In what is perhaps the earliest portrait of Jesus’ crucifixion, a piece of Roman graffiti depicts a young man gesturing toward Jesus, pictured with a donkey’s head. Translated, the caption underneath reads, “Alexamenos worships God.”
The derisive message is clear enough. In the Roman world, the very idea of honoring a victim of this most humiliating form of execution was the height of madness. Indeed, the harsh realities of Paul’s missionary experience had already led him to write, “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, Common English Bible).
For Christ-followers today, Jesus’ death on a Roman cross can be a gloomy enigma in search of a positive resolution. In many churches, Good Friday sermons turn quickly, maybe too quickly sometimes, to celebrations of Resurrection Sunday. Good Friday and, with it, Lent—these days of the church’s calendar invite measured, unhurried reflection on the cross of Christ and what it means to follow the Crucified One.
When Paul went on to claim that he preached nothing among the Corinthian believers but Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), he was doing more than grounding vibrant faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death at Golgotha. He was fighting against any notion of arrogant triumphalism. He was pulling the rug out from under typical, showy ways of measuring achievement or accomplishment. He was articulating alternative notions of prestige and power that would be rooted in messianic weakness. He was urging his readers, then and now, to wear the catchphrase “Christ crucified” like a badge of communal identity—a source of encouragement for those in humble circumstances and a call to all to embrace and embody topsy-turvy ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that prioritize self-giving as a way of life. Indeed, when Paul found himself on the outs with some Corinthian believers because of his own dubious credentials, he defended himself as a servant of Christ by interpreting his apostolic suffering according to the pattern of following in Christ’s footsteps, as a form of imitatio Christi.
That early, Roman graffiti artist pictured Jesus still on the cross, donkey head and all. Maybe that artist hadn’t heard about Jesus’ resurrection—or maybe he simply couldn’t imagine it. It’s important that our musings on the crucifixion lead us to Easter, of course, but maybe not for the reasons we expect. God raised Jesus from the dead, to be sure. But this was less about overturning Jesus’ suffering and death and more about showing that this suffering Jesus, disgraced and degraded, is in fact Jesus the Lord, God’s own Son. Jesus’ Lordship is witnessed in, not in spite of, his rejection and shameful death. When we grasp this truth—or, better, when we are grasped by it—this changes everything.