In Rome this past summer, Joe and I passed an ancient fresco that at one time had been at the top of a church interior but now, given the build-up of the modern city upon ancient layers, is at eye level of passersby. The fresco depicts Jesus in an upright position being placed into a narrow square tomb. Two women are on either side of him. At first I thought that the scene was one in which Jesus was breaking bread with two disciples. Closer examination reveals that he is obviously dead, his color lifeless, his hands crossed in front of him, corpselike. The cross is in the background. Symbols of the four evangelists and the symbol of the Risen Christ in the form of a lamb carrying the banner of victory overarch the entombment.
|Fresco in Rome near the Capitoline Hill, ca. 14th century|
One sees many such things in Rome. This is unusual mostly in that one can draw quite close to this piece of ancient art and see in vivid detail something that centuries ago was probably quite far removed from the viewer. But there is something eerie about seeing so holy a moment not in an actual church but on a sidewalk to be either noticed or ignored by anyone walking past. People of Christian faith might or might not take any notice of it as anything particularly interesting or unusual. And persons uninterested in the subject matter might look at it mostly out of intrigue with a very ancient painting having no particular regard for what the painting tries to communicate.
How very like the actual crucifixion and death of the Savior is this lone little fresco. Suppose for a moment it came to life, and instead of being a painting it became a contemporary street scene. Would anybody pay attention more than to snap a photo, as I did? Would anyone care? I think of a line from the Prophet Jeremiah in the Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me….” You and I know that the importance of Jesus’ death is not dependent upon who notices it nor who understands it (as if anyone could) or who pays any attention. He simply does what he does on the cross not for an audience but because it is his work. You might call it his mission. Or you might call it the culmination of his ministry. Or you might think of it as a necessary consequence of all that his life included: a demonstration of extreme love, sacrifice, service. Whether or not anyone noticed, his death was an offering. It was and is a gift. And, looked at that way, his death is of a piece with his life. Because his life was from beginning to end an offering, a gift, whether that gift was feeding or healing or teaching or praying or liberating the poor or forgiving a sinner. At the end, when he had nothing else left to give he literally gave himself.
It was a custom in the ancient world of Greece and Rome for wealthy citizens to give something out of their largesse to the public. There are records and monuments here and there testifying that citizens gave to the public gifts much as they do today honoring or memorializing loved ones or maybe taking hefty tax deduction or to see their names on walls or perhaps just out of the goodness of their hearts. One such inscription that survives notes that Quintus Poppaeus and Gaius Poppaeus, sons of Quintus, protector of the borough and settlement [at Interamna], [gave] out of their own money a permanent bathing-room to their townsmen, settlers, other residents, strangers, and visitors. This was a public work and the name given to it in Greek is leitourgia, from which we get our word liturgy. Liturgy is often said to be “the work of the people,” and well it is. But it is also a “public work,” a work for the people, the public. And that is what Jesus’ death was, a work given to the people and for the people.
Interestingly, sometimes—maybe even frequently—it is the human ego’s need for recognition and congratulations that prompts people like the Poppaeus brothers to give a public work. In Jesus’ case it was the opposite, for one is rarely congratulated for being crucified. It was not to acquire fame or fortune or praise or recognition that informed his death or his life. For whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever would lose his life “for my sake” will save it. The pattern of true giving is the downward path, the giving up of self, as Jesus modeled. Incidentally, the point of Jesus’ liturgy was not for people to worship him but to follow him. There is a difference. It is fine to worship Jesus, but true worship of Jesus entails following his example.
What is so offensive about Peter’s defensive outburst, “God forbid that this (suffering and death) should ever happen to you!” is that it is precisely the ego’s defense against being summarily deflated. And yet it is exactly that “being handed over” that is both the gift and the meaning of life. “Those who would lose their lives for Christ’s sake will find their lives.”
So, on this Labor Day weekend, let’s ask ourselves, “What is your work? What is mine?” It is easy enough to identify that work with whatever job we do. That’s fine until we run up against the hard truth that the jobs many of us are stuck in are anything but life-giving. What then? Somehow we have to find an alternative route to our true liturgy. Maybe we can find a way to redeem the distasteful features of our daily work by offering ourselves through it to others and thus to God. George Herbert wrote in “The Elixir:”
Teach me, my God and King
In all things thee to see
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.
All may of thee partake,
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.
It really all boils down to one question. What are you giving your life for? You might or might not be able to answer that in terms of job, vocation, or work in the ordinary sense. But you are indeed giving your life for something. Does it have anything to do with trying to get ahead, getting or staying comfortable, avoiding mistakes? Or does it have to do with taking the downward path and becoming ever more real? Does whatever you are doing bring you into deeper touch with humanity, its suffering, its woes, its aspirations and hopes? Or is your life fundamentally all about you—making your mark, having your way, gathering awards and rewards that validate you?
Gain the whole world, if you want. Some have and some will. But you can’t do that except at the price of your own deep nature, your soul. Maybe that is what the best liturgy is: an expression of the deep soul of a person or community. Maybe that is why Jesus’ liturgy was the saving work it was for the whole world—exactly because there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that was not real about it because it came out of his very nature and expressed what he was at his core. Maybe your work and mine is ultimately to follow his path and be just that real, that honest, that true. Maybe that is why finding ourselves through taking the downward path is really the only liturgy that matters.
Based on Matthew 16:21-28
© Frank Gasque Dunn. 2017
 Lamentations 1:12 (NRSV).
https://www.loebclassics.com/view/archaic_latin_inscriptions_i_inscriptions_proper_inscriptions_public_works/1940/pb_LCL359.149.xml, accessed September 2, 2017, by Joseph A. Casazza.
 George Herbert, “The Elixir,” used as “Teach me, my God and King,” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), 592.