The earliest known depiction of Christ’s crucifixion is not a beautiful painting or icon meant to honor the Lord. Nor is it a carefully carved crucifix depicting the sacrificial love of Jesus. Instead, it is a crude piece of graffiti, scratched into a piece of plaster in a guardroom on the Palatine Hill in Rome, left there sometime between the 1st and 3rd century. It is known as the Alexamenos graffiti.
The graffiti shows a man, named Alexamenos, who stands with his hand raised in adoration, before a figure of a man hanging on a cross. However, it is not a savior that is depicted on the cross. Instead, the man hanging on the cross has the head of a donkey. The caption scrawled into the graffiti reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”
This is hardly the exaltation of the Cross. This is hardly Christ the King, raised up upon his throne. The man hanging on the cross in the Alexamenos graffiti is hardly someone to be worshipped. According to the graffiti artist, the cross is a lie… a sham… something ridiculous… utter foolishness.
This is the problem Paul is dealing with in our second reading today. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, that the Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23)
Among the Gentiles Paul speaks of were the Romans, who used crucifixion as the preferred execution for the lowest of criminals, rebellious slaves, or defeated and humiliated foes of the empire. They looked upon the victims of crucifixion with utter contempt and the suggestion that such a person should be revered, let alone worshipped, was the object of Roman mockery as evidenced by the Alexamenos graffiti. For Romans, the cross was not a sign of wisdom; the cross was stupid. The man hanging on it had done a very stupid thing, and he was being punished for it. How in the world could anyone look at that cross and see God’s wisdom?
First century Jews looked upon the crucified with even more contempt. For the Jews, the crucified was much worse than a criminal, slave, or defeated foe of the Roman empire. No, they were cursed by God Himself. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “God's curse rests on him who hangs on a tree.” For first century Jews, the cross was not a sign of power; the cross was the ultimate sign of failure. The man hanging on it was cursed by God and could not possibly be his son. How in the world could anyone look at that cross and see God’s power?
What about us Christians? How do we look upon the cross? I’m sure none of us, if asked to create some artistic rendering of the cross, would draw something like the Alexamenos graffiti. And I’m fairly certain all of us would confess a great love and devotion for the cross. After all, the cross hangs in our homes, churches, schools, and so on. It’s the sign of our salvation.
But the cross is difficult to look at, isn’t it? Perhaps, at times, the cross indeed appears, even to our eyes, as foolishness and a stumbling block. It’s a natural reaction to the cross. Think of the inquiring minds of your own children. Did they not, when they were very young, ask you the question, “Mommy, why did Jesus die on the cross?”
The cross is difficult to look at and difficult to comprehend not just because it shows us something violent. The cross is difficult to look at because it shows us something of ourselves. When we look upon the cross, we say, “My sins put you up there Lord. My sins nailed you to the tree." But, our sins are not strong enough to keep Jesus nailed to the tree and buried in the tomb.
When we look upon the cross, certainly we see the nails, we see the thorns, we see the lashes of the scourging, we see the wounded heart of Jesus pierced by a spear. Is this perhaps how we look upon ourselves as well at times? Do we only see our wounds, our fallenness, our sins?
If so, we should be reminded that just like the cross, we too are a paradox. Sure, we have our dark side. Just as the cross has it’s dark side. Sure, we have our ugliness. Just as the cross has it’s ugliness.
But, the cross, ultimately is not dark and ugly. The cross and the Savior who hangs upon it is the light of the world and a sign of beauty, hope and salvation.
Likewise, we too, ultimately are not dark and ugly. We are created in the image and likeness of He who is the light of the world and we too are beautiful.
That cross is beautiful. Why else would we display it so.
You are beautiful. How else could God have created you?
Ultimately, when we look upon that cross, we see the empty tomb... the resurrection... our risen Lord filled with light in his glorious Body. Ultimately, when you look upon yourself, see the same. This Lent, let Christ reveal to you your true beauty.