Alexamenos Sebete Theon

(From a previous post, reproduced for Good Friday). Never forget this picture. Never forget that this is the very first piece of Christian art, a taunt, graffiti, a mockery. “Alexamenos sabete theon,” it says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Probably from 1st century AD, a playground bully makes fun of little Alexamenos for worshiping a crucified God. What could be more ridiculous? He is right. It is quite ridiculous. Nor should we ever forget.

But it is not only this picture that we should never forget. We shouldn’t forget Alexamenos. He, a little boy, does better than all the Apostles except for John. He remains at the feet of Christ. In his daily life, in the playground. He was not willing to deny his God in a Roman playground. He held firm.

We must learn from him. We must do better than the Apostles. Let me repeat. We must do better than the Apostles. Jesus continues to look down from his cross. He looks down and he sees abortion, murder along the border of Juarez and around the world, starvation. He sees his people on the cross. But as he looks from the cross with these people, does he see us with him? Have all his apostles fled? Did they all opt for the easier option? Suburban Christianity, easy Catholicism? Did they opt for compromise instead? Have we fled the cross? Or will we stand there and remain at Christ’s feet, no matter how that looks, what that means for us?

We must do better than the Apostles. We must; the world depends on it. We must imitate, not Peter but Alexamenos. In his playground, he stood firm. Will I stand firm. Or will the sufferers of this world look down from their crosses and see none of use standing there beneath, waiting, weeping, loving, taking them down from the cross when their ghosts have expired. Most of us experience Good Friday and Holy Saturday only once a year. They experience it every day of the year. The tabernacle is empty. God is dead and gone. And so we must bring him there, into their lives, into the empty tabernacle of the world that does not even realize that he is gone, does not realize that the sacramental presence of God has been stripped from its altars, and what is left are Nietzschean sepulchres.

Let us not forget this picture. It is what our Christian lives are all about.

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3 Responses to Alexamenos Sebete Theon

  1. Debra Schluter says:

    I have never seen this picture – it is beautiful. Awe-inspiring. I was just thinking this evening at Mass, praying, if I were there, Jesus, I hope I would be like John and stay with you. Thank you, Jesus, God, for protecting John, for staying with you.

  2. This is dated roughly around 700AD as axiomatic,
    as symptomatic of the foolishness of Christianity:
    anathema to the Greek mind: no different than today,
    or any day, where only reason is applied to this
    mystery: the cross of Christ with the head of an ass
    on it!

    The ideal. Our ideal. All that our God stands
    for: a statement against paganism, mere reason, and
    the hedonism that rules stage one of living before
    one can mature and move up the scale of maturity
    to become one with the Mature One!

    I’d never seen this artifact, only read about it in
    theology! Thanks Nathan for displaying it!

    We are all called but few respond to becoming a
    Fool for Christ: Perfect Fools is our vocation.

    And it is the Jesuit Order, in its Constitutions
    that sets out the 3rd Level of Humility in typical
    mystical Ignatian language, which is why it tends
    to go over the heads of most when first encountered,
    but incrementally beckons as one moves from the
    Illuminative to the Unitive stage of the Spiritual
    Life: that there is no further progress except through
    this mystery of associative living in imitation of
    the One Who set us, and gave us, a living lived
    example, foolishness to the world, but wisdom to God.
    In us.

    Jesus, as symbol of God in any depiction of the Cross
    translates Edward Schillebeeckx’s influential book
    “Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter With God”
    into a new framework, Christology “from below:”

    Jesus therefore AS SYMBOL, is a concrete mediation
    that participates in the reality it makes present!
    Crucifix art is definitively therefore more than
    mere art! It becomes a medium, is a Divine medium
    of Self communication!

  3. Jay Hooks says:

    Nathan,

    Thanks for your post. I’d never heard of the Alexamenos image. I think it’s a good reminder that striving to follow Christ’s call always has and always will cause confusion and scandal, and that we’re constantly called to consider our resolve to follow the Crucified and to serve the poor.

    Maybe you could clarify why you chose the term “suburban” as a tag for an “easy” Christianity, or in association with fleeing the cross, or a choice to be inconsistent in putting belief into practice. Surely, we can find lots of examples of Christian suburbanites who do in fact have an abiding concern for the poor and who do strive to put their faith into action. In a way, such a tag seems to suggest that nothing good can come from Galilee… or Metairie… or wherever.

    Moreover, and as much as I appreciate the appeal to do better than the Apostles, I think that one of the reasons our history offers us Peter, Thomas, and Co. is that Christians, being human, often cannot BUT do better than the apostles. Despite their best efforts, Christians often cannot BUT compromise, doubt, flee, or sin. For that matter, and on the purely human level, materially poor Christians are just as likely to compromise as are the better-off followers of Christ; so also they have just as much possibility of repenting and doing good.

    It was at the highest point of Peter’s resolve that Jesus told him just how flimsy his determination was. And Jesus was right. It’s a good thing that Peter’s redemption depended on Christ’s integrity and not his own. Let’s also remember what Peter would go on to do for Christ, even after he made a mess of things.

    Have a blessed Easter.

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