he who hung the land upon the waters. (x3)
Crowned with a circlet of thorns is he,
who is the king of angels.
Wrapped in the purple of mockery is he,
who wrapped the heavens in the clouds.
Buffeted upon the face is he,
who in the Jordan set Adam free.
Joined with nails [to the cross] is he,
who is the Bridegroom of the Church.
Pierced with a spear is he,
who is the Son of the Virgin.
We venerate your passion, O Christ; (x3)
show us also your glorious Resurrection!
~ Great Friday Matins, Fifteenth Antiphon
Tonight in the Orthodox Church, we observe the matins service for Great Friday by anticipation of the coming day. Kelly and Brendan and I had intended to go, but Kelly had to work and Brendan staged a successful rebellion against napping this afternoon, so I’ve had to content myself with this reflection on the most somber and beautiful part of the service. The priest chants this hymn slowly, with a loud voice, as he processes with the acolytes and others, holding a life-sized icon of Christ crucified, which he and the faithful all venerate once he has set it at the front of the nave. Everyone kneels in the candlelight as the procession passes and all is quiet except the thundering proclamation, “Today is hung upon a tree, he who hung the land upon the waters.”
“Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). He goes on to say, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). What does it mean to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified”?
When St. Paul claims, “we preach Christ crucified,” this is shorthand for the apostolic kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel, the entire message of Christianity.
There are four books of the Gospel in the New Testament, and they contain fulfillment of prophesy; narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; ethical teachings; spiritual wisdom; miracle stories; predictions about the end of all things; and so on. But St. Paul isolates “Christ crucified” as a synecdoche of the whole. Why this?
We may wonder even more when we consider that kerygma (preaching) and evangelion (good news/Gospel) were both used in the context of heralding Caesar’s military victories. Yet, in the story of the crucifixion, “A circlet of thorns crowns him, who is the king of angels.” Jesus was executed in the most painful and humiliating way, as a criminal or revolutionary. Where is the victory in “Christ crucified”? No one would have called it “Gospel” if the same had happened to Caesar.
It is scandalous and foolish, viewed from the wrong perspectives. Christ did not claim to be delivered by any higher wisdom or knowledge or truth, he claimed to be higher wisdom, knowledge, and truth. He preached salvation through himself. He did not come to bring a political revolution or rule the world from an earthly Jerusalem. Though he claimed to be a king, he proclaimed, “I have not come to be served, but to serve.”
Judas Iscariot, one his disciples and his friend, could not handle the paradox. He criticized a woman for pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet. And then, after Christ had wrapped himself in a towel like a household servant and washed his disciples’ feet, Judas went out and betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, the common price of a slave. It is as if he had said, “Fine. You call yourself king but act like a slave? Then I will sell you as a slave.” Judas could not believe in Jesus if he did not fit his own conception of a savior. Judas is something of an anti-Brutus; he would have been happier with a Jewish Julius Caesar.
In the same way, though the Greeks and Romans had several philosophers who were martyred by the state (e.g. Socrates, Seneca), none of them claimed to be the wisdom they preached. Socrates taught that philosophers study death, because in death the soul is separated from the body, itself a stumbling block to the soul. Could Greeks be expected to believe that the divine Logos by whom Socrates lived such an eminent life actually took on flesh (on purpose!) in order to suffer and die?
Moreover, Jesus’s death was not dignified. Socrates was surrounded by his friends. Jesus’s friends abandoned him, and one of them, Judas, betrayed him. Socrates drank hemlock and died on a couch in private. Jesus was stripped naked, “wrapped in the purple [robe] of mockery,” “buffeted upon the face,” spat upon, and crucified in public. Even those crucified along side him jeered at him. Jesus does not (appear to) stoically bear the pain, but instead he cries out with a loud voice when he breathes his last.
Scandal! Foolishness! What victory, what power, what wisdom is there in the cross of Christ?
Yet, “Christ crucified” is the Christian Gospel. It is the victory of weakness over power, humility over pride, servitude over domination, silence over slander, forgiveness over judgment, truth over deceit, love over vengeance, life over death.
The person of Christ is foolishness to ancient philosophy; the incarnation needlessly complicates any system. To borrow Kierkegaard’s phrase, it is “the absolute paradox,” the antimony of all opposites, and the death of Christ most perfectly so.
The message of the Gospel is that death is not overcome by avoidance, nor is it an end to be sought for itself. Christ conquers death by death. Through the sacraments, we die with Christ in baptism, partake of his broken body and shed blood in the Eucharist, and so on. In the ascetic life of the Church, we “die daily,” to quote St. Paul again (1 Corinthains 15:31), not in order to die—as if the separation of soul and body were not tragic and anti-natural—but rather in order to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
The antinomy between life and death is solved through resurrection. But resurrection requires death. And the death we “die daily” is the foolishness of the cross: weakness, humility, service, silence, forgiveness, honesty, love, and true life. In this, Christ is the victorious king the prophets foretold, yet not politically but spiritually, reigning from the heavenly Jerusalem, which communally is the Church and spiritually is the peaceful, purified heart. Christ has won a war over enmity itself, a victory of peace. And this is not simply an historical event. It is a way of life that all are invited to make their own daily.
“When Christ calls a man,” said the Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die.” And so we too preach “Christ crucified,” crying out, “We venerate your passion, O Christ; show us also your glorious resurrection!” From “come and see” on Lazarus Saturday to “come and die” on Great Friday, “Christ crucified” is the way to the last, most joyous calling: “come and rise again.” Today, “it is finished” (John 19:30). Sunday, Christ gives to us the victory.