I couldn’t help myself. After posting yesterday’s entry, I found myself reeaching for my copy of Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. And there they were again: those two provocative paragraphs in the Prologue that forever changed how I view the icon of Christ on the Cross:
The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and Western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, prhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious icon, and of their further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: “If he was so good, why did he die like that?” In Japanese culture, “good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying such a hideous way—for us, he could only be a criminal.”
Her perception is correct. The crucifix is a violently obscene icon. To recover its visceral power, children of the twenty-first century must imagine a lynching, the body of the victim swollen and distorted, his head hanging askew above a broken neck, while the bystanders smile their twisted smiles. Then they must imagine that grisly spectacle reproduced at the holiest spot in whatever edifice they call holy. And yet to go even this far is still to miss the meaning of the image, for this victim is not just innocent: He is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form.
Picture if you can—I once told my philosophy students after recalling the passage above through some obscure association—a man slumped in an electric chair, head lolling lifeless, arms and legs strapped, and having this image enshrined in your homes and in your places of worship. Because that’s what the image of Christ on the Cross is when translated across the barriers of time, space and culture. We know from countless hours spent in catechism that the Lord died as a common criminal, but the knowledge doesn’t quite sink in—is rendered meaningless and banal from ubiquity and repetition. It takes someone like Miles with a genius for metaphor to revitalize an age-old narrative and renew (if not incite) our understanding.
So now the question is: what does the icon now mean for you?