Whistling While We Work: A Palm Sunday Reflection

I love hearing about high school jobs. It's a strange time in life where you will do just about anything for almost nothing. I had several fairly entertaining, tortuous summer jobs. But I have a friend who tops them all. He was an assistant gravedigger for a summer. His job was to wait around during funerals, and then when all of the mourners had departed, he would use the winches to lower the casket down into the hole. Then he would help the backhoe driver cover over the grave. At the beginning of the summer, the job was somber and introspective. He would ponder mortality and pray for the people he helped to bury. But, like most things repeated over and over again, day after day, digging graves became monotonous and the gravity of the task began to wear off. He started to loosen up. This very abnormal task became more and more, normal. In the immortal words of Snow White, he began to whistle while he worked. I don’t know if he actually whistled, but he started to chat with the other guys on the crew, and he would eat his PB&J on the green, hands still dirty from gravedirt. At one particular burial, towards the end of the summer, they had to bury an extra long coffin, but apparently no one told the backhoe driver, who cut the hole too small. As my friend slowly lowered the casket into the grave, he heard a grinding. The casket was stuck, halfway down in the grave. It wouldn’t go any lower, and he couldn’t raise it back up. He looked up at the backhoe driver. What should I do? And the backhoe driver pointed, and with troubling nonchalance, said “jump on it.”

Out of respect for the departed, I will not go into detail on how my friend chose to respond, but they did eventually get the casket into the grave and properly buried. Repetition has the tendency to normalize completely abnormal activities. Even the most grotesque tasks, if we aren’t careful, can become natural, unthinking, unconscious. And if we aren’t careful, we can become like that backhoe driver, thoughtlessly disrespectful, unseeing and uncaring, whistling all the while.

In 1945, Joseph Hirsch painted The Crucifixion. In his painting, Hirsch does not focus on Jesus. Instead, the only person you can really see is a Roman guard. Jesus is up on the cross, suspended by ropes. And the viewer is situated just under, and behind, Jesus’ left arm, which frames the soldier’s round face and muscled arms. With one hand, the soldier is holding Jesus’ hand down, and with the other he is pounding the nails through Jesus’ hand. And he is whistling. Apathetic to the brutality that his own hands are performing. Detached from the horror he is inflicting. Just whistling a jolly tune while he works. I can see this Roman soldier taking his lunch break, sitting down in the shadow of the cross, eating his PB&J, unseeing and uncaring of the blood caked on his own hands. Unseeing and uncaring of Jesus, gasping for his final breaths, only a few feet away.

When I look at the painting, I can almost hear his tune, intermingled with the screams of Jesus, and the pounding of the hammer. Hirsch’s painting captures a brutal truth that is often ignored. A normal guy nailed Jesus to the cross. He was not extraordinary evil. He was just desensitized to performing abhorrent violence. He was, at least in his own mind, just a guy just doing his job. Not all that different from the crowds, chanting for Jesus to be crucified. Just another willing participant in the horror of the crucifixion.

Every Palm Sunday, we read from the Passion Gospel (Luke 23). But we did more than read. We participated. Some churches, my own included, has the congregation chant along with the crowds, Crucify him. Crucify him. It’s haunting. This is because, in a very real way, we are just as much to blame for Jesus’ resurrection as the soldier who swung the hammer. We are at fault. It is our sin that crucified him. Our evil. Our malice. Our apathy.

Year after year; crucify him, crucify him. With that repetition, comes a danger. We can, very easily, become desensitized to the brutality of the crucifixion. We can, very easily, forget the blood on our own hands. We too risk becoming like the soldier in Hirsch’s painting. Inserting our cries at the proper time. Unseeing. Unthinking. Just doing our job. We might even whistle while we work. Hirsch’s painting asks us all an important question: have we too become desensitized to the crucifixion? Has crucifying Jesus, year after year after year, become like a job for us too? Are we whistling, or wailing, when we chant as a congregation, for the blood of an innocent man? For the blood of our own savior?

Towards the end of our very long Gospel passage, Luke gives us an interesting detail. Another Roman stands at the foot of the cross, a Centurion. Just another soldier doing his job. Centurion’s were not ordinary soldiers. They were rockstars. Commanders. Powerful and well connected. Incredibly dangerous. Quiet. Reserved. Always ready to follow an order, no matter what it was. And so, when Luke mentions a Centurion at the foot of the cross, his audience would have taken immediate notice. This is the enemy. These guys are bad news. And like the ordinary soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross, the Centurion is also complicit in Jesus’ death. He may have even been in command of the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. He may have given the final order. Either way, Jesus’ blood is on his hands.

In the very next verse after Jesus breaths his last, Luke tells us, “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” In that one exclamation, the Centurion communicates so much. His own guilt and regret. His terror at the horror he has committed. And, ultimately, his hope in God. He risked a glance up at Jesus, and he was met with his own brutality. His own brokenness. But in it, he also met the grace of God. We can learn something profound about the crucifixion, and about the Jewish God, from this pagan Centurion.

Jesus not only laid his life down for us, he laid his life down to us. He went willingly to the cross. He went willingly into my hands. And I swung the hammer. Before we get to Easter, we have to face the cross. Every year. Because it doesn’t go away on Easter morning. It is a part of Easter. The lengths Jesus goes to save us is as much a part of the Gospel as the empty tomb. The cross is the only road.

The same blood shed through violence, our violence, given as life. Redeeming, transforming, resurrecting. What a glorious paradox. What a sanctified mystery. Crucify him. Crucify him. On Easter morning, these demonic words will walk from the tomb, resurrected. Hallelujah Hallelujah. But we aren’t there yet. We have some dark work ahead of us this week. We will crucify an innocent man. We will crucify the Lord of the universe. Will we swing the hammer on Friday night, whistling while we work? Just another Good Friday. Unwilling to look up at the terrible work we have accomplished. Unwilling to look down at the blood on our own hands. Apathetic. Unseeing. Uncaring.

Or will we, like that Holy Centurion, risk a look up at the cross, and see the man we crucified? With shock? With horror? And with praise? “Certainly this man was innocent. Certainly we killed him. And certainly he was innocent.”

Lord have mercy.

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