The bloody violence of the death of Jesus Christ – the skin torn by scourging, the nails driven through hands and feet, the thorns pushed into scalp and forehead, the spear thrust into the side – naturally impresses upon our minds His fleshly humanity. But it is in contemplating the Passion, perhaps more than in any other context, that we must fixate our minds precisely upon Christ’s divinity, lest we miss the event’s significance entirely. Modern people think they understand it well – a miscarriage of justice on the part of a corrupt political system, an affront to freedom of conscience, an expression of reactionary hostility to novel ideas comparable to the execution of Socrates. Thus is Christ transformed, absurdly, into something like an early martyr for Liberalism. (This gets the death of Socrates completely wrong too, of course. The popular understanding of both events reflects a Whiggish narcissism: “He was a great man; ergo he must have been anticipating us moderns in some way.” But that is another subject.)
In fact the significance of the Passion has nothing to do with such comparative trivialities. “We preach Christ crucified,” wrote St. Paul; “to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness.” The Jews and Greeks of old were (here as in so many other ways) closer to the truth than the moderns. For whatever else the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was, it was, first and foremost, the supreme blasphemy. It was Pure Act, esse ipsum subsistens, That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, the “I Am Who Am” of Exodus, our First Cause and Last End – spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a cross. All other meanings – political, socioeconomic, legal, moral – fade into insignificance in light of this most incomprehensible of sins. Unlike us moderns, always trying to wedge moral and religious truth into our narrow, this-worldly horizon, the ancient Jews and Greeks knew this, and rebelled at the thought. How could it be? How could Being Itself be put to death? How could the Most High allow Himself to be brought so low? A metaphysical impossibility! An inconceivable sacrilege! And yet it happened.
The “death of God” of Nietzsche’s “madman” parable was not the crucifixion. Nor, of course, was it a literal killing of any sort. But the moral (if not the metaphysical) magnitude of deicide was not lost on him:
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
No silly talk here of “Flying Spaghetti Monsters” and the like; Nietzsche, unlike so many of his successors, still had a sense of the noble, indeed of the Holy. (The New Atheist is none other than Nietzsche’s Last Man in rationalist drag.) And what he said of the modern, metaphorical “death of God” is true of the real thing: We are each of us guilty of it. We are each of us the worst of murderers. We have, each of us, slain our Maker and sought to make ourselves gods in His place. And we cannot possibly atone.
For the crucifixion, in its sublime gruesome blasphemousness, lays bare the true meaning of sin. It is Non serviam, “My will, not thine, be done!” pushed through consistently. To rationalize evil, we must obliterate the Good. To justify lawlessness, we must put to death the Lawgiver. And yet there can be no “rationalization” of any action in the absence of Good. There can be no “justification” without Law. In the crucifixion we see the sheer, satanic madness of sin.
And we cannot possibly atone. Yet we are not without hope. For the Supreme Lawgiver against Whom we offend is also Infinite Mercy. The God Who can lay down His life can raise Himself up again. And He lays it down willingly, for those He calls His “friends” – for us, His very killers! Even as we commit the greatest of crimes against Him, His thoughts are – astoundingly – with us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Having put Him on a cross, we can but humbly kneel before it – in sorrow, in thanks, in worship.