When Jesus looked at lilies, he saw beauties fit for contemplation. “They don’t toil or spin,” he pointed out, “but even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of these.”
One greater than Solomon had spoken.
From eternity, he was “clothed in light as with a garment,” yet the Virgin’s fiat gave him human flesh. His first earthly garments here were swaddling bands sheltering a perfect newborn skin.
Entering manhood, he would wear a seamless tunic. A hemorrhaging woman once braved a crowd to touch that garment’s hem. She went home healed.
But on the night he was betrayed, Christ hid the power of his divinity. He gave His naked back to soldiers who shredded His love-enfleshed body with their whips. He came, he’d said, “to seek and to save that which was lost.” Understanding the abyss of human anger and the weight of human pride, he took its every blow.
The scourging emboldened others who punched, spit and cackled. They draped a purple cloak across his bloodied shoulders, forcing a reed as scepter in his hand to ridicule the King.
Hideously elated, they seized thorns, bloodying their hands to form a crown, a horrid prop completing the King’s costume. They pressed it in his scalp and made mock worship of the silent Son, Who wore that crown serenely to his death.
Christ in humiliation has captivated hearts ever since.
His blood-drenched flesh enchants far more than Solomon’s regalia. In a beauty beyond lilies, Christ draws us with a power recognizably divine, unmasking every pretense in our cloaks and crowns.
Awareness of this truth is a great support to developing humility. Theologian and priest Romano Guardini writes powerfully on this point. Commenting on the mystery of the crowning with thorns, Guardini takes us to the heart of the matter.
It is a decisive moment in the growth of a Christian when he penetrates the deceit of all that is called greatness: power, accomplishment, beauty, reputation. Of course, these things are not evil in themselves, but evil is in them.
Cloaks and crowns can signify hard-won accomplishment. They aren’t evil in themselves, but Christ’s humble degradation calls us to penetrate the deceit they can contain, from the doctoral hood to the beauty queen’s tiara and military marks from stripes to epaulets. Even clerical garb is susceptible. Christ warned of those who love their tassels, the greetings and honor they secure.
Cloaks and crowns can also expose the comical nature of our frailty.
A vignette from the life of Wild West showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody will serve to illustrate. Cody’s manager, who once described the entertainer as “a picture in his dress coat and long hair,” traveled Europe in 1890 with his entourage. The group attended a papal Mass while in Rome. A reporter present that day commented that Pope Leo XIII “looked intently at Colonel Cody as he passed.” One can imagine how the showman must have drawn his eye.
Cody’s manger drew his own conclusions: “His Holiness spread his hands in token of his blessing and the good Catholics around us looked with envy at Cody during the balance of the ceremonies,” he recalled, adding wryly that Cody was the only man he’d ever known who could wear that coat “without exciting laughter.”
This story seems trivial enough to expose own showiness for what it is.
But we must keep tabs on the envies that arise when another takes the limelight. Left unchecked, envy’s poison is deadlier than it first appears. When the envy caused by a many-colored coat had turned to hatred, Joseph’s brothers stopped just short of murder before selling him into slavery. What darkness dominated those who soaked that coat with blood to trick a grieving father?
And who hasn’t fallen prey to the deceit of human appearance, with pride on one side and envy on the other? The judge’s robe, the Oscars’ glitz, Greek laurels, letter jackets, title belts and tresses: each will hold its risk.
Guardini cuts to the heart:
The pride with which we strut about and the vanities we relish are transformed for the Son of God into a pattern of humiliation. His suffering is as great as the measure of human evil.
Indeed, the naked, thorn-crowned Man possesses greater beauty than any other, wearing his crown in nuptial union with all who bear the thorny results of Adam’s fall: thorns endured as creatures in a death-stricken world, anxious thorns choking our progress toward Him, even the thorn in the flesh that kept St. Paul “from being too elated.”
Christ’s thorns reveal a King who’d never ask us to do anything he wouldn’t do Himself, a Priest able to practice all he preaches and a Prophet in full knowledge of His destiny: “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
“Now is the time to meditate on all of this, to hold firmly one’s ground, and to acquire self-knowledge,” advises Guardini:
And then one should fight for humility…the conviction that God is God, and only God—and that man is man, and nothing but man.
However cloaked or crowned, we are naked before Him.
Naked and wounded, he shines in clothes of light.
In an interesting twist of grace, it turns out that William “Buffalo Bill” Cody received baptism by a Catholic priest on his deathbed. Karen Edmisten’s Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line includes Cody’s story as well as that of John Wayne, Patricia O’Neal, Gary Cooper, poet Wallace Stegner and historian Kenneth Clark. For more on this fascinating, hope-filled book, see Sparrowfare’s Deathbed Conversions and God’s “Persistent, Patient Call.”
If the Shroud of Turin is indeed the burial cloth of Christ, He literally left traces of the radiating, resurrection light on his final swaddling band. The science gets more and more amazing. See the 3D carbon copy of Christ’s body made from the image on the Shroud here.
Need some joy in the final days of this holy season? Tom Young’s “Counting Up My Sins,” a new release by a brilliant young musician, brought me to tears the first time I heard it. Doesn’t happen every day. It’s available on Spotify here or at Itunes. Best buy for buck I can think of. You have to hear it!