As one from whom men hide their faces he was despised,
and we esteemed him not.
Today we gather at 3pm – the time when Jesus gave up his life on the Cross. It is as if time stood still.
The significance of this event in history cannot be overstressed…any words spoken will only point is some manner towards the mystery.
Today I would like to speak about one aspect of the spectacle of the Cross – shame.
Since January of this year I have been taking an online course from the Seattle School for Theology and Psychology on shame. I have been trying to get my mind around shame as understood in psychology. I have also been looking at other sources – a series of podcasts by Fr Steven Freeman, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, have been very helpful to under the issue more theologically and pastorally. What I speak today, draws from these sources.
Often in the West our focus in the Passion of Jesus is on the pain endured on the Cross by Jesus, but shame is a huge part of the Passion of our Lord. There are attempts by those who judge and condemn Jesus to shame him, to publicly humiliate him:
- He was spit upon him by the religious authorities…, the temple guards covered his head and struck him saying – prophecy, who is it that struck you? It is a mocking of his dignity, both as a human being, as a prophet, and as the Son of God…
- and there is the mocking of him by the Roman soldiers, twisting a crown of thorns on his head, putting a purple robe on him, and bowing before him in mock salute, “Hail, King of the Jews”. While shouting this, they struck him with reeds, showing their contempt for his claims and for the Jewish people they associated him with. Pilate continues this contempt, showing the crowds a broken, tortured man, and saying, “Behold, your King!” The people, not wanting this humiliation, cry, “Away with him! Crucify Him!”
- The whole Roman practice of torture and death on the Cross was an effort to utterly humiliate a person – it was not just a painful death, but a shameful death – you were stripped naked, with none to comfort, lifted up on high, on display for all to see.
- And to add to the humiliation, Jesus was crucified between two common criminals.
- Everyone mocked him even when he was hanging on the Cross…taunting him about his identity as the Son of God.
Paul says, of Jesus, being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. By saying “even death on a cross”, Paul does not mean “the most painful of deaths, but the most shameful of deaths”. [Fr Freeman] Paul says of Jesus in Hebrews, for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Shame, even more than pain, is especially emphasized in the Passion accounts in the Gospels.
Each one of us knows shame – it is perhaps one of the most profoundly disturbing feelings that can come upon us, we avoid it at all cost, it is primordial. In the Garden of Eden, we are told just before the Fall of Man, at the conclusion of the creation of Adam and Eve, that they are together in the garden – “they were both naked, and were not ashamed.” The result of their encounter with the serpent, and their resulting disobedience, is that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked”. Their first reaction is to hide themselves from one another, with fig leaves, and to hide themselves, among the trees, from God.
And this hiding of ourselves from others and from God is something we all do. Fr Freeman gives the example of what happens at a piano concert when a child on stage forgets where he or she is, stops playing, and there is silence – everyone in the audience looks at their own feet – they don’t want to shame the child, they can’t bear the feelings that arise in themselves, maybe their own experience as a child, and they want to “cover” over what is happening.
Shame can be so painful, we can hide ourselves even from our own feelings of shame. The two common responses in the soul to shaming: we hide ourselves by averting our eyes, we look down, when someone shames us, we may feel we have to walk out of the room, not able to bear it – we want to hide. Or we hide with a quick response of either anger or dejection, we lash out in anger, or we bury the rage we feel, and it can lead to depression.
Guilt and shame are related, but guilt is feeling badly about what I did, whereas shame is feeling badly about who I am. Today, the culture we live in, seems less aware of feelings guilt as our shared understanding of what is right and wrong is less and less clear. But the culture we live in is very much aware of shame and how to shame.
When I came to the Netherlands I was surprised by the reaction to an error when I was driving, even if I expressed contrition, was more than I was used to – the shaking of the finger, or the sour stare (I call it the Calvinist stare) – it is saying, not, you are guilty, but you are a bad person.
The bullying of children and teens often involves shaming. The bully perversely exploits a perceived weakness in the other and attempts to undermine the self-confidence of the other – you are not strong enough, not masculine enough, or not feminine enough, not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not cool enough…
And our society can shame people on the basis of race, or disability, or wealth, social status, educational level, or perceptions of success. We are highly attuned to shaming. The shaming can be subtle but is perceived by the slightest sneer, or dismissiveness, the smile of ridicule, touching a place of vulnerability in our soul, of fear. Or it can be more explicit: the “cancel culture” in social media is about shaming: someone wrote something 20 or 30 years ago, something they express contrition about, but they are publicly shamed. It is an all out assault on a person’s character, no longer about what they have done, but who they are at the core of their being – such attacks have led some to suicide.
Here are two main sources of shame in our lives…and Jesus has come to relieve us of them through His Passion and Death upon the Cross.
- The shaming by actions or words we experience from others.
- The shame we experience from our sins.
1. The shaming by actions or words we experience from others.
We can have experiences of deep shaming that have nothing to do with our own culpability, but are related to what another has done to us – an experience that has led to us having profound feelings of shame and self-loathing. In the psychological community this is described as ‘toxic shame”. Because it can be so painful, it can be very helpful to seek the assistance of a therapist, and certainly a loving non-judgemental community can assist, as can a wise and loving priest. All of these can help over time to assure the person that what has happened to them was not their fault…that it was not their fault… that truly, it was not their fault. And also, these people can be assured, that feelings of anger around the deep injustice that was done to them are right and good and just.
The Cross of Jesus can help in the healing of this kind of shame. Paul says Jesus, endured the cross, despising the shame…
Jesus unveils by his patient endurance, the perversity in humanity which would shame – the weak, the righteous, the merciful, the pure in heart, the truthful, the just, the faithful. He unveils that this work of attempting to shame is not of God but is satanic. Jesus is unaffected by attempts to shame Him because he is without sin and knows Himself to be beloved by the Father. He enters into the most shameful of places – to be arrested as a criminal, to receive public spitting and mocking and humiliation, even on the Cross – and in the midst of it chooses not to reveal his power, but chooses to stedfastly look to the Father. He also knows that the ones doing the shaming are trying to distance themselves from their own shame – Jesus cries, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
The response of the world to Jesus’ perfect life and being, unmasked the evil that is very present in the world. When someone has humiliated us in actions or by words, the Passion of Jesus may help bear that shaming if we realize that it was not be something bad in us that caused the hurt, but in fact it was what is beautiful, and pure, and holy, that became the object of hatred.
Jesus despised the shame, and so should we.
2. The shame we experience from our sins.
Another cause of shame can be our sin. I want to speak about sin, not to shame us further, but to heal us – pray these words may be heard in that light.
Sin is not simply about a juridical act, somehow external to who we really are – you broke this law, so you are guilty. But sin is pointed out to us by God because it degrades us and others. It actually makes us less than we are meant to be, which is another way of saying, it takes away from our image and likeness to God. The experience of sin in us is a trajectory towards non-being, towards our annihilation – it is something deeply uncomfortable, even terrifying. God wants the opposite, God wants us to become more not less of who we are meant to be. That’s why sin is pointed out to us, so we stop hurting ourselves.
God responds to Adam and Eve after their fall in the Garden, He asks not first, “What have you done” but “Where are you?” – God came to them not to condemn them but to restore relationship. And, God’s actions through the whole of salvation history are all about that, not our condemnation but our salvation. The sending of Adam and Eve out of the Garden was for their salvation. And before they were sent out, God made garments of skins for them and to cover them out of mercy, out of love, garments to cover over their shame.
Jesus’ Passion and Death continues that work towards our full salvation, in part, by helping us in our experience of shame, of diminishment. The Passion and Death of Jesus on the Cross, we have all been told, is about the forgiveness of these sins. We know this phrase well, but the actual embodiment of the truth of this in our lives is something known for most of us only over time. This is our sanctification.
How does it work? It is in steps.
Through our union with Christ – sacramentally and by faith – Jesus does what he did for Adam and Eve – he covers us with a garment, that we might be able to bear with our shame and then he deals with the root causes of our shame. This may sound like Christian jargon, and mysterious. Let me say a bit about it.
Part of it is a mystery – it involves the coming upon us of the Holy Spirit. Paul says, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal 3:27) God, in his mercy, covers us in Christ. His precious blood is upon us – he takes away the sins of the world, we are covered by the righteousness of His Son. It harkens back to the Garden and God’s covering of Adam and Eve with skins that they might bear with their shame.
But there is something less mysterious – the more we turn to Jesus and think on Him, we shift our judgement about our very being, our existence, from our core fear of not being enough, and of disintegration because of sin, to one of being loved by God.
It is not a trick of the mind, but through knowing Jesus, our judgement about God’s good will towards us becomes the more primary way we judge ourselves. There is a lot of language in the New Testament about putting on Christ, a garment to cover our shame. It is our response of faith. Paul says, “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ep 4:24 And, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,… and above all these, put on love. Col 3:14 That is our active cooperating with grace to put on Christ.
In the putting on of Christ, both sacramentally and by faith, we develop a new way of judging ourselves – not what the crowd or the bully in our midst thinks, but what we come to know of ourselves in relation to Jesus Christ. This will help but it is not the whole story.
Despite being a believer in Christ, we can still suffer feelings of shame, even though we know ourselves to be forgiven on a rational level.
Our sanctification, is the restoration of the perfect image and likeness of God not only in our outward lives but deep within, so that we no longer feel condemnation, no longer have these places of vulnerability within our souls, of fear, which others have tapped into to shame us. Instead, in time we experience the perfect love that casts out all fear.
So how do we deal with the shame that comes from sin, that God covers over so we can bear it? How can be healed? The tradition says, we heal shame, by bearing a little shame. [e.g. John Climacus, The Divine Ascent, Step 4]
Healing will happen if our church community is a place where people are made comfortable to be able to bear a little shame – to be honest rather than trying to keep up some sort of mask that all is well. If we treat one another with the dignity each deserves, if there is a careful handling of one another, in our bearing a little shame, we can experience grace. It can also happen in the Church through sacramental confession, where the priest simply and lovingly is a listening ear and a witness before our God and can assure the penitent of the mercy that is extended to all who ask. Healing can happen and is the purpose of our weekly liturgy. Here we are encouraged in knowing the merciful character of God, and are made able to bear a little shame before God, admit our brokenness, that we may be comforted in that place of deep vulnerability in our souls. This is what is meant by acknowledging our wretchedness in the Lenten Collect – it’s not about shaming, but about bearing a little of the real shame that exists in us, being honest before God that we might know perfect remission and forgiveness.
And God gives us time. This is an ongoing work, the transformation of our souls and of our community, the restoring of our brokenness.
I pray we may we learn to endure a little better the shaming of others looking to Jesus, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
And also that we may learn to “bear a little shame”, that we might be healed, and so lift our eyes, to look upon beauty of God, face to face. [1 Cor 13]