You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
At the movies last year, you may have watched a scene that I suspect will prove to be an enduring image in cinema. Solomon Northup – born free in the North, but kidnapped into slavery in the South – has resisted the authority of his overseer, taken his whip from him, and beaten him harshly, inflicting on his supposed master the kind of treatment intended for the slave. The slave is rounded up and taken to a tree not too far from the gracious manor house of the plantation where his overseer plans to hang him, but another overseer intervenes after the noose has already been placed around Solomon’s neck, and the rope thrown over strong tree branch, and the men are about to hoist him to his death. The intervention, however, leaves something to be desired. Solomon is not released from either noose or tree. He is left there – strung up by the neck, his toes still just barely on the ground, so that he can push himself up just enough on his tippy-toes to suck in tiny breaths. He is left there all day, his toes losing and finding their purchase in the muddy ground beneath the tree, until his owner returns and cuts him down.
The scene is hard to watch – we are left to watch Solomon hang there for what feels like ages in cinematic time. It’s all the more chilling when you consider that something like this actually did happen to Solomon Northup in real time, recounted in his book on which the film is based.
About this scene, the cinematographer of 12 Years A Slave, Sean Bobbit, has said that it encapsulated for him the entire movie. Specifically he said this about it: “Here’s a man who’s on the edge of death and no one can help him because he belongs to someone else.” This is an interesting comment. It has strong resonance with an ancient understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus. The thinking went like this: By disobeying God and yielding to temptation in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve sold their souls (and the soul of all humanity) to the devil. We then belonged to someone else, until someone should come along and free us, cut us down – which God would eventually do in the person of his Son, Jesus.
By that reckoning, after the Fall all humanity was on the edge of death and no one could help because we belonged to someone else. But God paid the ransom for our initial transgression and thereby out-negotiated the devil by sending his own Son to die, and then to rise from the dead. This is a tidy story – which is nice if you like tidy stories. If you allow for the parallel with the near-hanging of Solomon Northup, however, it has the unfortunate correlation of putting God in the place of the slave-owner. I’d say this correlation demonstrates not a weakness of the parallel with the film, but a weakness of the tidy story. In fact, if you employ such a tidy story to explain why Jesus dies on the cross, you will nearly always come up against some deeply unappealing suggestions about God. God nearly always comes out looking like a slave owner: cruel, unjust, anything but divine. I don’t recommend this way of thinking about God.
The painful, long scene in the film, however, suggests to me a different way of thinking about why Jesus dies on the Cross, and it has to do with drawing another parallel. If you look at this scene - in which Solomon Northup is strung up to a tree by a noose, balanced between life and death – as a crucifixion scene with a different accent, then you begin to see the parallel. For if this scene is read as a crucifixion, it becomes clear that the slave owner cannot be God at all – he is more like Pontius Pilate.
And if you watch that betrayed man, who was once free, struggling for life, but heading toward death, and if you see the weight of human indecency and suffering pulling the noose more tightly around his neck, making it harder and harder for him to breathe, to stay alive… then you begin to see who it is who is hanging there on that tree. You begin to see Jesus. And if you consider that most slaves who were hung by a noose from a tree were not cut down alive, then you begin to see why even this cruel scene is an imperfect crucifixion.
Human suffering and death comes in many shapes and sizes – with many causes, not the least of which is the suffering we inflict on each other, the killing we do of each other. No religion has a good explanation of or answer to this reality – this is the Achilles’ heel of religion. In the Christian faith, instead of an explanation for human suffering a death, we have a God who allows it to happen to himself. I recently heard a preacher say that the way to understand the Passion and Death of Jesus is as God diving into the deep end of humanity – and I like this way of thinking of it.
The technical, theological term for this matter is “atonement.” The word means exactly what it says if you break it down – it is about God and humanity being “at one.” It is about crossing the divide that could separate us from the love of God. It is about finding again the image of our maker in our own selves. It is about seeing that we are never without God, that he will never abandon us – even though we will suspect he has. It is about being at one with the Lord of life.
It would be tidy to proclaim on Good Friday the power of a God who can cut you free from all that enslaves you and causes you to suffer. But that is not the story of Good Friday.
Instead we have the story of a God whose Son is strung up next to you, who will suffer with you, and who, when your feet finally slip and can find no purchase in the mud, will die with you, since dying we must all do. And then, we are promised, there will be still more to discover, about what it means to be at one with the Lord of life.
No longer can we fool ourselves to believe that we belong to someone else – even though the suffering be hard, and death inevitable. For in Jesus, God has, indeed, jumped into the deep end of humanity – he is at one with us, and we are at one with him through Christ. There is no pain or suffering that divides us, nor any divine insulation that divides us. There is not even death that divides us. God has done it: he has died, himself so he might be at one with us, and so that we would know that we belong to no one else but him, and never have.
And though the suffering be bloody, and death be not far at hand, and though he will feel, as some of us do, that God has forsaken him, he still makes this promise to all who wish to hear it who hang there next to him: “today you will be with me in paradise;” which is to say: “today you and I shall be at one with each other.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia