Crucifixion, Compassion, and the Coen Brothers

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In the Coen Brothers’ black comedy film “Burn After Reading”, protagonist Osborne Cox, who is played so magnificently by acclaimed actor John Malkovich, is invited to a meeting with his superiors in the opening scene, which takes place in Langley, Virginia.

His boss, Palmer DeBakey Smith, informs Cox that he is being terminated due to a drinking problem (but not before offering to transfer him to another job at the state department) which has hampered the quality of his output as an intelligence analyst employed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Cox, being understandably outraged and infuriated by his dismissal, chides his boss and their companions in the room. He thinks that it is a political maneuver, one which has him in its crosshairs.

He concludes by asking rhetorically, “What the **** is this? Whose *** didn’t I kiss? Huh? Let’s be honest. I mean, let us be * honest. THIS. IS. A CRUCIFIXION. This is political. And don’t tell me it’s not.”

With that, Cox storms out of the room, anger pulsing through his entire being.

This begins our Lenten reflection into the values of unity, service, and sacrificing ones’ pride towards more virtuous actions and behaviors. It is these three values which are best exemplified in the Gospels detailing the life and times of Jesus Christ Whose death, burial, and resurrection Christians all around the world observe during the forty-day, sacrificial season of Lent.

When in the twenty-second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the story of Christ’s betrayal and the events leading up to it is narrated by the author. The chapter starts out with Jesus together with the progenitors of the early Church, His Twelve Disciples, dining in a Jerusalem upper room in what would be His last supper. It was the intention of Jesus Christ to commune, fellowship, and to spend quality time with his most loyal followers before He was to be crucified the following day.

The Last Supper, where bread was broken and wine offered as a great symbol for the establishment of the Church and the shedding of Christ’s blood for the sins of the world, resonates as a watershed moment in Christianity.

For the disciples, it was a magnificent feeling to see a person who they deemed as God Himself lay down his life for them and for mankind. They were one with Him; they were united by a great Exemplar.

Following the supper, Jesus and the disciples went to the Mount of Olives or Gethsemane to pray in advance of His arrest by the authorities. They prayed like they never had before. When Judas gave Jesus the kiss which singled Him out for arrest, the disciples leapt to His defense that the soldiers found it hard to put even a hand on their target.

One of the disciples even cut the ear off a member of the arresting party! But Christ, divine as He was and true to his nature to live in service of others, answered and said, “Permit even this.” And the ear of the wounded soldier was healed by Him. This act of miraculous healing, even in the midst of adversity and danger, shows us that the value of serving others endures though they intend to hurt you or put you down.

Pride, the gravest of all sins, was one of the last to tempt Christ as He hung on the cross after an all-night ordeal on the afternoon of the following day. With His arms outstretched uncomfortably under the scorching Mediterranean heat, the soldiers assigned to guard Him mocked His situation. “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself,” they bellowed furiously. But prior to that, He had made this statement: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” When the thief hanging next to Christ heard this exchange, the same thief did ask to be remembered when Jesus would enter His Kingdom.

Christ did not ask for the thief’s history. He did not ask where the thief went to church. He did not castigate the criminal for dying in such an inglorious manner befitting the crimes of which he was convicted. In the most remarkable act of overcoming the temptation of pride and hyper-religiosity, He said these words without a single moment of doubt or hesitation: “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” One can only imagine the relief the thief must have felt with this great act of humility towards him after all the suffering and death around them.

With all things considered, the fictional actions of Osborne Cox stand as a contrast to the well-documented history of the crucifixion. Cox, carried away by his wrath and his pride, forsook the values of unity and service. He refused to recognize an opportunity for him to atone and to prove himself. Their fates, too could not have been more different. Cox, after his ranting and his firing, wound up in an embarrassing misadventure only to end up in a coma, totally devoid of brain activity.

Christ, on the other hand about three days after his crucifixion, was able to say, using the same words of Osborne Cox as he exercised, “I’m back!”

Ultimately, the precepts of unity, service, and sacrifice always shine forth. We will always have friends, family, and followers with us, no matter where we are or where we go.

We must always see to the welfare of others, never failing to see the good hidden within their souls. Above all, let us not be hindered from building bridges of compassion instead of walls of division, and from placing our egos to be sacrificed on the altar of serving those whom we are called to serve. For after all, after every seemingly unjust crucifixion comes a glorious resurrection.

Disclaimer: I love Burn After Reading, for it is a hilarious film. Give it a watch this Lent.

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