Lessons from the Rabbi on the Cross
“Son of David, have pity on me!” The cry was directed toward Jesus as he was leaving Jericho, and the blind man who shouted it out, Bartimaeus, must have sounded particularly needful and desperate because amid the noisy throng, he managed to catch the Lord’s attention.
One imagines Jesus alertly turning—scanning the crowd until he locates the voice. He tells his disciples to bring the man to him.
“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. Bartimaeus replies simply, “Rabbi, I want to see.” (Mark 10:51)
It is the cri de coeur of the life of faith—“I want to see!”—the request every faithful Christian will make of Christ, and usually many times. Once a desire for wisdom and spiritual growth has been stirred, the plea to “see” becomes an ongoing prayer. We want to “see” as the Lord sees, if for no other reason than to understand why we have been permitted to make bad choices when we know better, or why bad things happen to good people, or what it is God wants from us, or how to trust.
Mostly, though, we want to see in order to better believe, despite knowing full-well that Christ said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (John 20:29)
Pondering all of that while at Adoration one week, my attention was pulled away from the monstrance and toward the unusual sculpture of the Risen Christ which was hanging above it—a central focal point above the altar. What makes the piece remarkable is both its posture and its attire. As with a crucifix, this Christ is bare-footed, arms splayed wide, but he is alive—a triumphant King and High Priest of the New Covenant. The fringed stole signifying his priesthood just peeks out from the bottom of his chasuble. It is a very Catholic priesthood we are presented with—specifically Roman Catholic—and yet whenever I get a glimpse of the fringe, I am reminded of a Tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, and I interiorly echo Mary Magdalene's words of recognition after his resurrection: “Rabboni!” (John 20:16)
There is a rabbi on the cross, and he looks like a king, but he was a “carpenter’s son” (Matt 13:55), a tekton (i.e., artisan, builder, technician) like his stepfather, the righteous man who likely drilled him in the law even as he taught him how to take the measure of whatever construction material was before him and determine its best usage—to envision, design, attach, refine, and finish.
Perhaps parables of mercy were launched in the imagination of the rabbi when he was still very young, when the master taught him his craft, urging the apprentice to discover metaphors before his eyes: how the difficult process of planing something down—of making straight what is gnarled and knotted—brings out its inner beauty, even as it exposes its tiniest deformities to the scrutiny of the world.
An adolescent with the wisdom and confidence to debate the temple elders might have nodded in agreement, while countering that those minute flaws only served to better emphasize all that was intrinsically lovely within the wood—what made it worth saving and finishing, rather than tossing into the fires.
In the hands of a skilled builder-maker, what is raw and imperfect can be still become useful, valued, and eventually prized. Perhaps only a rabbi who understood that, and had been trained to find and select the right materials for the right project, could ever have chosen a rock as rough and thick as Peter upon which to build his church.
On the hill at Golgotha, what the first-century Jews saw is what is before our eyes, still: the rabbi on the cross, an immortal Beauty meant to save the world.
The rabbi, whose Goodness continually inspires intrinsically-lovely-but-flawed humanity to submit to his creative hand and be carved and smoothed by whatever means he chooses—including the most confounding of tools, his cross—that they too might become Good.
The rabbi so imbued with Truth that it pours forth from him along with his very blood as he teaches from the height of his torments: “Father, forgive them…”
From that place of harrowing pain and vulnerability, he delivers the core of his teachings—nakedly, stripped of all art, so as not to be missed. He demonstrates a mercy of the highest order and it speaks the difficult truth: that solace is unattainable through revenge; it only comes with a mindset of willful compassion. The one who taught “If someone tells you to walk a mile with him, walk two” and “turn the other cheek” and “give them your cloak as well” breaks it down on the cross.
The revolutionary dying beside him acknowledges that the rabbi is an innocent victim, and it reinforces another lesson: “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” We are to say “yes” to what is true, and “no” to what is false. By doing so, we become one with eternity, and defeaters of death. “You shall be with me in Paradise.”
Finally, the last lesson—the lesson that permeates all of Scripture and is so hard we need to encounter it again and again: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”
It is a lesson not just of self-surrender but of consent—not merely of consent but of embrasure—of going “all in” on co-operating with the strange plans of God. It’s such a difficult lesson because it can only be learned, and then applied, after we have internalized one particular truth so completely that it runs through our very veins, seeps into the sinews of our spirits: God is ever-faithful, and never outdone in generosity.
At Passover, to help us absorb this lesson—which does not seem obvious on its face—the rabbi broke bread and poured wine, and called it his own body and his blood—the body and blood of a new and everlasting covenant—not just the mystery of faith, but the very delivery system of all that is holy, wise, consoling, instructive, beautiful, good, and true. He told us to consume it—to take this living flesh and blood into our own bodies.
This is how we become so intimate with the Truth that we can bring the most essential of lessons into our depths of certitude. We take, we eat. We understand that the rabbi on the cross is still alive—resurrected, glorious, closer to us than we are to ourselves, and ready to teach us everything.
Then, like Bartimeaus, we see.
Photo credit: Anthony Muhs, St. Joseph’s Church, Ronkonkoma, NY