The “Nothing” that won our salvation

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Matthew 27:11–14

Consider the incredible self-control Jesus exercises in his appearance before Pilate. He has just come from his religious trial, where he was passed from Annas to Caiaphas to the Sanhedrin and found guilty of blasphemy. But the Sanhedrin does not have the authority to issue death sentences, so they turn Jesus over to the civil authorities, claiming he’s a threat to Roman power, guilty of sedition.

Both charges are false, and yet Jesus gives no defense against either one. Why? Why not prove that he truly is the Son of God, and that he’s no insurrectionist? Why not clear his name? In John’s account of the trial before Pilate (18:33–38), Jesus is more verbal; he explains, “My kingdom is not of this world.” But still, he offers no hard evidence, calls no witnesses (they’ve scattered anyway). He essentially sits back and lets the judgment fall.

English poet and clergyman Richard Crashaw (ca. 1613–1649) was inspired by Christ’s silence under pressure to pen an epigrammatic verse unpacking its significance. As a teenager attending Charterhouse School in London, he and his fellow students were required to write epigrams based on the epistle and Gospel readings from the day’s chapel services, and it’s a practice Crashaw continued throughout his life. The following was originally published in Steps to the Temple: Sacred Poems, with Other Delights of the Muses in 1646.

“Matthew 27” by Richard Crashaw

And he answered them nothing.

O Mighty Nothing! unto thee,
Nothing, we owe all things that be.
God spake once when he all things made,
He sav’d all when he Nothing said.
The world was made of Nothing then;
’Tis made by Nothing now again.

In “Matthew 27,” Crashaw apostrophizes the word Nothing. (Apostrophe is a poetic device in which the speaker addresses an absent person, an abstract idea, or a thing; Paul does it, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”) He plays on its opposite: everything. By no thing comes all things.  

Crashaw also juxtaposes creation and new creation. At the first, God spoke the world into being; at the second, God effected a new world order by refraining from speech. “The world was made of Nothing then”—that is, before God’s first speech-act, there was only void space. And in Christ’s silence before Pilate, Nothing remakes the world, reconciling it to God. The primordial state of the universe—Nothing—becomes, in a different sense, the means by which Christ attains for us new life. Both creation events demonstrate divine power, but in different ways: the Genesis creation shows God’s force of command, his mastery over the elements, whereas the new creation shows power in meekness, Christ’s mastery over his thoughts and actions. “Let there be light” versus “let it be.”

Nothing by Father Moses Fredricks
Drawing with wash on paper by Father Moses Fredricks, a monk at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery in the mountains of Northern California.

All throughout his journey to the cross, Jesus puts up no fight, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”

When we’re attacked or falsely accused, our impulse is to defend ourselves, to lash back. We swear our innocence, and cite reasons. We build a case. But Christ resisted this impulse, allowing his reputation to be smeared, his body battered and killed. The wisdom of this choice of his may appear as foolishness to the world. But he knew that an unjust sentence passed on him meant that the death sentence looming over humanity as a whole would be commuted. I can’t explain how this legal exchange worked. The New Testament writers try their best to make sense of it, drawing on the Hebrew scriptures, and theologians have followed suit in their endeavors to articulate precisely how the cross effected our salvation. As helpful as their metaphors can be, I think they are all deficient and that ultimately, the atonement is a mystery that needs to be entered into, not parsed out.

(Related posts: “‘Ecce Homo’ by Andrew Hudgins”; “A sweeping vision of all things made new”)

Like Crashaw’s poem, the Negro spiritual “Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” centers on the “Nothing” that won our salvation. The refrain “He never said a mumblin’ word” (or, in some versions, “Not a word, not a word, not a word”) intercuts lines like “They led him to Pilate’s bar,” “They whipped him up the hill,” “They nailed him to a cross,” “They pierced him in his side,” and “He hung his head and died.”

The origin of this song is unknown. The first recorded performance was by a group of unidentified prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) in June 1933, part of John and Alan Lomax’s project to document traditional American music. According to their anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs, “Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” was known throughout Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, where African Americans said their mamas had taught it to them.

The performance below is by the Golden Gate Quartet, recorded in 1941 for Okeh Records. Slow and mournful, it elicits gratitude toward the one who “sav’d all when he Nothing said.”

For a more recent recording, see Welcome to the Welcome Wagon.

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