When we come to the place of a skull, what do we see: a king or a criminal?
Proper 29c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The beloved Son… is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
I am sure that everyone here is familiar with optical illusions. These are the sometimes puzzling images that fool our eyes — or perhaps I should say, fool our brains, since it is the eyes that look, but it is the brain that actually sees. In these images our whole visual apparatus is tricked either into seeing something that isn’t there, or seeing something as other than it actually is. Some of those illusions can make two lines of the same length look as if they are unequal to each other — but when you get out a ruler and measure them, they turn out to be the same. Your vision may fool you, but the ruler tells the truth.
Another kind of illusion presents us with a picture that at first we see as one thing, but then realize with a shock that it can be seen as something else. Likely you are familiar with that image of two faces in profile looking at each other — and then you realize that it also forms a chalice.
So what did you see first — the woman sitting at her vanity table, or the skull? Some of it depends on how close your eye is to it, or how far away; the further away you hold it, the more you see the skull; the closer you get, the more you see the woman at her vanity. You might say that that is the “real” picture — the one of the woman at her vanity table — certainly in the Dior advertisement, it’s a photograph of a woman seated at a table, posed exactly as in the original drawing - and that’s what the photographer recorded. Yet that skull — and the message it conveys — that all is vanity — is very hard to miss. So hard that it strikes me as odd that a perfume company would think it a good idea to use it to advertise their perfume; though I also wonder why they thought “Poison” was a good name for something you dab behind your ears! It is a bit like using the graveyard scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to advertise cosmetics: as Hamlet addresses poor Yorick’s skull and says, “Get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” It is a sobering reminder to see a vanity table as “the place of a skull.”
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Today’s celebration of the last Sunday in the church year presents us with just such a double image — and death is involved in it, and as well as a “place of the skull.” For we are told on the one hand that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. That is to say, God is invisible, but in Jesus you see of God all that can be seen; in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. But we are then confronted with the image of that same Jesus mocked and crucified, about to die upon the cross, with its mocking label, “This is the King of the Jews.” The irony is brought home by the fact that this Sunday is popularly known as the feast of Christ the King — but here that title of kingship becomes the means for mockery.
The problem is that the mockers — the bystanders, the soldiers, and one of the two thieves — look at Jesus and they do not see a king, but a failed revolutionary, perhaps even a madman who imagined himself to be a king. The English Christian author C.S. Lewis, the 50th anniversary of whose death fell just this past Friday — yes, the same day as John Kennedy’s assassination, so there’s another double image for you — he once wrote that people make a huge mistake when they try to picture Jesus as just a good man or a wise teacher. Jesus presents himself and describes himself as more than a mere wise teacher; at least the Gospels portray him as doing so. He presents himself as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. If that is not true, and he made those claims, then he is either lying or mad. As Lewis put it,
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil out of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.
So Lewis said, and he was right. The problem is that most of the people standing at the foot of the cross cannot see Jesus as a King, cannot see him as the son of God or the Messiah, in spite of the fact what that sign over his head says — even if Pilate was merely making a cruel joke. Perhaps Pilate had begun to see something in this man more than most of the people could — it is always hard to tell exactly what politicians think. But for the most of the crowd, this was no son of God, this was no King — they simply couldn’t see it.
Its like someone who could look and look and just not see the skull in “All Is Vanity” — someone who insists “This is just a picture of a woman at her dressing-table, with her reflection in the mirror. What do you mean, a skull? Look, there’s the woman, her reflection, there’s the table, there’s the little drapery in front of the table; there are all her bottles of perfume, and her cremes and jellies. There’s no skull there!” And to a degree such a person would be right, for that is what the picture is.
Yet for those of us who see it, as the artist intended, it is the skull that stands out, rather than the woman at her vanity, even as we appreciate because of that artistry the artist’s message that life is fleeting and vanity is no refuge — with perhaps an echo of Hamlet in our ears that you can put on as much makeup as you want, but the bones underneath the skin will be around long after the rest of us has turned to dust. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, saith the Preacher!”
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There is a huge difference between looking and seeing. Some who followed Jesus even from the beginning knew him to be more than simply a good and wise man. Yet some of those are also among the ones that fled when he was taken prisoner, were those same people. How deep was their trust? How deep was their faith, if they could run off like that? It is a lesson to us that Peter, the first one openly to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and son of God, was also quick to deny him three times that night he was arrested, when suddenly it seemed that everything was falling apart.
However, Luke gives us one short glimpse of a character entirely new to the story, not a follower of Jesus who had been with him from the beginning on the road, or who had heard his teaching, as far as we know, yet one who recognizes him and sees him — even though all he knows him as is a fellow prisoner, a fellow criminal for all he knows, condemned to death just like that other thief — and yet this crucified thief somehow is given the grace to see in the crucified man beside him, not only innocence, but salvation. At least one person there at the “place of the skull” looked at Jesus and saw him — not as a failed huckster or a madman or a demon, but as the Messiah, the Christ, the image of the invisible God, the Way to Paradise, the Truth of God, and Life everlasting.
May God give us the grace to see that Christ in the unlikely places, even the crucified places, in our lives — to rejoice with him in our joys, but to know him as well even in our sorrows and in our pains. May we look and see the one through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross; even Jesus Christ our Lord.+