Friday, 3 April 2015

Good Friday

The arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, reported in St Mark's Gospel, uniquely contains this passage

"A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked." (Mark 14:51-2)

This has often been regarded as a guarded self reference on the part of the evangelist to a point in the story at which he was there in person. Mark is said to have been Peter's scribe when the latter was recording for posterity what Jesus said and did. Was this his un-ostentatious signature?

Exposure of complete nakedness was considered shameful in Hebrew culture, in a way it wasn't in Greek society where men stripped naked to take part in athletics, and the human form in its entirety was the subject of admiration and artistic representation.

The Genesis stories account for the abhorrence of complete nakedness. It wasn't like that to start with.

"Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." (Gen  2:25)

After their act of disobedience to God, however, they behave altogether differently. The origin of shameful feelings is thus explained.

"Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?" (Genesis 3:7-11) 

The couple, once they are aware that they have done something they were warned against, have the impulse to cover, not the whole of themselves, but the part of their bodies associated with desire and pleasure they don't know how to control. They don't know how to give an account of themselves and this feeling is stronger than any sense of defiance or mischief they may have entertained.

Shaming is associated with humiliation, revelation of fault and transgression in a broader sense.

"They will be put to shame and even humiliated, all of them; The manufacturers of idols will go away together in humiliation." (Is 45:16)

"Men will come to Him, And all who were angry at Him will be put to shame." (Is 45:24)

"I said, "O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens." " (Ezra 9:6)

It carries the sense of being totally exposed and vulnerable to attack, punishment or condemnation.

The young man who evaded arrest in Gethsemane escapes by being stripped naked to his own shame, and causing offence to anyone who might catch sight of him running for his life.

Before Jesus was crucified he was stripped of his garments. The Gospels don't mention that he was stripped naked however. Christ crucified is generally portrayed wearing only a loin cloth, not naked.
It isn't necessary to presume that iconographers down the centuries have done this out of respect for Jesus' modesty. Publically displaying an condemned criminal naked would have caused great offence to the Jewish populace, and incite a protest riot. For Jesus to be accused of blasphemy, and abused so cruelly was shame enough. There was nowhere he could hide, no way to protect himself. This was the risk which he had freely and willingly undertaken to accomplish his Father's will. as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says:

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Heb 12:2)

The young man who evaded arrest in Gethsemane represents something more than an ephemeral anecdote in the Gospels. He is confronted with the violence of a 'religious' police force, and with Peter's violent response confrontation. He is witness to Judas' act of betrayal, whose motives he might not have had any reason to doubt previously. His instinct is to flee and tell the tale, and the shock of these events leaves him stripped bare, exposed, vulnerable, ashamed in more senses than one.

Do we not feel shame as well as horror at atrocities we learn of, almost on a daily basis, revealing man's inhumanity to man? The story of Christ's passion has the same effect, stripping us bare of our defences, our excuses, and pretences reminding us of our weakness and unhealed wounds, our need for shameful selves to be covered by God's compassion and healing grace. There is only one prayer left that any of us can say.

"Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13)

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