Worcester College Oxford Clothe the Naked
Ezekiel 16: 8-14; James 2: 14-18
The exposed and humiliated figure of a man hanging from a Cross is a common Christian symbol. There are of course others, but this one stands centre stage. Whether Jesus was crucified naked upon The Cross we just don’t know, but there is sufficient evidence from antiquity to suggest that most victims were. However, we do know that Jesus was stretched out on The Cross stripped of his dignity, and exposed to the taunting and jeering crowds who gathered to watch Him die. It was a shocking and cruel experience from which some may well have eventually averted their gaze in order to spare themselves the mental and emotional distress that witnessing such a scene might cause them. Crucifixion was a slow, agonising and suffocating death. It would seem that his blessed Mother did not look away, but gazed, heartbroken upon the broken form of her Son, supported in her sadness by the Beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene and those other loyal women. As a consequence of what He knew to be the right thing both to say and to do throughout His ministry Jesus was beaten, humiliated, stripped, spat upon and killed.
In his Four Quartets T S Elliot writes that, “mankind cannot bear very much reality.” How very true these words are. I find it very interesting that there are some people who can quite easily sit down and watch very frightening films of fantasy, but find it impossible to watch a film like Schindler’s List. Many of you will be familiar with it. Amongst its many harrowing scenes there’s one of particular insanity in which men and women are rounded up in a Nazi concentration camp, stripped of their clothing and forced to run around in circles stark naked, as Wagner’s booms out over loudspeakers. Over the years organisations such as Prisoners of Conscience have exposed numerous images of men and women naked and manacled, undergoing torture, that shock us to the core in the same way.
Of course nakedness is not a physical state alone, and the naked of our own time that ought to trouble our consciences come in many different guises. We see them in the accused, the victim, the mentally ill; the perpetrator of violence who is naked of compassion and driven by naked aggression; men and women who behead and burn alive. There are those who are nakedly proud and arrogant, devoid of the garments of decency and compassion; naked of any concern save of that for themselves. We see the naked in the person who has no voice be it religious or political and who for conscience sake are stripped of their freedom; the Cross or the Burkha. Then there are the odd; you know, those who simply don’t fit in, and who appear strange maybe. There are others too, whose clothes of confidence, dignity, self worth and self belief, society has metaphorically stripped bare from them; leaving them purposeless and devoid of meaning in their lives. And then I guess there are us as well. We too can feel exposed from time to time can we not when our work is being scrutinised, when we make mistakes or when we feel that we are being judged; when perhaps we feel very alone.
The apparently simple question, “I wonder what Jesus would do” is not for the faint hearted to ask as our reading from the epistle of St James this evening makes very clear. The profession of Christianity is not an invitation to esoteric naval gazing, but a clarion call to action that effects change and makes a difference. Belief is a dead thing if it fails to outwork in the service and benefit of mankind. It’s not sufficient to bang on about the love of God if we don’t match our words with our deeds. And it really is so simple. We extend a hand of friendship, we offer a listening ear, we provide a kindly thought, we may put our hand in our pocket and support financially where we can; we may champion the need for our society to be more forgiving, more tolerant, less punitive, less punishment driven. We may be bothered to give our time (and how easy is it to convince ourselves that we don’t have time) to someone who needs a word of comfort or the reassurance that they are not on their own. We may go through our wardrobe and quite literally give away our coat or our gloves or an old hoodie to a person living on the streets.
Lent is the time to realise how difficult the evidently simple is. Christianity, unlike films of fantasy, is no fairy tale. Those who buy into it are called, metaphorically and actually, to clothe the naked. We are commanded to speak and to act in accordance with our consciences in the light of the gospel imperative; and if we do that we will in all probability find ourselves somewhat unpopular from time to time; and thought even odd!!
The bare figure of Jesus on The Cross is a bold statement of sacrifice and love. It is a reminder to all of us, whatever our belief may be, of our common obligation of service to our fellow men and women and to see in the eyes of the naked and the suffering the very face of Jesus Himself. As He Himself has taught us, “Forasmuch as you did it for the least of these my brethren you did it also for me”.