When We Crucify Our Lord

Two years ago the community choir I sing with in Toronto put on a concert devoted entirely to music by African-American and African-Canadian choral composers. We performed a lot of great music in that concert, much of it drawing on the tradition of African-American spirituals. For me, the most powerful piece was “Crucifixion” by Adolphus Hailstork. The refrain is powerful: “They crucified my Lord / And he never said a mumbling word…They pierced him in the side / They nailed him to a tree / And he never said a mumbling word.”

However, as soon as we began rehearsing the piece, murmurs of discomfort could be heard throughout the choir. A newcomer to Univox, I soon learned that a good percentage of our choristers are Jewish, and some of them felt uncomfortable with these words. At some point in their lives, most of them had encountered the inane accusation that “the Jews killed Jesus,” a charge that has been used to justify anti-Semitism for centuries. I learned that for some Jews, Christian Holy Week and Easter are a source of regular discomfort and dread. A serious conversation ensued about the damages wrought by our human propensity to speak in the rhetoric of “us” and “them.” After some deliberation, our director opted to alter the words of the song; the phrase “they crucified my Lord,” was rewritten as “was crucified my Lord.”

I applaud our director for making this decision. However, on this Good Friday two years later, I am thinking that from a Christian perspective, there might be an even better revision to this phrase. “We crucified our Lord” would be much more apt. There is a reason why, when we hear the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, the congregation takes on the role of the crowd. Ultimately, we are the crowd. We are the high priests and the Pharisees; we are Pontius Pilate; we are the confused, erratic public who, just a few days after welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, passively take in the spectacle of his crucifixion.

If I view history from a Christian perspective, I believe that we were crucifying Jesus for millennia before that fateful Friday afternoon, ever since we first learned to fashion weapons and turn against one another in malice and violence. Unfortunately, we have continued to crucify him for two millennia since he willingly offered his life for us. In the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Middle Passage and the Holocaust and the Dirty War – we continue to crucify our Lord, again and again. Every day, Christ’s Passion is played out in our ongoing exploitation of those weaker than us – whether other human beings, the animals whom we feel justified in harming for our own convenience, and also the non-sentient living things exploited as mere resources for our ongoing project of “development” which effectively entails destruction of the natural world. But as we look at all of this cruelty and destruction, I fear there is no “they” we can point our fingers at – whether government, big business, terrorists or anyone else. Sadly, we are all implicated in the evils plaguing our world.

However, we know that there is another side to the Good Friday story. Listening to the Passion, we hear of those who stood passively as Jesus was crucified; we cannot forget the disciples, who ran away in fear. But, there was also Simon who helped him carry his cross; there were the women of Jerusalem who wept for him; there was Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his own tomb of Jesus’ burial. We are presented with the apostle John, who stood by Jesus to the end, and of course the Blessed Mother Mary, who bravely endured one of the worst experiences any parent ever has to face – the death of a child. Then, there were all of those people who remembered the promise that Jesus had made – to rebuild the temple in three days. Though filled with fear, those closest to Jesus surely did not forget those words. They looked to the future with faith, knowing that while evil is real, goodness ultimately triumphs.

As we commemmorate Christ’s Passion year after year, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is an ongoing, continuously unfolding story. I’ve often struggled to imagine the agony that Jesus experienced while praying in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew what he was being called to do – to assume the weight of human sinfulness, to sacrifice his life for our salvation. Could he have imagined the ongoing depth of that sinfulness? Could he possibly have envisioned the machine gun and the atomic bomb, the abortion clinic and the factory farm? Did he know what terrible things we would do to the world, sometimes in his very name?

In spite of everything, we Christians profess the Resurrection, the ultimate triumph of mercy and love over cruelty and callousness. We know that we are sinners; we know that, time and again, we will crucify our Lord. But, as people of faith and hope, we know that we are more than spectators of violence; we are more than a fickle crowd. We refuse to believe that there is no escape from this cycle of destruction, for we hold a view of salvation history that envisions Christ’s triumphal return, that fateful moment when peace, justice and love will truly prevail. As we look forward to Easter, may we do all we can to be Simon and Mary rather than the high priests or Pontius Pilate; may we never turn from the endless mercy of Jesus who, every good Friday, reminds us in the most dramatic way of his great love.

About Jeannine Pitas
  • stevedequintal

    Thank you again and again for such emails, have a blessed Easter!

    Peace and Hope, Steve De Quintal Teacher, St. Mary’s CSS

  • Jordan

    Thank you, jeanninemariedymphna, for your reflection.

    Unfortunately, we have continued to crucify him for two millennia since he willingly offered his life for us. In the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Middle Passage and the Holocaust and the Dirty War – we continue to crucify our Lord, again and again.

    I respect your sentiments. Genocide, pogrom, and war all derive from the demonic. The most brutal and psychopathic aspect of human action is revealed to us in these actions. The evangelists’ Passions highlight this depravity in clever slight shades — quid est veritas?, the casting of lots, the lance and Christ’s side. There is no mistake that human evil reaches a high tide in these narratives. We should not blanch before this evil but recognize it for itself and in ourselves.

    Yet, we must leave the history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism for Jews alone to interpret for us. The victims must tell us the history, because our own interpretation will inevitably be clouded by the lens of an unavoidable anti-Jewish bias in our sacred texts. Indeed, the shout of the turba of “may his blood be on our heads” […] (Matthew 27:25a) echoes historical Jewish statements on the justice which must be imputed to the unjust from God. The blood claim, when interpreted through a facile and even malicious Christian filter, casts every Jewish person as a proclaimer of Jesus as a blasphemer, a liar, a nothing. No Jew is guilty of this crime, and yet the stereotype is reinforced when the words are heard.

    This year, Good Friday and the first night of Seder occurred on the same day. That afternoon, I remember glancing out of window in my church as the choir began the Reproaches (Improperia) in Greek and Latin, hoping that night had not fallen yet. It is said that Melito of Sardis intentionally inverted the Dayenu song of the Seder to mark the Jewish people as depraved ingrates for the rejection of the gift of God the Father in his crucified Son. Taken this way, the Reproaches are a deliberate rhetorical punch against the Seder. The Dayenu joyfully proclaims after the stanzas of Exodus events, “it would have been enough for us!”. Melito counters each Exodus event with a responde mihi!, “Answer me!” This rhetorical question taunts the Jewish people by suggesting that they will never be able to answer to the wrath of God the Father for their disbelief of the sacrifice of the Son to Him. The rend of the Temple veil cannot be repaired.

    Stand back and let Jews tell us the fruits of the Matthean claim and Melito’s screed. The anti-Cross of hatred crushed the victims of pogrom well before the grace of the true Cross could be revealed.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      Thank you very much for these comments, Jordan. Thank you for pointing out that anti-Semitism is so embedded in our tradition. It will not go away overnight; in fact, so often it seems to be going away only to make an unexpected resurgence. I agree that Jews need to interpret this history for Christians. On a micro-level, this is what happened in my choir two years ago when we sang the Hailstork piece. And it was a good thing, as it offered an opportunity for dialogue and understanding – I became aware of this issue on a much more personal level and realized that it affects some of my friends and colleagues on a personal level.

      • Mark VA

        Jordan and Jeannine:

        I respectfully disagree with both of you – the search for truth should be a dialog, rather than a monologue.

        This search has already begun some time ago (though much of it does not involve the anglophone world), and in my view, is yielding good fruit. Most of it is taking place in the cultural and historical, rather than religious, settings. It involves the ongoing integration of many complex historical strands, and strives to steer clear of slogans and agendas.

        I hope that in the future, this honest exchange will serve as a model for the world Jewish Community and the Catholic Church to move closer to each other. At any rate, here is a small taste (in English) of this process:

        http://www.polin.pl/en/education

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Polish_political_crisis

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSry8ilrMmY

        • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

          Dziekuje, Marku! I can’t wait to go to Warsaw and see this museum.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      That is an interesting theory about the reproaches. I wonder if it could be substantiated.

      Even if it could not, the reproaches make me uncomfortable for that reason.

  • Mark VA

    Well, in this case, check out this history lesson – late high school, early undergrad audience, “conversational” methodology:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOYl2en3j9o

    • Tanco

      Too often, we have forgotten that, if the Church is the New Israel, the Improperia are directed to us – we who cry for Christ to be crucified

      Cojuanco, I appreciate that you have brought up another valence to the Improperia. As you have written, it is true that when Christians sin we know more than any other persons what sin is precisely because we know what the full implications of sin are. The renunciations of Satan at an adult baptism illustrate this well — the catechumen must personally proclaim an understanding of sin before being cleansed of it. Similarly, a allegorical Christian renunciation of God’s gifts and mercy through salvation history as illustrated in the Improperia renege on these promises made for us or by us in baptism.

      I still cannot see, however, how a imputation of Christian sin to the Improperia can mitigate an anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic parallel interpretation. Despite the manifest individual evil of Christians who perpetuated pogroms, texts such as the Improperia indubitably have sparked violence against Jewish people. I don’t see a way around this latter aspect. In particular the clergy must exercise caution unless parishioners misinterpret the Improperia. I have yet to hear a clergyman preach succinctly on the polyvalent difficulties of the Improperia.

      My reading of Nostra Aetate has convinced me that the Improperia no longer has a place in the Good Friday liturgy of either form. Perhaps it is best to retire this vestige. The Good Friday service alone is a reminder that we Catholics have fallen far from the mark of the example set by our Lord. Should a fraught text cloud this direct meaning?

      • Mark VA

        Improperia, pogroms, indubitably?

        Just about everything that I’ve read here on this subject, suggests to me that this area of history is a swath of terra incognita in the minds of many.

        If one hopes to understand this subject better, an interesting place to begin is with the history leading to Khmelnytsky and the Potop, and go chronologically from there. Pay particular attention to the historic symbiotic relationship between the Szlachta, and the upper economic classes of the Jewish community.

        If you really want to dig deep, compare and contrast the contemporary Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian interpretations of this history.

        • Ronald King

          Mark, Thanks for the history lesson which was summarized in Wikipedia. It is extremely complex and emotionally overwhelming for me to imagine the violence which resulted in millions of deaths and cultural destruction in such a short amount of time. I become extremely disheartened with the historical failure of our Church to act as a spiritual influence in resisting the sociopathic leaders of this violence.

        • Mark VA

          Ronald:

          Sorry if I sounded little preachy – I’ll strive for more “academic detachment” in the future. This small part of our planet and its history is often called “God’s Playground”.

        • Ronald King

          Mark, You are not preachy at all. Academic detachment is not you

  • Cojuanco

    The Tridentine Catechism, as I recall it, basically says if Jews are guilty of killing Jesus, Christians are all the more guilty. After all, one can say that those Jews who participated back then in His death did so out of ignorance that Jesus is God; but our sins, which we commit, make our role in Christ’s death more heinous, because we as Christians know who Jesus is.

    That is to say, if one says that the Jews killed Jesus, in the end we are all the more implicated in the crime, not as co-conspirators merely, but as the principal. You and I killed him. All the pogroms, all the murders, all the anti-Semitism remind me so much of a gangster who, in a futile attempt to cover up his principal role in someone’s death, opens fire on those he conspired with. At best, it is irrational; at worst, it is utterly depraved and hypocritical.

    Too often, we have forgotten that, if the Church is the New Israel, the Improperia are directed to us – we who cry for Christ to be crucified, in the various sins we have committed, and who, unlike the crowds almost two thousand years ago, know very well who Jesus Christ is.

  • Mark VA

    Cojuanco, you wrote:

    “All the pogroms, all the murders, all the anti-Semitism remind me so much of a gangster who, in a futile attempt to cover up his principal role in someone’s death, opens fire on those he conspired with. At best, it is irrational; at worst, it is utterly depraved and hypocritical.”

    May I suggest that a more scholarly lens on the Jewish and Gentile history would be of benefit to all of us. This is what the museum linked to above is all about, and its general location is where the preponderance of this history took place.

    No slogans, agendas, or emotionalism, but knowledge.

    • trellis smith

      At first I wasn’t fully comprehending your historical emphasis but I see it now. We cannot excise the Improperia anymore than we can excise history. Our duty is to witness the history in all its polyvalent character.

  • Eoin Moloney

    Now, I don’t wish to stir up trouble, but it’s not right to go on propagating the old myths about the Inquisition & Crusades. Weren’t (most of) the Crusades attempts to defend Christians from Islamic conquest, or to retake Christian land that had been forcefully conquered? Yes, very wicked things happened on Crusade, but I don’t see how you could throw out the whole concept unless you’re willing to take an extremely pacifist stance, wherein violence is always wrong and never justifiable in any circumstance. Unless, of course, you just mean that we crucified our Lord by the bad things that happened on Crusade, in which case I agree with you.

  • Mark VA

    I agree with what you wrote, Eoin. Myths and agendas can be propagated when critical knowledge of history is shaky or non-existent.

    The below videos (on a different historical topic) show just how much of even rudimentary historical knowledge is not being taught in many of our schools:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V4bmm6yJMw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRC_T07dwZo

  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

    Soon and Mark VA, I really don’t think a particularly useful dialogue is carried when on when one side of the discussion are treated like victimised children, or when that side of the dialogue are constantly willing to allow themselves to be treated as such. The great Jewish people, from whom I partially descend, must insist on shouldering a portion of the blame for the terrible disputes of the past, as well as for some of the mutual antagonism that persists. Any who doubt that those old, mostly-heathen crusaders were exercised over more than just Passion narratives should take a look at the degrading terms in which Jesus is referred to in the Babylonian Talmud; Islam is much more respectful. Any who doubt that the Christians of the region where I now dwell, the Levant, don’t have legitimate issues with Jews should consult the experiences of Christian clergy attempting to run schools in Arab East Jerusalem, who have to regularly go and implore the troops of the IDF to stop harassing their children at checkpoints on their way to school and are told to “mind your own business” for their pains, and are reminded that they are only tolerated in Israel because of their passports, and not their “blasphemous” religion. (I speak from the direct experience of clergy I’ve known, who have ministered to Arab Christians for years, but anyone who doubts the hostility of the modern Zionist State to the Christian presence in Israel should check out the two chapters on Israel in William Dalrymple’s TO THE HOLY MOUNTAIN.) And before anyone accuses me of anti-Semitism, or even of being a “self-hating Jew,” I wish to state unequivocally that I believe in Vatican II’ declaration of the persistence of the First Covenant, and that I also agree with James Carroll’ thesis in CONSTANTINE’S SWORD, that the roots of European anti-Semitism are found in the Christian Scriptures themselves. It’s just that I also believe that for an honest investigation of the roots in the past of mutual hostility, one side may not insist on assuming the role of permanent victim. My Jewish ancestors are worthy of more respect than that!

    • Mark VA

      Dismas:

      Leaving the current politics aside, I mostly agree with you – this should be a dialog, a mutual search and acknowledgement of historical truth. This is very difficult, not only because this history is so complex, but because it is also about human psychology, often in the context of extremes.

      One caveat though – this history is not only a parade of horribles, it is also a history of cooperation, mutual flourishing, indeed, of a civilization – the museum I linked to above tells this history.

      I also believe that before we can say something to each other, we need to do our own examination of conscience – and vice versa. Take a look at the below “multivalent” lecture:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQOGAucKqCU