Under the sign of a joke
Simon Jenkins on the horror and humour of the Passion
In a bare room, at the end of a rope suspended from the ceiling, a man is hanging upside down, his wrists tightly bound, his hair brushing the floorboards as his head swings an inch or two above the floor. The door suddenly opens, and an Isis torturer enters with a large dog on a chain. At the sight of the man on the rope, the dog starts barking wildly, baring its teeth.
It’s at this point in my favourite TV drama that I get the urge to leave the sofa and go and make a cup of tea, hoping the next scene will be a bit more watchable. That’s because people getting tortured is far and away my least favourite thing to watch on TV.
But last Easter, I found the Good Friday readings in church had pretty much the same effect. As Jesus was captured and became the plaything of the soldiers, I wanted to escape my pew and take a break in the church kitchen with a comforting cup of tea. If you go to any Good Friday service and pay attention to the readings, you’re going to be in for a gruelling mixture of violence and humiliation, as Jesus falls into the hands of ruthless men who relentlessly destroy his body and crush his beautiful life.
The Passion story, especially as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, is a very dark cocktail of mockery, slapping, spitting, stripping, flogging, parading, heckling and horror. It involves grotesque jokes, ritual humiliation and public shaming. The dehumanisation of Jesus is staged as a spectacle, and physical torture is just one disturbing element among many. Maybe we Christians are so familiar with the narrative that we screen out how disturbing it is. If church services were given movie age ratings, then Good Friday services would probably have to be 12A.
The realisation of this came home to me when our readings last year reached the scene where Jesus is held in the dungeon of the high priest. A little moment of cruelty snagged my imagination: The men who are guarding Jesus begin mocking and beating him. They blindfold him and demand, “Prophesy! Who hit you?”…
Simon Jenkins is Editor of shipoffools.com
This is an extract from an article that was published in the April 2019 edition of Reform