God is in the details

Housed in the Cathedral of Trier in Germany is a well-known holy relic: the seamless tunic supposedly worn by Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Tradition has it that the tunic was discovered by the mother of Emperor Constantine, and it is still venerated today. But there are, of course, alternative traditions, tunics, and cathedrals. No one knows for certain which tunic (if any!) is the authentic one.

Here’s how the apostle John tells the story of the tunic:

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did. (John 19:23-25, NRSV)

Four soldiers were charged with the task of crucifying Jesus that day. The condemned were stripped and crucified naked, adding to their shame. And a grotesque “perk” that came with the soldier’s job was that they were allowed to divide up the victim’s clothing among themselves, including any sandals and outer and inner garments.

Whatever Jesus was wearing (did he still have the purple cloak that others had used to mock him?), the soldiers divided the spoils. But when they came to the tunic — the seamlessly woven undergarment — they decided against making it worthless by tearing it into four pieces. Instead, they cast lots to see who would win the prize.

Some have seen in this episode yet another example of the humiliation that Jesus had to endure. And that’s not wrong, as far as it goes. But John’s interests seem to lie elsewhere. All four gospels tell us that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothing among themselves — but only John adds that this was done in fulfillment of Scripture.

The Scripture in question is Psalm 22:18 — the same psalm that opens with the famous words, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” John doesn’t mention that cry of anguish, because he wants to emphasize something else.

To any reasonable observer, it might have seemed that Jesus was the victim of the brutality of the Roman Empire or the jealousy of the chief priests. But John wants to tell a different story, one in which Jesus knowingly submitted to every bit of suffering that came his way. Everything unfolded according to a divine plan –right down to the mundane detail of what soldiers did with the prisoner’s clothing.

“And that is what the soldiers did.” That’s not a way of saying, “Look at what they did! Can you believe these men could be so callous, so clueless as to the truth of what they were doing in crucifying the Lord of glory?” No, I think it’s a way of saying, “That’s what they did, because that’s what they always did. To them, it was just another day’s work, done by rote and routine.”

But with this added proviso: God is in the details, in ways that may be invisible to those who don’t see through the lenses of Scripture.