As far as I know, Christianity is unique in this: we believe in a God who willingly, and regularly, humiliates Himself. Consider the worst blasphemies imaginable, and then consider how far beyond those that Jesus is willing to go. For example, Andres Serrano shocked the art world in 1987 by plunging a Crucifix into a jar of urine and taking a photograph of it. But Jesus, the Lord of the entire cosmos, already became a tiny infant with all that entails. In comparison to the Omnipotent God needing to be changed by the Virgin Mary, Serrano’s photo looks like nothing more than the lazy gimmick that it was.
Or take the cruel practice of e-fumi in Tokugawa Japan (from the 17th to 19th century), in which suspected Christians were ordered, upon pain of death, to stomp on an image of Jesus Crucified. Even this pales in comparison to what’s depicted in the fumi-e itself: Jesus, beaten and battered, crowned with thorns (to mock His Divine Kingship), with His healing hands and His feet nailed to a Cross.
This humiliation of God begins even before the Incarnation. He made man in His own image, only to see that image repeatedly tarnished and perverted by sin. He then revealed Himself to men like Abraham by speaking in primitive Hebrew, the only language that they could understand. In order to convey His truth, He’s forced (not just then, but even now) to continually “dumb Himself down” enough that we can receive a glimmer of that truth which is far beyond the limits of our senses or imagination.
This not being enough, there’s the reality of the Incarnation and Crucifixion. St. Paul describes it in Philippians 2:5-8,
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
The details of this self-emptying are worth dwelling upon. He placed Himself in a place of radical vulnerability: consider all of the trials and humiliations of growing up, and recall that “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Hebrews 4:15). He knows every fact of human weakness from the inside, having lived it.
All of this leads to the Cross. Over the course of a few days, Jesus was betrayed by a friend, arrested, tortured, spat on, brutally and unnecessarily beaten, whipped, mocked, crowned with thorns, and sentenced to death. He was forced to carry His own Cross, before they executed Him upon it. After hearing of how they gave Him vinegar in His thirst, we’re given this detail (Matthew 27:35-36): “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there.”
Jesus, who once healed a woman by her touching the hem of His garment (Mark 5:27-30), and whose garments became radiant white in the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-3), is now stripped naked. And they did this in front of His Mother, before mounting Him upon a Cross along a public thoroughfare near the city (John 19:20). Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 2005 meditations for the Stations of the Cross, reflected:
Jesus is stripped of his garments. Clothing gives a man his social position; it gives him his place in society, it makes him someone. His public stripping means that Jesus is no longer anything at all, he is simply an outcast, despised by all alike. The moment of the stripping reminds us of the expulsion from Paradise: God’s splendour has fallen away from man, who now stands naked and exposed, unclad and ashamed. And so Jesus once more takes on the condition of fallen man. Stripped of his garments, he reminds us that we have all lost the “first garment” that is God’s splendour.
In the end, after hours of torture upon the Cross, Jesus embraced even the degradation of death. Of course, I don’t mention all of this as a guilt trip. Rather, I think it’s worth recalling for four reasons.
- First, it reminds us of the cost of sin, and the price paid by Our Redeemer. Sin is serious business, and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But Jesus Christ paid this ultimate price for us, for our salvation. “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19-20). We should take the severity of sin seriously, and not treat it lightly. But we should take even more seriously the reality of being redeemed by Jesus Christ.
- Second, it reminds us that God knows our sufferings. The notion of an omnipotent, omniscient, impassible God sometimes sounds too remote. It’s not true, of course: God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. But because God’s mode of knowing is so foreign to us, it’s sometimes hard to relate. Jesus takes on the fullness of humanity, and can relate to us even in our weaknesses and humiliations and the wounds of our past.
- Third, it reminds us of God’s love for us. Jesus didn’t have to bear all of those indignities. He could have redeemed the world without letting anyone strip Him or spit on Him or dig thorns into His head. He undergoes all of that for the shocking reason that He loves the people that are doing this to Him.
- Finally, it’s a call to humility. If Christ can undergo all of those humiliations for you, what humiliations are too big for you to bear out of love for Him or for your neighbor?