A Good Friday Meditation during COVID-19
(to hear me preach it with accompanying artwork, look here)
Psalm 22:6 (Seerveld translation)
Am I a worm and not a man!? the laughingstock of people, something to be jeered and trampled on? … I know, they’ll take off my clothes and throw dice to see who gets it – O LORD God! Don’t you go away from me …
There is a lot of talk today about bodies—human bodies, diseased bodies, dead bodies. The COVID news is grim. Many are getting weary of such news, but I believe a few moments on Good Friday contemplating the suffering body of Jesus Christ can open our imaginations more fully to the deep sympathy that God has with us in Jesus Christ.
I teach world religions at Redeemer University and there is no other faith that puts the suffering body of God at its centre. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists—the crucifixion completely bewilders them. “Offensively morbid,” they chide. But Christians are people of the incarnation, what the gospel of John calls “the Word made flesh”; incarnation literally means embodiment, en-fleshment, and such frailty is scandalous: almighty God made small and vulnerable, and on Good Friday, left exposed, naked and broken.
I’m drawing on Matthew Kaemingk’s recent book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, who drew on Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder’s 1948 sermon, “Christ Disrobed” to highlight Christ’s humiliation.
Christians prize the incarnation of God, as it is our deepest comfort and hope, but we also get a little squeamish about the particulars. Let me explain.
John 19 tells us directly (NIV): “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes.” It goes on to say they even gambled for his undergarment, leaving him hanging naked.
And yes, I said “naked.” The Romans were professionals in cruelty and humiliation and almost surely crucified supposed insurgents like Jesus stripped to the bare skin. The dignity of the crucified was precisely what they were seeking to obliterate. Jesus was fully exposed, bereft of all protection, a warning to any other uppity subjects of the empire.
Clothing, as first given to Adam and Eve by God, is a gift of his common grace, the very first gift of God to all humanity. But this gracious covering given to the first Adam is precisely what is ripped off the second Adam.
If you never thought of the crucified Christ as naked, its easily excused. Most paintings, movies, statues and certainly Sunday School renderings of the crucified Christ have his mid-section modestly covered.
But is it just modesty? Could there be something in us that doesn’t really want God in Christ Jesus to be too thoroughly humiliated and shamed? Christians call him Christ the King, and sing about crowning him with many crowns, but the truth of Good Friday is that indeed he is a Naked King, truly despised and rejected, like one from whom people hide their faces. Docetism is the 2nd century heresy of denying Christ’s full humanity—and suggesting that his sufferings were only apparent, not so bad.
“We want to avert our eyes,” wrote Klass Schilder to his pious church-going contemporaries. “But we may not. We must look on.” The wounded, naked Christ speaks, and all disciples must listen.
“Turn your eyes upon me,” he whispers. “Look full in my wounded face. I am utterly forsaken.” The faithful one, has been betrayed; and the master has been made a criminal; the greatest has become the least. He is disrobed, a failure; yet his nakedness is what we understand to be our deliverance. Even in his poverty I will suggest the Naked King offers us three gifts: a mirror, a sponge, and a robe.
First, a mirror. Christ’s nakedness—his humiliation and suffering—exposes our own nakedness by his complete innocence. How did a good teacher get nailed to a tree? Historically, by the impatience, jealousy and contempt of the religious folks, and the fear, cruelty, and violence of the political and military players. But theologically, its all the messed-up sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who held him there. The “naked ape” within us all, selfish and sick and sad.
Our better angels do appear in this time of pandemic, and I know some, but so do our less welcome devils. The hoarders, the complainers, the pushy and the panicked. We are quick to protect our own.
“When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes.”
The naked Christ, in his innocence, is a mirror of humanity’s darker nature, our sin and shame. It is we, in fact, who stand naked at Golgotha. We have been found out. Christ conveys to us our true condition: “You are not well. You need help.”
You see, we must go down with Jesus to the depths in order to rise to apex of resurrection. For the second is only as glorious and exalting as the first is excruciating and shameful. This is the paradoxical logic of the gospel: one must die—shrink, deflate, crumble—in order to rise again to new life.
The second gift of the Naked King is a sponge. John 19 says when the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, and when he begged “I thirst,” they offered him a sponge of sour vinegar to drink, poised on a stick. He drank from it, then he died, saying, “It is finished.”
First Christ was betrayed, then beaten and tortured and mocked, and now, as he slowly suffocates on the cross, they push vinegar into his thirsty face. He absorbs the sour drink, and then sputters his last breath.
Here is what this may symbolize, and it’s an approach to the atonement I’ve heard more of lately: that the naked, bleeding Christ, in his perfect obedience and faithfulness to the mission of the Father to restore all creatures to himself, absorbs the sour hostility of humankind, taking it all into his innocent and divinely begotten self, and takes it all down to the grave of death and hell, and there annihilates it in the utter darkness, rendering it null and void.
Its like the climax in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the faithful hobbit Frodo painstakingly carries the coveted golden ring into the barren land of Mordor, that shiny tempter to power and pride and unrelenting possessiveness (“Its mine, its mine!”) and casts it down into the molten lava of the volcano Mount Doom to destroy it forever.
In a similar way, Jesus takes the naked sin and shame of the world into himself, as if he were the sponge, and buries this corrosive toxic waste in a place where it never returns to haunt, to hate, and to raise hell, ever again.
Like the sponge of sour vinegar shoved at him, Christ absorbs our hostility through his complete faithfulness and obedience. “I accept you,” he whispers, naked from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The mirror, the sponge, and the robe. I’ve always found it intriguing that soldiers would want a wandering rabbi’s clothes. But they all make sure they get their fair share, and since they all want the undergarment, which seems to be of special value, they have to gamble for it to see who can become the proud owner. The naked king gives up his clothes to his undeserving tormentors, and we hear the cry of Psalm 22 ringing in our ears.
This is the good news: this king in the line of David, callously disrobed upon the cross, covers the shame of all undeserving vow-breakers, responsibility-defectors and planet-wreckers with his generosity and grace. Our naked sickness, sadness, and selfishness are draped with the nobility and dignity and righteousness of his very own vestments. Even while naked and dying, Jesus gives his last earthly goods to hostile humanity. He clothes the naked.
This donation of clothes reminds us of the parable of the prodigal son. The boy who snubbed his father, snatched his money and squandered it, landing in squalor and shame, and stumbles back to the homestead, naked with humiliation and regret, and what does the Father do?
He sprints out to embrace his lost son, and shouts, “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” And it is not the son’s rights or entitlements that bring about this response. He disowned those. The reception is so exuberant and over-the-top only because of the Father’s generous heart. He covers the son’s shame with a robe of his own dignity and joy.
He sets a table for his son. Just as Christ did, only the night before in the upper room, with the towel drying their feet, and the bread and the wine at the table. “My body, broken for you,” he foreshadowed. “My blood, poured out for you.”
God clothed the naked Adam and Eve in animal skin after their violation in the garden, and now Christ clothes a naked, hostile humanity with something more lasting: his own righteousness and grace. Whatever your shame, whether it be a sadness, a sickness, a selfishness, the naked Christ sympathetically holds out a robe for you; he grabs you by the hand, and leads you to his table.
Last Thoughts: Naked but not Undone
“When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes.”
I chose the art of Edward Knippers for the cover of this blog entry because he rightly paints the crucified Christ naked. Knippers says he paints many nudes because “the body is an essential element in the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection.” The picture is certainly dark around the cross, but Christ’s body itself is not thin, pale, and wispy; in fact, its thick and solid, with patches that almost glisten in some strange light. Moreover, far in the distance, low in the horizon, bright blue and even white clouds hint of some promise.
Christian faith boldly claims: Christ became what we are to make us what he is. Even though naked, taken to the extreme of human persecution and plight, he gives three gifts: a mirror, a sponge, and a robe. He exposes our nakedness by his innocence; he absorbs our hostility through his obedience; and he covers our shame with his magnanimous generosity, leading us from the cross to the table.
It is appropriate that our Good Friday is also an international state of emergency. Many are dealing with a nakedness that is not just about our sin, but about our vulnerability, our frailty, our susceptibility to infection, pain, and death. The scriptures tell us that God in Christ has experienced this mortality, identified with us, and so expressed solidarity with us. He is the COVID patient lying on the gurney in the overcrowded hallway. He is the older man, with a firestorm burning in his lungs; the grandmother, fighting for breath. He knows indignity, he knows suffocation, he knows death.
Let me tell you the truth: If Good Friday is bigger than Adam and Eve’s violation, Good Friday is larger than COVID, too. I don’t say this triumphantly, but pastorally. For all those who are anxious, dying, grieving, Good Friday can carry you. Golgotha demonstrates, Christ is with you. Hold on.
And someday all poor, miserable people will eat together and be happy – the LORD God will “Hallelu” those who have searched for God – and they shall live on richly together forever and ever.