“Like a tragedy, [the life and crucifixion of Jesus] stirs up pity and terror in us.
Like a tragedy it requires us to contemplate the world’s darkness.
Like a tragedy, it draws attention to waste.
It shows us a life that need not have been extinguished being extinguished, without particular malice, by the normal processes of the world.
It shows us that accident, injustice, spoilage, are all standard, all in the pitiably usual course of things. Here it’s important that Jesus’s death was an obscure one, when it happened. He’s not an Oedipus or a Prince Hamlet, someone falling from greatness.
His death belongs beside the early cutting-short of the millions of lives of people too poor or too unimportant ever to have been recorded in the misleading story we call history; people only mourned by others as brief as themselves, and therefore gone from human memory as if they had never been.
Jesus dies like a migrant worker who suffocates in a freight container, like a garbage-picker caught in a slide, like a child with an infected finger, like a beggar the bus reverses over, or a father, husband, friend, murdered, shot dead with his baby girl on the streets of Plymouth.
Or, of course, like all the other slaves ever punished by crucifixion, a fate so low, said Cicero, that no well-bred person should ever even mention it. Christians believe that Jesus’s death is, among other things, a way for God to mention it, loudly and with no good breeding at all, a declaration by the maker of the world, in pain and solidarity, that to Him the measure of the waste of history is not the occasional tragedies of kings but the routine losses of every day.
It is not an accident that Christianity began as a religion ‘for slaves and women’. (Nietzsche—he thinks this is a criticism. It’s a compliment.) It is not an accident that, wherever it travels, it appeals first to untouchables. The last shall be first and the first shall be last, said Jesus. You’d have to turn the world upside down to do justice to God’s sense of the tragedy of it.
And when the story does turn the world upside down, or the order of nature anyway, by telling us that Jesus lives again, it isn’t suggesting that he didn’t really die, or that he won’t really die.
The happy ending makes a promise sized to the utmost extent of our darkest convictions. It says “Yes, and…” to tragedy. It promises, bizarrely enough, that love is stronger than death.
But it does not promise that death is imaginary, that death is avoidable, that death is temporary.
To have death, this once, be reversed is to let us feel the depth of our ordinary loss in it, not to pretend it away.
Some people ask nowadays what kind of a religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement. The answer is: one that takes the existence of [evil and] suffering seriously.”
This is a quote from Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic Via Richard Beck’s excellent blog ‘Experimental Theology’. Italics mine.
For my friend who has been taken too soon, with his baby girl. My heart breaks for such a great man, and I am the better for our paths having crossed. Unreal, unjust and unfair – I mourn and rage at your passing. May the God of all compassion be your inheritance and joy forever and ever.