This post was featured on Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts’ Lent Project on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, and can also be found on Dr. Johnson’s website.
The crown of the thorns is a symbol of cruelty and oppression—but a poetic one. The rightful king of creation enters his realm, only to find himself crowned with the very thorns that choke his vineyard. The blood he sweats is the great consummation of the sweat with which man was to till the earth, and those thorns are the final harvest of the cursed ground (Gen. 3:17-18).
Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear:
For these are all the grapes Sion doth bear,
Though I my vine planted and wat’red there:
Was ever grief like mine?
(George Herbert, The Sacrifice, ll. 161-4)
The Romans saw in Christ a rival to Caesar, an upstart to lead the Jews in yet another rebellion, and crucified him as such—an unmistakable warning, soaked in cruelty and shame, to any like-minded rebels or bandits. And as part of their mockery, part of Christ’s humiliation, they crowned the false king with a crown—and in so doing honored him far more than they knew, for he indeed came as King.
Why, Caesar is their only King, not I:
He clave the stony rock, when they were dry;
But surely not their hearts, as I well try:
Was ever grief like mine? (ll. 121-4)
He came as the rightful king of this fallen creation. Enthroned on the tree of death, crowned with the only laurel wreath our wretched cursed soil could provide, he suffered the fate of the kings of men, bearing in his own person our curse, with the curse of the land upon his brow. God’s punishment for Adam and Eve had come to completion at last.
So sits the earth’s great curse in Adam’s fall:
Upon my head: so I remove it all
From th’ earth unto my brows, and bear the thrall;
Was ever grief like mine? (ll. 165-8)
But that is not all! Indeed, George Herbert—you are right. Never was a grief like his, in his (and your) great Sacrifice. But oh, there is much, much more to say. For God rests not content with the thorn, and an ancient prophecy upon it rests, that when fashioned as a crown upon one who set his own crown by, it would blossom once more to life.
The hard crown grows supple upon my brow
Thorn bursts forth in color, a delicate bloom
Life triumphs o’er grave, Spring is come evermore.
Ne’er was joy like mine.
The Maker treasures his creation; the Fall was not the final word. Christ may bear the crown of thorns, but he bears it to remake it, refashioning creation, turning curse into blessing.
Oh Death, where is your sting?
Ye thorns, be softened and adorned.
All ye saints, rejoice in the power of the risen Lord…
For there is no joy like his.