This photograph was taken by Joshua Irwandi for National Geographic on April 18, 2020 at a hospital in Indonesia. The body of a suspected COVID-19 victim has been sealed in some sort of cloth and plastic wrap turning it into a modern-day mummy awaiting the tomb.
We are approaching 550,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States and 3 million worldwide. For more than a year now we have been gripped in a sort-of perpetual Holy Saturday—we’re hidden away in the upper room with the doors locked and the curtains drawn. Our lives have been disrupted and devastated. We are mourning. We are afraid. We honestly don’t know if anything will ever be all right again.
And we have faith. And we have hope.
Let us pray with the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama:
Jesus of the unexpected,
for at least some of your life
this was not how you imagined its end.
Yet even at the end,
you kept steady in your conviction.
Jesus, keep us steady.
Jesus, keep us steady.
Because, Jesus, keep us steady.
WARNING: The photo in this post shows an unsanitized depiction of bodily injury and death.
WARNING: The image the image in this post shows terrible bodily injury and blood.
This photograph was taken by Carlos Gonzalez for the Star Tribune at a protest in Minneapolis on May 27, 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. We see a drawing of Floyd hung up on a pole with two police officers in riot gear and gas masks standing on either side. In the drawing Floyd looks happy, peaceful, full of life. He doesn’t look like he’s just been crucified.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man was killed while he was being arrested for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd’s neck with his knee for almost 9 minutes while Floyd begged for his life. The entire incident was caught on video by bystanders who tried to intervene to save Floyd’s life, explaining that they could see that Floyd was in distress and that he had apparently stopped breathing. The video sent shockwaves around the world and began yet another reckoning with police brutality and racism in the United States of America.
Watching a man murdered on video is a gut-wrenching experience, but one aspect of the video that stood out to many of us as particularly devastating was that Floyd told the officers, “I can’t breathe,” more than 20 times. “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry once again in protests directed at the police.
Crucifixion is such a brutal execution, it’s likely that autopsies of the victims of crucifixion would reveal a range of possible causes of death—exposure, heart failure, and asphyxiation. When the strength of a victim’s arms and legs gave out on the cross and they were hanging as dead weight, it would become very difficult to inhale and exhale, and eventually the body becomes so exhausted that the crucified person can’t breathe.
From the perspective of Good Friday, George Floyd was crucified. Not just because agents of the state stopped his breathing, but because crucifixion, in the ancient world and within our Christian tradition, is the ultimate statement of the powers of death. For the Roman Empire, the ones who crucified Jesus, death on a cross was not merely a way to dispose of one human life. Crucifixion was a tool to crush the hopes of all people who refused to serve them or bow to them. For the Jewish people who believed that they were created in the image of God, crucifixion was meant to be a violent reeducation declaring that you have been made and will be unmade according to the power and the
vision of Rome. The cross was raised up like a billboard, a living-dying-bodily advertisement of power and subjugation. The crucified human being on the cross, raised before their own community to slowly, publicly suffer, became a torturous exposition of the personal and collective frailty of the vanquished. The cross was a simple, practical way of showing the world who the boss was, and the cross was the Empire’s way of celebrating its own vicious victory over the lives of those it was conquering.
Thousands and thousands were crucified as Jesus was. And thousands and thousands
more, witnessing these executions, slipped beneath the hopelessness of that overpowering statement of death—you are less than God made you to be.
We observe Good Friday not because there is any truth or glory in what is happening on
Golgotha—what is happening to Jesus, what is happening to George Floyd, what is happening to countless others. We are here today because we are called upon by Christ to see through this lie. We are called by Christ to repudiate it. And so we must say, “Black Lives Matter,” and we must fight to make the world behave like it’s true.
Let us pray the prayer written onto this picture of George Floyd:
Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy. Amen.
The victims of crucifixion were stripped naked before they were hung up to die on the cross.
This photograph was taken by Matthew Abbott for the New York Times on January 10, 2020. He took it in Bago State Forest, located a few hundred miles southwest of Sydney during the worst brushfire season in Australia’s history. We see a charred and ash covered landscape. Struggling up a devastated hill is a dehydrated and starving wild horse that looks like it’s on the verge of death.
During the nine months of fire, 72,000 square miles were burned—including 53% of the Gondwana World Heritage Rainforests and 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. 3,500 homes and other building were destroyed. 34 people lost their lives in the fires, and it’s estimated that more than a billion animals were killed, including 1/3 of the country’s koalas.
The photographer Matthew Abbott said this about the forest stripped by fire: “Once a fire goes through, things are just so quiet. You don’t realize all the bugs, all the birds, all the little beings make these noises. It’s just so disconcerting to be walking through this destroyed forest and have complete silence.”
Let us Pray:
God, we ask you to cover those who are exposed, to heal the empty places, and to remain with those who have had everything else taken away. Amen.
On September 9, 2020 the largest migrant camp in Europe, Camp Moira on the Greek Island of Lesbos, was destroyed by fire. The camp was designed to hold 2,200 people, but it was estimated to have held about 13,000 people. On September 12, having barely escaped the fire with their lives, having lost what little they had, with nowhere to live, and with no way off the island, some of the migrants began to protest. Police responded with tear gas. It was a catastrophe within a catastrophe within a catastrophe—something like a third fall, I guess.
This photograph was taken by Angelos Tzortzinis for the AFP. We see a young migrant boy, stressed out and afraid, reacting to the sound of the tear gas canisters being fired. His right foot is squeezed in tension. Drool runs from his mouth. He holds his head and screams and weeps his terror and his devastation.
There are pictures in the Stations of the Cross this year that are harder to look at, but this one is the hardest for me to look away from. This boy has been pushed down, and I want to pick him up. I just want to pick him up.
Let us pray:
Jesus, you who were a refugee child, have mercy on those with no homes, no country, and no way forward. Amen.
In Luke’s Gospel, many women follow Jesus as he heads to Golgotha weeping and beating their breasts for him. Jesus turns to them and tells them not to weep for him but to weep for themselves. Things are on a worsening path, he tells them. And he asks them, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it’s dry?”
I’ve always heard these words to the women of Jerusalem as a reminder to us all that crucifixion won’t end with Jesus. We say that in Jesus’ death he took on the sin of the world. But he certainly didn’t end the sin of the world. Violence, suffering, and injustice are still with us. We all participate in these sins, they are a part of who we are and why we seek redemption. But violence, suffering, injustice, and crucifixion itself are also tools that the powerful use to remain in power.
Jesus’ words, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it’s dry?” remind me of the words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller explaining how he ended up in a Nazi concentration camp. He said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Abandoned by the male disciples, it is the women who Jesus delivers this message to. As the labor activist Joe Hill wrote to a friend shortly before his execution, “Don’t mourn. Organize!”
This photograph was taken by Yevgeny Yerchak for the European Pressphoto Agency on September 8, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus. We see a group, mostly women, who have been separated from a larger protest by shadowy paramilitary law enforcement officials. The women had come out in demonstration against Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator,” after he claimed he had won 80% of the vote and a sixth term in office in the country’s presidential election. When I see their linked arms and when I see the look of resolve and fearlessness in their eyes, I think they must have heard Jesus’ words to the women of Jerusalem. And this is their response.
Let us pray:
Jesus, we live in a time surrounded by dry wood. Don’t let us mourn for too long. Send us into the parched world with the water of our faith. Amen.
This photograph, called “The Last Goodbye,” is by Ami Vitale and won a People’s Choice Award in the 2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. We’re seeing the final goodbye between Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, and one of his caretakers, Joseph Wachira shortly before Sudan’s death at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya following a series of infections and other health problems.
Northern White Rhinos were hunted to extinction in the wild by 2008. Sudan only survived because he was living in a zoo. Rhinos were hunted as big game trophies and their horns are considered aphrodisiacs, hangover cures, and status symbols in certain parts of the world. And so we’ve lost one of God’s creatures to the snake oil and vanity of the globe’s elite.
It is precisely this tendency in us for the powerful to exploit the weak that delivered Jesus to the cross. In that sense, at least, Christ and Sudan are connected—in weakness, in exploitation, in innocence, and in death.
Let us pray as Sudan’s caretaker Joseph Wachira prays:
Father, we come before your presence. We pray to thank you for the days that you’ve given us life. When you brought these animals into this world you commanded us to watch over them. You are the creator of the animals we protect. Let us live longer to watch over them. Amen.
This photograph was taken by Erin Schaff of the New York Times about a block from St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020. That day President Trump infamously cleared Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters with tear gas and riot control so that he could have a picture of himself taken holding a Bible in front of the church. In the photograph we see an unnamed man is having the tear gas washed off his face and out of his eyes with milk.
Of course, we could ask why peaceful protesters were gassed, shoved, and hit with batons merely to make way for a presidential photo op. But maybe we should also be asking why police are allowed to use tear gas (a powerful, aerosol, chemical irritant banned in warfare by the Geneva convention) on anyone at all.
Let us pray:
God, even if all we have is a cloth, or a bottle of milk help us do whatever we can with what we have been given. Amen.
There are always two things that strike me about the story of Simon of Cyrene as told in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. First, Simon of Cyrene was merely a passerby trying to mind his own business when he was seized by Jesus’ executioners and forced to carry the cross for him. Simon, who didn’t know Jesus and who was just passing through, did not volunteer for this grueling and possibly dangerous job.
The second thing that strikes me is that, despite the fact that Simon didn’t know Jesus and wasn’t volunteering to help him out, Simon is still named and remembered in the narratives. We learn his name, we learn where he’s from, we learn he’s a father, we learn the names of his sons, we learn he was traveling into Jerusalem from the countryside when he was seized. Now, if the gospel writers named everybody who Jesus interacted with and spoke with, this maybe wouldn’t be that surprising. But they don’t, and they rarely provide the kind of details they provide about Simon.
It’s like the Gospels writers are saying, “It doesn’t matter to us that you didn’t volunteer. When the one we love, who gave so much help to others, was finally in need of help himself, you were there. It doesn’t matter to us that you didn’t want to do it or that you didn’t know who you were doing it for, you were there. And we will never forget that.”
This photograph was taken during a large right-wing protest in London on June 13, 2020 by Dylan Martinez for Reuters. We see Patrick Hutchinson, a Black Lives Matter protester, carrying Bryn Male, a right-wing protester, to safety after Male was attacked and beaten by an angry mob.
When asked why he and his friends were in London that day Patrick Hutchinson said, “We knew how aggressive it could be. We knew we had to be there to protect vulnerable Black Lives Matter protesters and to protect our black boys from harm.” Mr. Hutchinson had no intention of protecting someone like Bryn Male. The possibility wasn’t on his mind at all. But when the moment came, Patrick Hutchinson saved Bryn Male’s life. And no one who was there that day or who has seen this picture will ever forget it.
Let us pray:
God, grant us the strength to do the right thing that we do not yet know we will be compelled to do. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations