Poetry Sundays: Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

Art by William BouguereauIt is increasingly difficult for me to separate the miracle of Christ’s birth from the sorrow of His death. Maybe age does that to us as we move from the first half to the second half of life. Maybe it’s something about Mary. No doubt, on its deepest level, the message of the atonement offers joy–ultimate, celebratory joy. I believe we will all be freed from the effects of sin and sorrow in the eternities. Yet, in a mortal world of violence and heartbreak, that joy often seems far off.

Some of us struggle to believe in a God who would allow the unspeakable cruelty that exists in this world. I imagine everyone who ever lived will at some point find herself wondering how to hold on to faith when a child is lost to disease, a friend is killed in an act of senseless violence, or even when a good soul is taken home at the end of a long life.

I chose today’s poem because Mary Karr is not shy about telling the truth. She speaks our fear that perhaps, “some less than loving watcher watches us.” She is not afraid to visit the darkest places each of us will visit some day, or to say Christ was not a only God, but also a man when he hung there. I chose this poem because, for me, one of the greatest gifts Christ gave us was the comfort of His last words on the cross: His testimony that a kind and nurturing parent waits to receive us home.


Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

To be crucified is first to lie down on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes fix you into place.

Once the cross pops up and the pole stob sinks vertically in an earth hole, perhaps at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt but your own self's burden?

You're not the figurehead on a ship. You're not flying anywhere, and no one's coming to hug you. You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard trinity of nails holding you into place.

Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up to breathe until you suffocate. If God permits this, one wonders if some less than loving watcher

watches us. The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels his soul leak away, then surge. Some wind         sucks him into the light stream

in the rent sky, and he's snatched back, held close.

An earlier version of this poem may be read here.  Mary Karr’s “Sinners Welcome” the volume from which the poem was selected can be found here.




  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on this, Melody. It is a tough, tough poem. One of the greatest struggles I have with the Jesus story is this moment of torture and what it means that God embraced a plan of salvation with torture at its center. That line about a less than loving watcher watching us stands out to me as well. You’re right — I think most of us Christians have to grapple with these hard things at some point.

    • Thanks for your comment, Caroline. I hope it’s not too hard of a poem. It’s certainly not a bright and glowing Christmas piece, but for me it was a profoundly surprising reunion piece. The last stanza took my breath away.

      Your comment is thought provoking too. As for the torture — the way I see the crucifixion is that God the Father and Mother did not require or embrace this, but Christ chose it freely. He gave himself to the world and asked, “Now, what will you do with me?” Although I personally see the atonement as a divine mandate from heavenly parents, Christ’s painful death was purely a condition of mortality. He chose to come and do what he had to do, perhaps knowing, or perhaps not fully knowing how unspeakably terribly it would end. Just as we chose to come and do what we must. And suffer as we will in this place . ..

      Some even give up their lives – not because God requires it or wills it so – but because the gross darkness that inhabits some earth-dwellers makes it so. God is not in torture. God is in the pacifist who allows herself or himself to be harmed in order to reveal the nature of the harmers. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it does to me. It doesn’t help the confusion in a moment of pain, but in the light of day, this works for me.

  2. Thanks for this! ” I chose this poem because, for me, one of the greatest gifts Christ gave us was the comfort of His last words on the cross: His testimony that a kind and nurturing parent waits to receive us home.” Now they really resonate with me too.

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