“Where cynics talk smut, thieves curse, and soldiers gamble”

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, at a crossroad so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. It was the kind of place where cynics talk smut, thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. That’s where he died. And that’s where Christians ought to be and what Christians ought to be about.

— George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, 1938

One of my final exam questions was to write a commentary on this quotation from the perspective of one of the theologians we studied this semester. Now that I’ve done that, I want to write my own commentary on it.

This quote speaks to me of the profoundly transgressive nature of the Incarnation, and of the rejection of any value in the concept of purity for Christianity.

There is no more fundamental difference than the difference between Creator and creation, between the Holy and the profane. Many of the religious structures of biblical Judaism are organized around this distinction: from mountaintop theophanies to the architecture of the Temple with its Holy of Holies. The ritual purity laws are rooted in this distinction, and carry it farther.

The Incarnation blows that distinction out of the water. One of my favorite Christmas anthems sums that up for me:

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum
ut animalia viderunt dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio

which I translate freely as

O great mystery
and world-turning sign
that the beasts of the field should see
the birth of the Lord
hurled from heaven
into a trough

From the glory of heaven to the mud of a stable: it’s astonishing. Who could believe it?

That’s the kind of transgression that MacLeod reminds us was still going on when Jesus died: on the town garbage heap, surrounded by cussing and crime.

I think we too easily tend to sentimentalize and individualize this. The lousiness of the situation gets transmuted into part of what Jesus suffered for you and for me. We don’t stop and notice the shockingness of the surroundings until somebody like MacLeod reads it out for us again.

Jesus was born in scandal among animals, and died in scandal among criminals. We know he lived his life violating, indeed overturning and declaring invalid, many of the purity laws, but we forget how transgressive the circumstances of his birth and death were. It offends our sensibilities. What could God possibly have to do with dung and crime? We want God in his heaven so all’s right with the world.

Surprise! Our God isn’t like that.

And neither, therefore, should we be. Neither, therefore, should the church withdraw from the world in an attempt to remain pure: we should be out there in the mess like Jesus was.

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One Response to “Where cynics talk smut, thieves curse, and soldiers gamble”

  1. Sunatic says:

    Indeed mercy, kindness and salvation should be where they are needed. What’s the point of preaching to a bunch of holier-than-thous in a spotless ivory tower? It’s in dung and troubles that humans are most prone to forgetting to be good, and that’s when they need guidance the most.

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