One thing at least can be said with certainty about the Crucifixion of Christ; it was manifestly the most famous death in history. No other death has aroused one hundredth part of the interest, or been remembered with one hundredth part of the intensity and concern.
Practically every European artist, great and small, has planned or executed a representation of it, from the Italian primitives to Francis Bacon. Most writers, likewise, have made use of the scene and its imagery in their work, if only for the purposes of ridicule or blasphemy. Nouvelle vague film-makers, and Hollywood impresarios in search of a sure-fire box-office success, equally turn to it for a theme. Walking recently with Graham Sutherland in hills overlooking the Mediterranean I found he was always on the look-out for thorns, as though they were precious jewelsas indeed they are for him, ever since he painted the crown on Christ's stricken head.
The cross, symbol of this macabre execution, has been carried pretty well everywhere, within and outside Christendom. No corner of the world is so remote and inaccessible that you may not find a cross there.
As for Europe, in countries like Italy and France it is impossible to go a hundred yards anywhere without being confronted with some version or other of the Crucifixion. Since that Golgotha happening, billions have been made, from exquisitely fashioned ones to the most tawdry, gimcrack, mass-produced ones; from huge overpowering Calvarys to little tiny jewelled crucifixes to hang round the neck or over the heart, but always with the same essential characteristicsa man at the last extremity of a cruel death, with lolling head, and feet and hands viciously nailed to a wooden cross.
In theory such a symbol should be depressing. It portrays the defeat of goodness by duplicity and power; a meek and broken victim of the kind of human brutality to which we, perhaps more than most generations of men, have had to accustom ourselves. In practice the symbol has inspired some of the gayest figures in history, like St Francis of Assisi; has filled the cities of Renaissancc Italy with a profusion of art which has been the admiration of Christian and non-Christian alike; and has stimulated audacities of thought and exploration which have carried the human race forward with immense strides towards understanding and mastering their material circumstances.
How unlikely anything of the kind would have seemed at the time! Who among the motley collection of spectators of so obscure an event could possibly have envisaged that there before their eyes another civilisation was being born which would last for two thousand years, shining so long and so brightly. Not even the Apostles could have thought of that; what they looked for was an apocalyptic Second Coming and the end of the world, not the beginning of Christendom. Only St Paul, converted after the Crucifixion from a persecutor of Christians to one of Christ's most ardent and brilliant followers, may have vaguely sensed something of the kind. I nourish a secret hope in my heart, as our civilisation decomposes into People's Hedonism, with, not one, but whole armies of crazed Neros sucking LSD sugar and babbling protest songs, that another obscure Crucifixion may have taken place that will in due course lighten the darkness now falling so thick and so fast. If so, we should not know; it would not get on to the telly or into the newspapers.
A believing or orthodox Christian would, of course, account for the durability of the cross's appeal over the centuries by the divinity of the man crucified. God, he would say, was put to death by unredeemed men, and then rose from the dead; naturally, so unique and definitive an event has continued, and ever will continue, to hold the attention of mankind.
I have to confess that to meas I should suppose, to the great majority of present-day inheritors of the Christian tradition such a line of thought is largely meaningless. With the utmost difficulty, and in the vaguest possible manner, I can grasp some sort of notion of a deity, and of his loving purpose, in which I, in common with all creation, am inextricably enmeshed. I can even, in moments of illumination, imagine myself to be in contact with such a deity, and surrender myself with inexpressible happiness to his will. To imagine this deity having a son in any particular sense, and this son to have been born of a virgin, and to have lived on earth for thirty years or so as a man; then to have died and to have risen from the dead, is, as far as I am concerned, beyond credibility.
I quite agree that we of the twentieth century are perfectly capable of believing other things intrinsically as improbable as Christ's incarnation. Towards any kind of scientific mumbojumbo we display a credulity which must be the envy of African witch-doctors. While we shy away with contumely from the account of the creation in the Book of Genesis, we are probably ready to assent to any rigmarole by a Professor Hoyle about how matter came to be, provided it is dished up in the requisite jargon and associated, however obliquely, with what we conceive to be 'facts'.
I suppose every age has its own particular fantasy. Ours is science. A seventeenth-century man like Pascal, though himself a mathematician and scientist of genius, found it quite ridiculous that anyone should suppose that rational processes could lead to any ultimate conclusions about life, but easily accepted the authority of the Scriptures. With us it is the other way round.
What, then, does the Crucifixion signify in an age like ours? I see it in the first place as a sublime mockery of all earthly authority and power. The crown of thorns, the purple robe, the ironical title 'King of the Jews,' were intended to mock or parody Christ's pretensions to be the Messiah; in fact, they rather hold up to ridicule and contempt all crowns, all robes, all kings that ever were. It was a sick joke that back-fired. No one it seems to me, who has fully grasped the Crucifixion can ever again take seriously any expression or instrument of worldly power, however venerable, glittering or seemingly formidable.
When Christ was tempted in the wilderness he declined the Devil's offer to give him sway over the kingdoms of the earth (a refusal which must be intensely irritating to those who believe that it is possible through Christian good-will to set up a kingdom of heaven on earth); the Crucifixion demonstrated whybecause the Devil's offer was bogus. There are no kingdoms for him to bestow; only pseudo or notional ones presided over by mountebanks masquerading as emperors and kings and governments.
Look under the crown and you see the thorns beneath; pull aside the purple robe, and lo! nakedness; look into the grandiloquent titles and they are seen to be no more substantial than Christ's ribald one of King of the Jews scrawled above his cross. In Christ's day the Roman emperors claimed to be gods and induced their subjects to pay them divine honours. He, a man, exposed the hollowness of their claim by dying, thereby becoming God in the eyes of successive generations of men, who went on worshipping him long after the Roman Empire had ceased to exist.
In this sense, Christ's death on the cross may be seen as the exact converse of the next most famous death as far as our civilisation is concernedthat of Socrates. Socrates obediently drank hemlock and died to support and enhance the State: Christ died on the cross in derisive defiance of all States, whether Roman, Judaic, or any other.
From Socrates' death emanate all plans for the collective betterment of mankind, whether embodied in a nation, a regime, a leader, an ideology, a social system, or, for that matter, a Church; from the cross, the notion of individual salvation, of individual souls journeying through life like Bunyan's Pilgrim, all equal in their capacity as children of God and in that Christ died for them equally, and all buoyed up by the expectation of deliverance through death from the demands and imperfections of their fleshly existence.
What, I often ask myself, was the Golgotha happening actually like. Clearly, in no wise as momentous in the eyes of those who witnessed it as the retrospective attention lavished upon it would seem to imply. Upon history at the time it made absolutely no impact. To understand this one has to think of an administratively comparable incident in times past in one of the remoter parts of the then extant British Empirefor instance, the execution in Burma that Orwell attended when he was a young police officer there, and afterwards described so feelingly and perceptively.
I well remember the good-naturedly contemptuous attitude in the days of the Raj of the British soldiery in India to Hindu and Muslim religious fanaticism. The Roman soldiers in Palestine, I expect, took a similar attitude towards Jewish religious fanaticism. I doubt if Christ made any particular impression on them; in their eyes he was just another wog to be crucified. One imagines the conversation in the sergeants' mess that night, with some old hand pointing out to a slightly squeamish newcomer lately arrived from Rome that with the Jews you have to be firm and stand-offish; give 'em an inch and they take an ellI heard it all word for word in up-country clubs in India forty years ago.
For some reason I always see in my mind's eye a fringe of Roman troops ringing the little crowd round the cross, and standing out against the Golgotha skyline in their breast-plates and togasnot very high-grade troops either, in that distant unpopular station. They look on nonchalantly, their orders are not to interfere, but to make sure that if there's any trouble it doesn't spread. An N.C.O. is in charge; the officers are away at the games, or maybe Their Excellencies, the Pilates, are giving a garden party to celebrate the Emperor's birthday.
As for the indigenous spectators (as they are described in the official report which Pilate gets the next day, and barely glances at), they consist of a few sharp-eyed, bearded rabbis making sure that everything goes according to plan, the usual sightseers attracted by executions, street-accidents or any other violence; some of the disciples, including Peter, still, poor fellow, full of contrition about his denial of Christ the day before (who hasn't similarly heard the cock crow, alas?), Mary and one or two other women, and maybe a representative of the underground Jewish resistance movement just in case something cropped up, though not with much hope.
Christ's remark about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's effectively eliminated any momentary expectation that he might espouse the cause of liberating the Jews from their servitude to Rome. As it turned out, Palestine was to be liberated on numerous occasions in the course of a rather tragic history, but never by him.
It was the sort of incidenta man dying in that slow public waywhich must have generated its own immediate tension in the beholders, even though they were unaware of the nature and magnitude of the stupendous drama being enacted before them. In some vague way they expect something to happen, and so it does; the man expires, not with a gesture of defiance befitting a putative King of the Jews, but with a cry of despair. With that cry Christendom comes to pass. We are henceforth to worship defeat, not victory; failure, not success; surrender, not defiance; deprivation, not satiety; weakness, not strength. We are to lose our lives in order to keep them; to die in order to live.
It is true, of course, that professing Christians and ostensibly Christian societies and institutions have by no means been true to the cross and what it signified, especially today when the nominally Christian part of the world is foremost in worship of the Gross National Productour Golden Calfand in pursuit of happiness in the guise of sensual pleasure. Yet there the cross still is, propounding its unmistakable denunciation of this world and of the things of this world.
There had to be a sequel; I quite see that. The man on the cross who had given up the ghost must rise from the dead as a living God; the Resurrection followed the Crucifixion as inevitably as day follows night. And, indeed, in a sense it clearly happened. Otherwise, how should I, a twentieth-century nihilist, who asks nothing better than to live out his days without anv concern for a God, living or dead, be worrying his head about this cross and a man who died on it two thousand years ago? Whether it happened as described in the Gospel narrative, and endlessly repeated by Christian apologists, is another question. In any case, what does it matter?
I even prefer to suppose that some body-snatcher, accustomed to hanging about Golgotha to pick up anything that might be going, heard in his dim-witted way that the King of the Jews was up for execution. Good ! he thinks: there are bound to be pickings there. So he waits till the job is done, finds out where the corpse has been laid, drags the stone away and then, making sure no one is watching, decamps with the body.
What a disappointment for him! This King of the Jews has no crown, no jewels, no orbs, no sceptre, no ring; he is just a worthless, wasted, broken, naked body. The man contemptuously abandons the body to the vultures, who in their turn Ieave the bones to whiten in the sunthose precious, precious bones!
Observer, 26 March 1967
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