At the Foot of the Cross 2009

Thorns - Nature Subverted

We are all familiar with the changed attitude of Christianity to slavery and race, to corporal punishment and the treatment of children, to genocide and banking; but how aware are we of the continuing tension in Christianity about the treatment of the world's resources?

When the Bible was written its world possessed more resources than people. St. Paul and St. Luke might have had some inkling of the city of Rome's dependence upon Egyptian grain imports but that was the startling exception to the general rule that the earth's abundance seemed limitless. The Chosen People were required to multiply and use the earth's resources to sustain themselves. At the beginning of the 21st Century, five decades after the first serious warnings about over population and the depletion of resources, our idea of stewardship of God's creation is much less assertive; but we need to remember that there is still a very strong strand of Christian thinking that says that humanity, as superior to all nature, must express that superiority in exploiting earthly resources; there is a strand that says that we can judge how much God loves us according to how wealthy and powerful we are; and while it might be clear to us that this is a case of cynically manipulating religion to justify selfish behaviour, we need to acknowledge its virulence and its dangers.

The relationship between Jesus and nature is theologically neutral. He was remarkably subject to its forces and he only exercised power over them in order to convey the power of his Creator Parent. He was born in a poor place in poor weather; he was tested in the wilderness; he was tossed on the waters of the Sea of Galilee; and now, here, he is assaulted by thorns and will soon be murdered by fixation to a tree.

In our culture the purpose of thorns is to protect the beautiful or the precious, the flower and the fruit. There are places, like sub Saharan Africa or Mexico, where thorns appear to exist for their own sake, to protect nothing; but in our consciousness it is not easy to escape the association of the rose and the thorn, to think that the thorn is the price of the rose. Here, the role of the thorn is radically reversed so that it is not used to protect the beautiful and the precious but to assault it. The use of the thorns to torture Jesus (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:18; John 19:2) is depicted as a parody of earthly power, for they are twisted into a primitive crown; the most exalted headgear is inverted into being a humiliating gesture. Jesus' assertion of his own kind of kingship is subverted into a claim of earthly power which is then ridiculed. Not for the first time, he is deliberately misunderstood. He is being punished for his meekness. Were he claiming to be an earthly king the conclusion would no doubt have been the same but the foreplay would have been very different. Claiming to be a king in the imperial empire was a serious claim; but we can see that at no point did anybody take Jesus' claim seriously: the religious authorities were quite properly frightened of Jesus' miraculous powers and they were confused by his claim of relationship with The Father but they did not take him seriously as a secular ruler or a Messiah; Herod, quixotic to a fault, veered between respect and mockery, just as he had never reached a settled view of John the Baptist; and Pilate, frightened though he was of the religious authorities, was not in the last frightened of Jesus. So the crown of thorns was a pretext for cruelty and parody.

Perhaps, too, we think of Jesus using the thorn as a metaphor for human ambition in his story of the sower (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:18-19; Luke 8:14). Here is the quintessential, non acquisitive person, being punished by thorns, representing the worldly threat that he has resisted, to the Word of God. In the parable, the thorns choke; in real death they pierce, drawing blood which makes a mockery of the finery in which Jesus is dressed, in a purple, scarlet, or simply gorgeous robe, depending on the translation and evangelist (Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:17; Luke 22:11; John 19:2; 19:5).

But in this era of ecological awareness, the thorn which punishes takes on a completely different aspect; for in seeing something that was created by God Our Parent being used to inflict pain on the Son, we see the wider picture of nature subverted for ignoble ends. For us, living now, any sensitivity we have moves outwards from the particularity of the power politics of Jerusalem and Rome, to a world of receding glaciers, evaporating lakes, endangered species and threatened livelihoods. We see the thorn subverted magnified in nature subverted; what was particular in Jesus becomes general in our stewardship; and that opening out reinforces the point that the whole process can be reversed, so that our general failure of stewardship is particularised into the crowning of Jesus, illustrating yet again how we must see ourselves as complicit in the passion and death of our Saviour.

There are, essentially, four charges against us as stewards: that we are indifferent, ruthless, unjust and sentimental; and we can see immediately how these attitudes to the environment so closely mirror the way in which the authorities and the crowds, as our representatives, treated Jesus: perhaps indifference is too light a word for the crowds and is certainly too light a word for the followers who deserted him, but the correspondence is close enough. There is no doubt that the authorities were ruthless; they had a very selfish objective and did not mind what steps they needed to take to achieve it; and one of those steps was the indifference to justice. as for the sentimentality, it is so easy for us to distance ourselves in a chocolate box kind of reverence, from the real pain.

On the wider issue of our stewardship, there is no doubt that many of us are indifferent, just hoping that we can go on driving our cars, taking cheap flights, over purchasing and wasting, land-filling our rubbish, wishfully thinking that climate change will go away. Our ruthlessness in pursuit of material comfort and our voracious desires are the causes of injustice, both in respect of poor people in developing countries and our own but, more worryingly still, in respect of our descendants. Our consumption is materially damaging the prospects of our children and grandchildren. All this grabbing and gouging, mining and mangling, fishing and foraging, pesticiding and poisoning, travelling and trashing, has not freed us from our sentimentalism about nature: it is there for us, it brings joy, it will always be there, no mater what we do.

There is a lure in our dealings with nature, a kind of super sentimentalism which is summed up for me in the idea of the thornless rose. The perfection of symmetry in beauty and protection, in the flower and the thorn, is replaced by an overbalancing of ease and an artificially exaggerated prettiness; we are always in danger of escaping from beauty into prettiness; but, to parody Keats, whereas truth is beauty, prettiness is ephemeral. And this descent into the pretty is an intrinsic part of our escape from the reality of the power and danger, the life threatening and life enhancing properties of beauty; the idea of beauty as challenge and risk. It is this effeteness of perception which can so easily turn us away from the horrors of the world, all concentrated in the Passion and death of Jesus. By this I do not mean that Jesus in some way bore all our sins, or cancelled them, or performed the grotesque act of what is called "Penal Substitution"; what I mean is that in spite of universal complicitness in the Passion and Death, the culmination of all the wrong choices the human race has ever made and will ever make, we keep our emotional, and sometimes even our penitential, distance. Just as we are fastidious in the face of poverty and degradation, so we may be in the face of what is before us. Yet the risk of beauty is before us in horror and wonder; for not only are we, collectively, the perpetrators of what is before us, represented by those people some two thousand years ago, we are also the beneficiaries; and our benefit lies in this; that from this time we know that there is nothing that Jesus will not do for us; and we know too that this commitment of him to us will survive no matter what we do to him. The real significance of his Passion and Death is not that he in some way died FOR our sins but that he died OF our sins; but that made no difference to his divine love for us.

And such a poor king! Those who pressed the crown of thorns into the head of Jesus thought they were making a marvellous joke at his expense, taunting him with his failed ambition; it was as if they could not believe that he did not really want to be a king in spite of everything they had heard; for Jerusalem was a small, claustrophobic, multilingual place and almost everyone must have heard of the final few days of the mission of Jesus. Surely he wanted to be king. Everybody wants to be king, don't they?

Well not, of course, in the old fashioned, literal sense of the word. We don't want to live in a palace and be a head of state and we certainly don't want to go out onto a battlefield and fight for our kingdom; We want our kingship easy; in the spirit of the times, we really want it unearned. In a fascinating transition from a dictatorial monarchy to a democracy, we all want our own way; we are consumers and our central value is choice; we all want to be monarchs of all we survey. And for us, too, there is the added dimension of who we are and how we exercise power over other people. Not only do we have the power of the consumer to buy blackberries from Mexico, trainers from Taiwan, flowers from Kenya and cars from South Korea, but we also have other powers that we take for granted: we are intellectual pace-setters, exercising a moral and cultural superiority without thinking about it so that we feel shock and resentment when leaders in the Third World accuse us of decadence; and we wield power over our own little corner of society, in committees and unofficial power bases.

But the central point of this meditation is that to look at behaviour between humans is not enough. The drama of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday has been understood for almost two thousand years as a human drama; and our tradition has understood this as a fundamentally significant event in salvation history. Whatever our explanation for the Passion and Death of Jesus it has always involved the behaviour between humans and the choices they make to love or not to love the Creator as creatures. Only now, as the temperature rises, as the scientists become more insistent, as politicians prevaricate, can we see that our obligation to God Our Parent is not only a matter of the way we treat humanity, it is a matter of the way in which we treat creation.

We can see the crown of thorns as an icon of the natural wrenched from its place and deployed for vicious human ends, as a means of denying the creator. Icons will come and go as our circumstances change but for now, the crown of thorns is an emblem of nature subverted.

Prayer. Lord Jesus, it is only at this point of contact between the thorns and your sacred head that we can bring ourselves to shudder at what we have done and what we have failed to d; for we, who were given creation, have subverted creation. May we learn from your love, beautiful and terrible in its poignant repose, how we may love creation; and grant us the grace to see ourselves as fellows in your power, not venal spectators or perpetrators, so that we might be honest stewards of creation.