Many times I’ve stared at Titian’s famous painting “Christ on the Way to Calvary,” which depicts Simon of Cyrene as he helped Jesus carry the cross up the hill to Golgotha. In the painting, it looks as though there is some kind of communication happening between the two—Christ sorrowfully glancing up over his left shoulder and Simon gazing down with kindness at the face of Jesus. What would I have said were I in Simon’s shoes? Maybe it would have been something along the lines of “Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended, that mortal judgement has on you descended?”
That’s Jesus right there
The other day, as I was driving my 12-year-old daughter Ruby to school, we saw a weather-beaten woman sitting at the top of the freeway exit, begging for money in the Albuquerque sun. I said to Ruby, “That’s Jesus right there.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. I explained how Christ continually identified himself with the downtrodden and marginalized in the world—with beggars, lepers, tax collectors, harlots, thieves—with the “least of these,” according to the society of his day. She still looked at me quizzically. Thrilled to have gained her attention on the subject, I said, “The humility of God is a pearl of great beauty in this desolate world.”
Afraid I might lose her attention, I found myself awkwardly blathering on about the world and its mad lust for fame, influence, riches, stature. I talked about the Kardashians, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Kim Jong Un, Elon Musk, and other influencers and powerful figures who are on Ruby’s radar. I described how the life Jesus led was in the sharpest contrast to the values of the most influential people living in his day and in ours. Then we talked about the humble and beautiful way in which God became a man and the shocking humiliation of the way he died.
“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). Jesus—the Messiah, the King of Kings, the Lord of the universe—entered into this world through a human birth canal. He was covered in blood and afterbirth then wiped clean by tender, though perhaps clumsy, hands. Too weak and undeveloped to lift his own tiny head, the creator of the stars was held up to his mother’s breast so that he could drink his first meal. He who created all things was now utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph, whom Jesus himself had breathed into existence! It’s a striking image to ponder. The birth of Jesus is a stunning and glorious moment in the history of this cold, calloused world.
The death of Jesus is stunning, too—the humility of God again fully on display, but under the most brutal and savage of circumstances. Consider the prophetic description in Isaiah 50:6–7:
I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
Titian’s painting poignantly portrays the exhaustion and agony in Jesus’ eyes as he props himself up on a stone embedded in the hard ground. Simon’s visage is tender and compassionate. I imagine however, that the painting does little to accurately depict the unbearable agony that was physically taking place in his tortured body at that moment in Jesus’ slow, brutal march up that hill.
When we sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” by Johann Heermann every year at our church’s Tenebrae service on Good Friday, it has a unique way of casting me as a Simon-like character in a Passion play. I feel as though I’m walking right next to Jesus and asking him these rhetorical questions as he takes the final steps toward his crucifixion. Who did this to you, Lord? Why are they doing this? What have you done wrong?
Of course, the questions are devastatingly answered in the second verse of the hymn with these words that are almost unbearable to sing:
’Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied you,
I crucified you.
My daily rejection of the sovereignty of Jesus in my life comes painfully into focus—my moment-by-moment insistence that I’m the one who determines the trajectory of my life. Yet here I am, caught up in the pathos of this extraordinary hymn. My own needy, imperfect humility becomes intimately commingled with the perfect humility of Jesus as we continue the grueling walk up the hill.
No one takes it from me
The third verse of the hymn is now given perfect context. It is a confession, an acknowledgement, that the congregation sings together:
For me, dear Jesus,
Was your incarnation
Your mortal sorrow
And your life’s oblation;
Your death of anguish
And your bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Like many parents, sometimes I imagine what it would be like to have to step into harm’s way in order to protect my daughter Ruby from danger, to save her from being injured or killed. I would gladly do it in a heartbeat. I would not hesitate. But if I were asked to do something like that for a stranger, let alone for an angry group of people who were mocking me, taunting me, swearing at me, and shouting their hatred for me, it would be a radically different story.
Yet, the vast, immeasurable, unsearchable, perfect love of Jesus welled up in him in the very climax of his agony, and he called out to God and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Then Jesus died and darkness fell over the earth.
Jesus’ gruesome death was not something that happened randomly or accidentally. It was not simply that an innocent man was savagely tortured and nailed to a cross because he happened into the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus knew very well what was coming his way after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and this is what he’d already said of the matter: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17–18, emphasis added).
Jesus came into this world in meekness, tenderness, and humility. Even though he was spotless and without sin, he willingly suffered to die a death that was reserved for the very vilest of vile criminals. Philippians describes Jesus’ “death on a cross” with these simple words: “He humbled himself” (2:8).
I don’t know what Simon felt or understood the day he was forced to help carry Jesus’ cross, though it’s hard to believe that it left him unmoved. Scripture and tradition hint that he and his family may have become part of the early church. When I imagine myself in the scene in Simon’s place, knowing what I know about the meaning of Jesus’ humiliation and willing sacrifice as he climbed the hill to Golgotha, my ardent and passionate response echoes the love and commitment expressed in the prayer that concludes our hymn.
Therefore, dear Jesus,
Since I cannot pay you,
I do adore you
And will ever pray you,
Think on your pity
And your love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
“Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended?” is a hymn that requires a bit of work to sing with integrity. The text beckons us to concentrate with mind and with soul and to bravely enter into its narrative, to look full upon Jesus’ humiliation, and to be comforted by the transcendent kindness and mercy of our Lord.
Fernando Ortega is a composer, pianist, and vocalist based in Albuquerque. His albums include The Crucifixion of Jesus and Come Down O Love Divine.
This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.
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