redeeming power of his glorious Resurrection, let us then be fools for Christ – loving and caring for the poor, proclaiming freedom to the captive, emptying ourselves that we might receive power from on high and using it to love our neighbors as ourselves.