Meet Transitional Deacon John Adams
John sends us his reflection on the Passion:
The Passion reading has a way of making all words about it seem inadequate, as though the best response I could make is simply to stand before the cross and watch without blinking. But every year when I look, I see something different, catch some new idea or detail. This year it concerns the place of a skull.
I am accustomed to thinking of Golgotha (or Calvary, as it is named in Latin) as a hill. Visual arts tend to depict three crosses on a rise more often than on level ground. Our hymns speak of “Calvary’s mournful mountain” and “a green hill far away” and “Calvary’s height.” But none of the four Gospels refer to Golgotha as anything other than a ‘topos,’ a ‘place’ in the most non-descript sense of the word. We have no hint in the Gospels that Calvary was anything other than flat.
In fact, the Roman custom was to crucify the condemned along a road leading into a city so that people coming to town would see the punishment meted out to those who defied the authorities and, if the travelers were literate, they could read the crime posted on the cross as well. If you’ve seen Spartacus with Kirk Douglas, or for that matter the first episode of this year’s Game of Thrones, you’ve seen this phenomenon of lining the road with crosses and have some idea of the psychological effect it might have if you had to pass a bunch of dead or dying people on your way to conduct your business in the city. And Matthew’s remark that “those who passed by derided” Jesus certainly would fit with this theory that Golgotha was just the customary place on a road leading into Jerusalem where the Romans would crucify folks.
This deconstruction of my mental image of the hilltop crucifixion would be of academic interest only except for the way it modifies and modernizes an interesting but troubling strand of medieval theology. According to some thinkers, if Jesus’ death on the cross was an atonement for our sins, and we knowingly sin after our baptism, then our sins amount to a literal re-crucifixion of Christ. The poet John Donne best stated this when he wrote that, because he sinned and sinned, “I crucify Him daily.”
This is poor theology, to be sure, but it does raise the question of how our sins today come into contact with the hours of crucifixion. And I think the image of Jesus on a roadside cross provides an interesting answer: our sins do not put Jesus back on the cross, but instead put us in the position of the passersby. In what we think and do and don’t do, we do not cause his suffering but instead daily approach it. We’re going about our business and suddenly see his face, barely recognizable in its pain, on the faces of those we wrong through our actions or inactions or we see him watching us from the deep recesses of our hearts. Our road to the heavenly city of God is like the Appian Way after Spartacus’ defeat, lined with thousands of crosses. And each day as we walk, when we pass that stricken face, we can choose to stop and mock him or keep going and barely notice him. Or we can do what the Queen in Game of Thrones does when she finds that her enemies have crucified a slave along every mile of the road between her and their city: she vows to “see each and every one of their faces” before the bodies are taken down and remember them as she proceeds. As we pass the crucified Christ while walking our own roads, may we do likewise.