The Unflattering Image of Jesus and What it Means.
When you think of graffiti what comes to mind?
Perhaps you think of a type of vandalism. A group of “punks” with spray cans and black hoodies running around the streets at night “tagging” various public locations.
Perhaps you think of a type of propaganda attempt. Maybe there is a movement taking place, or a political election going on, and certain groups want to make their message known to the public in larger-than-life fashion.
Perhaps you think of art. You see murals stretching along the walls of your downtown district; swirls and dots of bright color and abstract concepts. Maybe you even think of the purple and gold of Lebron James painted in his new uniform on the brick-and-mortar of downtown LA.
Today I want to talk about a different type of graffiti; one that was used for shame and humiliation. This seemingly insignificant picture gives us tremendous insight of what it mean’t to follow Jesus immediately after his crucifixion.
The Alexamenos Graffito is a Roman graffiti dated over 2,000 years old. This fascinating sketch of ancient vandalism is scratched in plaster on the wall of a room near the Palatine Hill in Rome.
Here is why it matters.
It may be one of the earliest surviving depictions of Jesus.
That’s right. One of the earliest images of Jesus we have was etched (most likely by a rusty knife or by a thick branch) on the side of a wall. And here is the most riveting feature of them all:
The purpose of the sketch was to mock a Christian named Alexamenos.
Take a look for yourself:
The image seems to show a young man worshipping a crucified, donkey-headed figure. The Greek inscription approximately reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.”
Let’s set this lovely piece of art back in its context.
At the time of this sketch, pagans derided Christians for worshipping a man who had been crucified. Crucifixion was, and continued to be, a method of humiliation and death saved for the worst of criminals. The cross did not represent the holy depiction of a risen Messiah that it often does today, but the method of death and the symbol of a criminal.
Here is another little nugget of history to explain the donkey head. It seems to have been commonly believed at the time that Christians practiced onolatry (donkey-worship). Yup, that’s a thing. Check out that link to go down that rabbit-hole.
So, why does this matter and why tell you about this ancient vandalism?
Because this little nugget of history gives us some huge insights into Jesus, Christians, and the upside down faith that we continually live out today.
This shows us once again that Jesus was a real, historical figure who died on a cross. Not only does this sketch tell us that, but it shows us that Jesus was worthy of worship. Even to a ROMAN SOLDIER! Think about that for just a moment. This was not just some uneducated fisherman from the hills of nowhere. This was a member of the ruling power of the world! This man named Alexamenos was risking everything (job, reputation, friendships, life) to worship Jesus. What would Jesus had to have done to pull in that type of followship?
To tag on to the first point, Christians were a mockery during that time. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the 4th century that Christianity was made legal to practice under emperor Constantine. That’s 300 years after Jesus! That is generations of mockery, intolerance, violence, and hostility directed towards Jesus followers. It was not easy being a Christain during this time (as you can see from this graffiti), yet the church thrived throughout it.
Finally, this depiction of Jesus on the cross reminds us of the upside-down reality of Jesus, his victory, and our following after him. What Jesus did was he took one of the most shameful attributes of the Roman culture (the Roman cross) and he called that his divine throne. This is astounding! According to Jesus, victory looks like criminal hanging on a cross. And that is the crux of the Christian message. “He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:30
This is not a very flattering depiction of Jesus. Some of you might even be a little offended to read about my fascination and admiration of this piece of graffiti. However, when you peel back the onion and see what this actually represents, the results are staggering.
Jesus was worth worshipping.
Jesus was worth risking everything.
Jesus, although mocked, tortured, and crucified, was worth it.
And he is just as worth it today as he was 2,000+ years ago. What ways are you publicly proclaiming your faith in Jesus?
Is he worth it to you?