Wednesday, March 31, 2010

C r u c i f i x i o n

Dear Parish Faithful,


I am re-reading an excellent monograph by the German New Testament scholar, Martin Hengel, entitled Crucifixion. Though written a few decades ago (1978) this small work still retains a high reputation on the subject, as do other works of Martin Hengel, most of which have been translated into English. This short, but packed little book, traces the origins and history of crucifixion as a particulary horrendous form of capital punishment.

It is generally conceded "that crucifixion began with the Persians" (p. 22). This can be found in numerous references in the famous Greek historian Herodotus. However, Martin Hengel makes it clear that it was widespread also among many "barbarian peoples ... including the Indians, the Assyrians, the Scythians and the Taurians" (p. 22-23). It was especially used among the Carthaginians, from where the Romans learned it. It could also be found among the ancient Greeks.

Crucifixion - this is how Christ died "for the life of the world." The salvific nature of the Lord's crucifixion should never remove from our minds the "scandal of the Cross;" for the Cross was the instrument for Christ's total self-abasement as an act of God's divine mercy and love poured out for sinful humanity. The apostles had to convince the various peoples to whom they brought the Gospel that the one true and living God had saved and was saving the world through this instrument of suffering and death, when Jesus hung upon the wood of the tree, and by so doing took the sin of the world upon Himself.

I simply want to share a couple of particularly powerful passages from Hengel's concluding chapter that show both the cruel inhumanity of crucifixion and the incredible "self-emptying" love of God expressed on the Cross.

Crucixifion satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of individual rulers and of the masses. It was usually associated with other forms of torture, including at least flogging. At relatively small expense and to great public effect the criminal could be tortured to death for days in an unspeakable way. Crucifixion is thus a special expression of the inhumanity dormant within men which these days is expressed, for example, in the call for the death penalty, for popular justice and for harsher treatment of criminals, as an expression of retribution. It is a manifestation of trans-subjective evil, a form of execution which manifests the demonic character of human cruelty and bestiality (p. 87).
In this context, the earlier Christian message of the crucified messiah demonstrated the 'solidarity' of the love of God with the unspeakable suffering of those who were tortured and put to death by human cruelty, as this can be seen from ancient sources. This suffering has continued down to the present century in a 'passion story' which we cannot even begin to assess, a 'passion story' which is based on human sin, in which we all without exception participate, as beings who live under the power of death. In the person and the fate of the one man Jesus of Nazareth this saving 'solidarity' of God with us is given its historical and physical form. In him, the 'Son of God,' God himself took up the 'existence of a slave' and died the 'slave's death' on the tree of martyrdom (Phil. 2:8), given up to public shame (Heb. 12:2) and the 'curse of the law' (Gal. 3:13), so that in the 'death of God' life might win victory over death. In other words, in the death of Jesus of Nazareth God identified himself with the extreme of human wretchedness, which Jesus endured as a representative of us all, in order to bring us ot the freedom of the children of God (p. 88-89)

Martin Hengel then concludes his book with a strong challenge to theological thinking about the need to never soften the Gospel message of the "scandal of the Cross:"

The theological reasoning of our time shows very clearly that the particular form of the death of Jesus, the man and the messiah, represents a scandal which people would like to blunt, remove or domesticate in any way possible. We shall have to guarantee the truth of our theological thinking at this point. Reflection on the harsh reality of crucifixion in antiquity may help us to overcome the acute loss of reality which is to be found so often in present theology and preaching (p. 90).

These are powerful passages from an excellent scholar that remind of us of just what we not only commemorate, but "reactualize" during our Holy Week services. The Cross will always be treated as a "scandal" or "folly" by those who do not believe, while it is the power of God for those who do believe:

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (I COR. 1:18)

Fr. Steven

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