Ecce Homo

by Jessica Hickey, (c.) 2010

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

“God leads his chosen children on extraordinary paths.
This is an extraordinary path,
A noble road,
And a sacred way.
God himself trod it."
(St. Mechtild of Magdeburg)

"Pilate is correct when he says: 'Behold the man.' In him, in Jesus Christ, we can discern what the human being, God's project, is, and thereby also our own status. In the humiliated Jesus we can see how tragic, how little, how abased the human being can be. In him we can discern the whole history of human hate and sin. But in him and in his suffering love for us we can still more clearly discern God's response: Yes, that is the man who is loved by God to the very dust, who is so loved by God that he pursues him to the uttermost toils of death . . . . we can learn from him what it means to be a human being.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall)

"The key to human nature is Christ. He is the pattern in which man was originally made, and by becoming one with him, man can be restored to that pattern and become whole . . . . Christ is man's destiny."
(Caryll Houselander)

As we approach the end of the Lenten season and prepare to enter the Triduum, the image of Christ, the Suffering Servant, the "Man of Sorrows" comes to the foreground. In this mystery, the flame of light which fell upon humanity at the moment of the Incarnation burns with ultimate brightness, even in that darkest moment of history, for now this light will be reflected on the faces of all men. "God became man that man might become God," said St. Augustine.

This mystical identification is made explicit in the Sacraments, which pour into men the life of God, and which grant to them the qualities which are His: divine sonship and filial trust, the supernatural sight which is Faith and Hope, and supernatural love or Charity, proper only to God. We are immersed with Him, die with Him, rise with Him. We bear on our person His kingly and messianic anointings, and within us His Spirit dwells that we might be prophets as He is. Like the Bridegroom, we are wed, in our particular ways. On a hundred thousand altars we partake of His Passover; on a hundred thousand sick beds, we participate in His Passion.

God declared to Moses, "My presence shall go with thee." To be led and ruled by God, to know that His Pillar of Fire guarded them from evil--this made sense to humanity. Moses knew that he would stand upon the cleft of the rock while the Lord's glory passed over; he did not expect that he would ever see the Lord's face. Still less could he have imagined seeing God's eyes looking back at him in the mirror, his face Christed, his brow anointed and crowned with gold and with thorns. But this is in fact what the sacraments accomplish in a human being.

There is more, however, to this mystical union, for even among those who have not known Jesus and His sacraments, traces of Him still remain. Caryll Houselander speaks of the "unconscious Christs" we meet, those who are sharing, without knowing it, in His cross and resurrection. This is because all of human nature has undergone a permanent alteration. It has not been the same since that day when the angel Gabriel appeared in the home of the little Virgin in Nazareth. Our nature, says Paul Claudel, has been raided:

"When God took possession of the human form, when he appropriated it for his own use, when he placed himself within the hypostatic union, he committed an unpardonable offense against justice, good sense, and propriety. Until the end of time, intellectuals will respond with alternating indignation and amusement. There are certain things that are simply not done. Let us therefore plant the forked gibbet, in the sight of heaven, for the edification of all ages, this transgressor caught in the very act of stealing back a possession we had every reason to regard as exclusively ours.

"In procuring from us the means to die, he robbed us of that right to annihilation which, since the original sin, has constituted the most obvious part of our basic capital. He embezzled our funds for his own profit. In one stroke he reclaimed for his Father all that cultivated estate which we considered ours by tenants' rights, under the terms of a hard-won agreement. This is why he deserves the name of Thief that he himself officially assumed . . . Thanks to the complicity of the Virgin, there has been a stealthy raid on our nature. The damage is permanent; henceforth our walls are marred by a crack that for all our industry can never be mended again."

Ecce Homo: "Behold the Man!" He has become one of us; He is of our own kind. When we acknowledge the sacred humanity of Jesus, we are forced to re-evaluate what it means to be human, and we find that in fact that is nothing ordinary about it. God's presence with us as one of us has placed the final seal upon our nature, imposing an almost sacramental quality to the various aspects of our existence. Now, when we wake and stretch in the mornings, take a bite of food, clasp the hand of a friend, bend our back in labor, shed a tear in solitude, we know: "All of this Jesus Christ has done." He has gazed up at the constellations and at the same moon in its waxing and waning, not only from above as Creator, but from below as a man. God Himself has drunk from this cup.

Christ thus emerges in humanity. He is that pattern dimly seen in the background, the image which sometimes clarifies for moment until we can nearly recognize the Face that we have sensed there all along in the poor man who suffers silently, in the soldier laying down his life for the good of others, in the noble king dispossessed and shunned, in the solemn purity of the priest and in the fidelity of the devoted spouse, in the unborn child, even in the condemned man: Christ is there; He is all of these. Human life, like the wax of the Paschal Candle, has been imprinted with the mark of Christ---the Name, the nails, the crown. This makes it impossible for any human life to be useless, throwaway, ugly, or meaningless. All bear the image of Christ and remain sacred.

Writing as a Catholic in the southern Gothic tradition, the novelist Flannery O'Connor touches on some of these themes in her short story "Parker's Back."

The protagonist of her story is a young man leading a more or less shiftless life. After a short stint in the Navy, Parker ends up married to a difficult wife, a sharp, thin, plain young woman whose father was a "Straight Gospel" preacher and who never evinces much liking for Parker. Likewise, Parker cannot explain why he pursued and married her, or why he stays with her.

Parker has little sense of himself. The story tells us that he was ashamed to use his baptismal name, Obidiah (the name of a prophet, which translates "servant of God"). He works odd jobs without much purpose and appears to have no direction. Yet Parker is also slightly haunted. He dislikes wide vistas or open places, which depress him: "You began to feel as if someone were after you, the navy or the government or religion." He has a sense of pursuit which grows more acute with time: "Once or twice he found himself turning around abruptly as if someone were trailing him."

Parker's only point of illumination had occurred when, at the age of fourteen, he saw a carnival man who was covered entirely in tattoos, which appeared like a living garden of birds and beasts:

"Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed."

This unease drove Parker to imitate the tattooed man, striving to achieve the Garden-of-Eden effect he had glimpsed. Some people were impressed with this; his wife disliked it and considered it vanity. And as time went on, the more tattoos he added & the less space he had left unmarked, the less satisfied he was with himself:

"The effect was not one of one an intricate arabesque of colors, but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself . . . As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general. . . . [It] became acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him, raging warfare."

At length, Parker felt compelled to fill up the one empty space left--his back--with an image of God. He fled to the city and chose from among the tattooist's designs "the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes."

The tattooist asks Parker:

"'You think she'll like it and lay off you for a while?'

'She can't hep herself,' Parker said. 'She can't say she don't like the looks of God.'"

By this one means Parker hoped to please his wife and to give over the one empty space he had preserved with the image of God, that Person whom he had felt behind him all the time. Now, "the eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed."

After doing this, he feels different: "His dissatisfaction was gone, but he felt not quite like himself . . . driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him." He is able to use his own name, Obidiah Elihue, now.

However, Parker does not gain the reception he had hoped for when he reaches his own door:

"'Who's there?' an unfeeling voice said.
Parker turned his head as if he expected someone behind him to give him the answer. . .

'Another picture,' Sarah Ruth growled. 'I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.'
Parker's knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, 'Look at it! Don't just say that! Look at it!'
'I done looked,' she said.
'Don't you know who it is?" he said in anguish.
'No, who is it?' Sarah Ruth said. 'It ain't anybody I know.'
'It's him,' Parker said.
'Him who?'
'God!' Parker cried.
'God? God don't look like that!'"

The story ends with a scene of pathos, replete with biblical imagery: Obidiah, 'God's servant', driven from the house, sits weeping beneath a tree, while across his back the face of the Byzantine Christ is marked with welts left by Sarah Ruth's broomstick.

Parker, who bears the Face of Christ, has become a suffering servant. Symbolically, we can see here the prophet Hosea, who is maltreated and rejected by his wife, a symbol of Israel, and Moses, to whom God said "I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back, but My face shall not be seen," and to other prophets of the Old Testament.

But plainly O'Connor offers Parker as something of a Christ figure, capturing here the great sorrow involved in mankind's rejection of Him: "She can't say she don't like the looks of God," Parker thought. But when God is presented to her, she will not recognize Him: "It ain't anybody I know . . . God don't look like that!" She discerns neither God's image etched with ink, nor in the person of the husband, and raising her hands in anger, she desecrates both.

This was the feeling of the crowd gathered before Pilate that day, as he presented Jesus to his own people: "Behold the Man." They saw nothing: "God doesn't look like that!" And blindly they committed the greatest of all sacrileges. We should not be quick to relegate this lesson as one of the past, not so long as humanity remains on the earth, for so long as it endures, Christ's Face is still there to be seen among us.

Caryll Houselander writes:

"There is a startling paradox in this, that he who came as he said, to give life to men, to fill up the measure of their joy, to show them the way back to the wonder and peace of living in God, he who is known by names that are radiant with joy, light, life, love, is also known as the 'Man of Sorrows.' At first sight one would be tempted to say that he had fallen in love with our suffering. He made himself subject to our limitations--to discomfort, poverty, hunger, thirst and pain. He chose to experience fear, temptation, failure. He suffered loneliness, betrayal, injustice, the spurning of his love, mockery, brutality, separation, utter desolation of spirit, the sense of despair, and death.

"But it was not with our suffering that Christ fell in love; it was with us. He identified himself with our suffering because he identified himself with us, and he came not only to lead his own historical life on earth, but to live the life of every man who would receive him into his soul."

We pray that Christ, who longed to take all humanity to Himself, will be our vision, that we may come to recognize Him in ourselves and in one another.

"Christ shield me today from all wounds;
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right hand, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ in the mouth of all who speak of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me."

(From the Breastplate of St. Patrick)

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