The crucifix bends those who hold it a sacred icon downward in a convolution towards sorrow and pity – manifested physically in the bending of the knee and the bowing of the head. It’s a low moment for humanity, yet ideologically elevated to the very apotheosis of human being.
But, as the Monty Python crew sang in The Life of Brian, “look on the bright side of life.” There is a positive turn in all this sorrow and pity – of course, else there would never be a Christianity. Only committed masochists would join a church devoted to depression. Christians think they have a good take on things that leads them to the hope of joy and comfort, after all. And indeed, our previous discussion concerning iconology per se, reminds us here that an icon not only stands in for what it represents, but also can stand in for the opposite of what it represents (e.g., in the case of the drunken man representing temperance). So what is the opposite of crucifixion?
The crucifixion of Jesus is held to be painful death of a single man who also happens to be god. Thus we can take these four major terms – ‘pain,’ ‘death,’ ‘single man,’ ‘god’ – and read into them some of their opposites or extensions: for instance: not ‘pain,’ but ‘joy;’ not ‘death,’ but life;’ not ‘man,’ but ‘god,’ not ‘god,’ but ‘man’ (i.e., ‘mankind’ ). Thus the Christians (at least Catholics) read into the Crucifix the hope for potential joy, unending life, the union of the human with the divine, the redemption of human being itself.
How could this come about?
The adequate discussion of this would take a large volume with considerable critical reading of Christian sources, as well as the introduction of some complex psychological and sociological theories. I’m certainly not doing that here!
But just as a suggestion:
It should be remembered that the Crucifix presents a moment in a double narrative. The first is that of Jesus himself; the next chapter in this story is of course the resurrection and all that means to Christians. Jesus suffers the Passion and dies, on the third day he rises from the dead, gives a pep talk to his followers, and ascends to heaven. All this assures his followers 1) that pain is an impermanent state, and once beyond it, contentment and happiness ensue; and 2) that death is itself a transitory moment for the believer, who is then guaranteed eternal life of the soul: ascension into heaven and joyful union with the divine. Who could refuse this offer? (Well, I could, but I’ve discussed this elsewhere: “The afterlife is a bum trip.”)
But the Jesus narrative itself is but an episode (albeit a crucial one for the believing Christian) of a much larger narrative, that of the history of the relationship between “Man” and “God.” It’s supposedly the moment when the Law of the “old Testament” is at last fulfilled; and through this fulfillment, humankind is released from the stain of original sin – i.e., that transgression that got Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise and threw us into a world of toil, suffering, and impermanence – including that of material life, which ends in death. Thus the demand that the proper attitude if facing the Crucifix includes acknowledgement of guilt for sin, is somewhat paradoxical – ‘feel guilty before the Christ who, in Crucifixion, releases you from guilt.’ The Crucifix is a kind of memento mori, an image of death used to remind us of our own earthly burden, and of the sin that brought us to it; yet this cathartically releases us from that burden and forgives the sin.
But there are a couple of problems with this teleology. The first, as some Jews have noted again and again over the long centuries, is: Why is it, if the Law has been fulfilled, do we still find ourselves on this material rubbish heap, the planet earth, faced with all the same toils, and sufferings, and dying, not to mention the many awkward moral decisions we still need to make, great and small? The Messiah doesn’t actually seem to have accomplished much beyond providing a certain psychological frame of mind regarding the Law and the divine. Indeed, the Christian god is something of a wily old trickster, saving us from ourselves, yet demanding we continue to be tested, again and again, until finally god gets tired of it all and brings it to a close on Judgment Day. The Christians claim to have appropriated the history of the relationship between ‘man’ and ‘god;’ what they actually did was to write a new history of that relationship. Their narrative is simply not a continuance of that found in the “old Testament,” no matter how carefully their theologians split hairs and interpret texts.
Another problem, and to my mind a far more important one, which implicates troubles for Judaism as well as Christianity, has to do with the very notion of “Original Sin.” This is an outrageous insult to the dignity of human kind. Infants are born guilty? Conceived in guilt, birthed into guilt, struggling for survival in an invisible swaddling of dark sinfulness and evil nature, that must be redeemed and made good through some religious hand-jive and mumbo-jumbo, and a splash of ‘holy water?’ Are the religious insane? The pathology of depression and submission noted as generated by the iconology of the Crucifix surely begins here, in the assumption that ‘WE ARE BORN WRONG.’ But if that is the case, what could ever make it right? More hand-jiving and mumbo-jumbo? Only a deep conviction of the potential for an afterlife could ever make that work. But if one has even the slightest suspicion that nothing much follows this mortal experience, this life we daily live, that we know for certain will come to an end – then to believe is to be aware, moment by moment, that one is hopelessly wrong, born wrong, doomed to wrong, and that nothing ever makes it right.
Talk about low self-esteem! But these are the ideas that supposedly ground our moral lives.
Fortunately, there is another way of looking at the matter. Evolutionary science teaches us that we are here, as animals, with neither lesser nor greater burden of sin as any other animal, which is to say: none at all.
And while human suffering does seem to be at least a guaranteed component of ‘the human condition,’ this certainly arises from natural causes – from the inherent functioning of our own over-sized brains.
And as it has arising, so may it have cessation. But that is for another discussion.