An Atonement of Shame

Some decades ago in my early (Anglican) priesthood, a parishioner brought a crucifix back from South America. The question for me as a priest was whether I would accept the crucifix as a gift and place it in the Church. I like crucifixes, my taste was always towards the Catholic direction. But, you have to bear in mind that Spanish/Latin crucifixes have a tendency to be, well, rather gory. My congregation was pretty straight-up WASP. But, I was young, a still largely unbruised banana, so I installed the crucifix over the rear door of the Church. Everyone could see it as they exited.

The first Sunday was the test. I got my clock cleaned pretty quickly. An irate woman said, “I want that thing removed! I do not want my children seeing it. I believe in a risen Lord!” We had a short theological discussion the outcome of which was that I left the crucifix where it was. I do not think she adjusted. I also do not think her children were scarred for life.

But I understood her sensibilities. The brutality of the crucifixion is easily overwhelming. It is particularly overwhelming if the brutality is depicted in Spanish splendor. My defense of the brutal crucifix, however, did not prepare me for my later encounter with Orthodox presentations of Christ on the Cross.

Like all Orthodox icons, the Crucifixion is somewhat stylized, conforming to the norms of Byzantine grammar. It is a theological rather than historical presentation. Typically, the icon presents a very calm Christ on the Cross. He is clearly “dead” (His eyes are closed). But there is no particular sense of agony. The suffering is more a note of sadness rather than pain. And, contrary to history, the plaque over the Cross reads: “The King of Glory.” As glory goes, it is indeed subdued. There is a profound stillness that comes with it.

The icon of the Crucifixion could also be placed with two other icons that are common to Orthodox Holy Week: the icon of “The Bridegroom,” and the icon of “Extreme Humility.” The portrayal of Christ in both icons is similar. He is seen with head bowed, arms folded in a dropped position in front of Him. It is a picture of submission and acceptance. The Extreme Humility makes a certain obvious sense: it is Christ in death. The wounds are obvious; He is seen in the tomb; the Cross is placed behind Him; the spear and the sponge are there as well. Indeed, the placement of the hands are reminiscent of the hands on the Shroud of Turin.

If Christ in death is extreme humility, then Christ as Bridegroom is extreme irony. For the term “bridegroom” is a title for Christ associated with His coming in glory (Matt. 25 ff.) The Orthodox focus on the Bridegroom, however, is a Holy Week devotion, a call to repentance. On the first three days of Holy Week we sing with great solemnity:

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight!
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul.
Do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given unto death,
And lest you be shut out of the kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying, Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God.
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

This is the Great Irony: the Great becomes small; the Rich becomes poor; the Mighty becomes weak; the Author of Life enters death; the God of All becomes the servant of all. This same irony lies at the heart of the Christian way of life. It strikes down every pretense to power and exalts the emptiness of humility as the fullness of being.

Of great note, however, is the absence of pain and torture in this presentation. The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery. You can search the texts of Holy Week for the word “pain,” and come up with almost nothing. The mocking and the shame, however, color everything.

The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ “became obedient to death,” and adds, “even death on a Cross.” The point of the “even” is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame. There are no gospel accounts of characters taking some sort of masochistic pleasure and delighting in Christ’s pain. However, there are repeated descriptions of His humiliation. The purple robe, the crown of thorns are not unique images of pain, but torturous bits of mockery.

All of this runs counter to the penal theories of the atonement. In those theories, Christ is punished on our behalf. It is His pain and suffering as sacrificial victim that come to the fore. What Western (cf. Spanish) art did to the Crucifixion, Western rhetoric did to the atonement. The Reformation did nothing to change this other than to avoid its artistic presentation in Churches (it looked too “Catholic”).

But what role does shame play within an understanding of the atonement? It is, I think, essential, though hard for us to understand. America has been described as a shame-based culture where shame itself is not acknowledged (it’s too painful). It helps if we understand the nature of shame itself.

Shame is the natural response to broken communion. [Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame, 1996, pp. 32-33] The relationship of communion with others is the very essence of safety and comfort. Its most primal expression is the bond between mother and nursing infant. Face-to-face, the child is held and nurtured. There the child is comforted and protected. [footnote] Every later experience of union draws on this primal experience. It is not accidental that the ultimate relationship, that of union with God in Christ, is described precisely in the language of face-to-face.

The first instinct of shame is to look down, to turn the face away and hide. Blood rushes to the face (it “burns with shame”). Shame is the very sacrament of broken communion, the most proper and natural expression of sin. When Christ enters our shame (and bears it), it is as though God Himself stands before us, takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes back to Him. This is the action we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Father’s actions demonstrate his running to meet his son in his shame. Had the father remained in the house, the son would have born his shame alone. The father not only shares the shame, but in sharing it, restores communion, illustrated by the robe and the ring. Even the shame of the elder son is met with the same meekness and shame-bearing.

The shame that we experience in the natural settings of our lives is an image of something truly and ontologically real: sin shatters our union with God. Christ’s incarnation is an entrance into this realm of ontological shame and brokenness through union with our human nature. That reality is made manifestly clear in the events of His passion and the description that has come down to us.

Pain and suffering are tragic parts of our lives. They are the burden of our mortality. But far deeper and more profound is the shame that represents our ruptured union with God. Pain and suffering are only symptoms.

The Orthodox portrayal of Christ in the events of Holy Week clearly reflect the themes found in Scripture. It is only in understanding Christ’s bearing of shame and mockery that we will fully understand what has been done for us in His death and resurrection. Our culture, as noted above, has an aversion to shame (it’s one of our greatest secrets). We have somehow come to prefer stories of violence. Our cultural treatment of the Cross majors in violence. But nothing sinful can be understood apart from the role played by shame.

In the Ladder of Divine Ascent we hear: “Shame can only be healed by shame.” As difficult as this is for us, it is the place of atonement and exchange that Christ has set. I have been learning recently, however, that to speak of “bearing a little shame” (in the words of the Elder Sophrony) is overwhelming to some. Popular shame researcher and author, Brene Brown, uses the term “vulnerability” when she speaks of confronting and healing shame. Vulnerability, at its core, is nothing other than “bearing a little shame.” It is the willingness to be real, to be authentic with the risk that it entails. This is on the psychological level. There is a deeper level, though we cannot really go there without enduring the psychological first.

God give us grace to be vulnerable in His presence, vulnerable enough to discover our true selves.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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31 responses to “An Atonement of Shame”

  1. Christina Chase Avatar

    I will always have a crucifix that shows the pain of the crucifixion — excruciating pain. The crown of thorns is meant to mock, to shame, certainly, but can you imagine how painful it was? As someone whose body is twisted by disease, more emaciated and torturous looking than any gory crucifix depicting the position of Christ’s body, I experience profound healing in knowing that God Incarnate experienced real pain too — for love of me.

    Shame as a sacrament of broken communion with God is something that I want to give more time and thought to, but always with the pain that Christ suffered in mind. Like with most spiritual things, this is probably another case of both/and, not either/or.

    Thank you for this reflection.

  2. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father, so much. On your previous post, I brought up a subject of abuse. It seems to me that the true pain of the abuse is the imposed shame in the humiliation and degradation and disrespect, but included and MORE painful is the broken communion. A psychologist once told me that physical pain has an end, but a psychological state of pain is always present to us. How do you express love where you can’t trust? Maybe privately in prayer, but reconciliation may be out of the question. Also, it just seems really Greek to me that shame within/before the community is what is truly painful! Regarding our American culture, I think the way Twitter works bears out what you say. It’s like a mini version of hell sometimes. Well, we remember our call everywhere. That “it takes shame to heal shame” has proven true in my life. It’s so paradoxical but it opens up the wounds to give to Christ. I hope I’m making a little sense…

  3. Paul Avatar

    Yes, that’s it exactly. Shame. Overwhelmingly shame. Gut wrenching, painful shame such that one is stunned and incapable os seeing anything positive. Everything is dark and pointless. It is a weight that literally crushes one to the ground. The only sound one can utter is a deep, mournful sobbing that comes from one’s inner self. It is hell. A deep-from-your-throat groan. The only thought is “please help me, I can’t bear this anymore, please take this from me!”

  4. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Father, you may have already spoken elsewhere about the relationship between mercy and shame. We frequently pray for mercy which, in my case, reflexively means “please don’t let me suffer what I deserve”. I know in my head that mercy means something different but it’s not quite clear to me yet what that different meaning is. This post might get right to the heart of it but again, I’m not sure I get it. What correct notion should replace a reflexive linking of mercy with guilt. Is an answer here, in the portrayal of Christ dead and humiliated?

  5. Dino Avatar

    The sense of unbearable pain is found in the hymns regarding the Mother of God, (wailing under the cross despite being perhaps the least likely person to raise Her voice that has ever existed) just as the sense of extreme shame is the focus of the hymns on God’s crucifixion. The words pain and lament are ‘sisters’ in Greek (οδύνη, οδυρμος).

  6. Jonathan Corcoran Avatar
    Jonathan Corcoran

    Father the response you recommend a year or so ago is something I think of often. The best we can do is to stand up from behind the bush and say, ‘here I am Lord, comfort me.’

    It is hard for me to identify the ‘bush’ I am hiding behind, but I am learning my the only true response to shame is to stand up, or at least ask to be picked up.

    Oh God come to my aid, oh Lord make haste to help me.

  7. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Great reflection, thank you

    What confounds me is that Jesus had no reason for shame – neither as God, nor as man. No mistakes, no culpability, no shame. Shame is absolutely, categorically alien to him. And yet it is inflicted upon him, brutally. And he takes it, receives it, bears it, making it his own. Silently, without protest. All the more the shame is on us. And yet he loves. And yet he loves, he never stopped.

  8. Janine Avatar

    Dino, fascinating.
    And also that she’s wailing out of her compassion for her Son, right there with Him in whatever is happening to Him. I’m comparing her to the parents of the healed blind man in John’s Gospel, who more or less abandon him because they’re afraid of being cast out of the synagogue (ah, shame again).

  9. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,
    I do not understand the claim that, “Shame can only be healed by shame.” Frankly, that sounds like a variation on penal substitution atonement – i.e. we are saved from our shame because Christ bore it for us. It admittedly avoids the distorted notion of a wrathful Father demanding payment but It doesn’t really explain how Christ’s suffering (whether physical, psychological or spiritual) effects my salvation. It has not been my experience, either as an individual or as a psychologist, that shame heals shame.

    I do see, however, how love heals shame. So how/why do we associate the suffering of Christ with love?

    Death is the inevitable consequence of sin because God is the source of life and sin is separation from God. There is no life apart from God.

    God could not just forgive us all without taking away our free will and our free will is necessary for us to be able to love and thus share in His divine life. And no mere man, no matter how virtuous, is completely pure of sin and therefore able to restore himself to life/God, much less restore all of humanity. The dead simply cannot bring themselves back to life.

    So God comes as the God-man, Jesus. Completely human, completely free of sin, yet completely God in unity with the Father and the Spirit. Because He is sinless, He doesn’t have to experience death like the rest of us do. He was not separated from God in His human existence. But He chose to accept death (along with all of the fear, shame and pain that entails), to empty Himself in complete humility, even though He stood to gain nothing personally from this sacrifice.

    To freely choose in this way, in a sense, undid the sin of Adam. Adam, through pride and disobedience, wanted to make himself god and thus separated all of humanity from God. Christ, through humility and obedience, chose to become man and heal that separation by dying when He didn’t have to, so that we could truly “become God” (share fully in His life). What greater act of love could there be than to suffer the fullness of death that another might experience the fullness of life?

    Yet not only did Christ do this for just one other but for ALL others. This is the fullness of love. This is what saves us. It is not suffering, death or shame that saves us. They are simply the instruments of love – and perhaps the most powerful instruments imaginable.

    We remain free. We are not compelled to be united to God in love – but the Way has been opened for us. We can no longer say we do not know the Way because the Way has made Himself known to us and has shown us what it means to “become God”.

    All praise and glory and honor to Him who has loved us unto death.

    (Forgive me. I got carried away.)

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is interesting that in Orthodox hymnography within Holy Week, the theme of pain is fairly minor, whereas the theme of shame is dominant. But, your own meditation on pain is truly valid and important. He unites Himself to us in all things.

  11. Helen Avatar

    Father, in Bishop Ware’s The Orthodox Way, he talks about Christ’s ‘obedience unto death’ including not just a physical death (separation of soul from body), but also spiritual death (separation of soul from God). (Chap 4, sect Obedience unto Death) It’s difficult to comprehend how Christ could have experienced separation from God in a spiritual death. Is it in bearing our shame?

  12. Nikolaos Avatar

    Mary the shame of sin can be healed by the shame of confession. I think the prodigal son example mentioned by Fr Stephen demonstrates this.

  13. Janine Avatar

    Personally I think substitution is a failure to understand justice. Christ’s death is all about justice because he becomes “the faithful witness” (Rev 1:5). I’m no expert in all theology of every opinion, but it seems to me that He comes in no small part to render a higher justice and to liberate the world from evil (or the evil one). How does justice happen except with witnesses? And those witnesses must be unassailable. We are all called to live as He did as part of the same work IMO. This is the substance of the heroic, of our call to endure — even and maybe especially to endure unwarranted shame. It is the pure in heart who will see God. Note also how those who follow Him are cast out, called to be “outside” in some way, the “offscouring” of the world. (Just as He met His hour of glory outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.) The best witness is the one outside the system.

  14. Christine Jones Avatar
    Christine Jones

    Fr. Stephen, firstly profound Thanks for your blog articles. They are so rich, insightful, beautiful and a life line. Would you say that in very simplistic terms, shame is what we must own – it destroys our false images of ourselves and it puts responsibility onto us. Enduring physical pain not caused by us is a very different interior state of being. Both are suffering, but the integration of our own Shame is something quite different from enduring suffering as a Victim, or Martyr. Excessive focus on physical pain is a powerful distraction from interior pain. Thank you for the clarity you provide on interpreting the symbolic language of icons.

  15. Laura Frizelle Avatar
    Laura Frizelle

    Mary Benton, I was totally in agreement with you when I read your comment, then a thought came to my mind about how “shame heals shame”.

    This year I learned that when a person is experiencing real empathy for a person who is hurting, the part of the brain that experiences pain lights up in the empathetic person. Our loving connection/communion is physiological. Because Christ suffered and experienced shame, we know that he “feels” our shame and we can “feel” his. This is not just sentimental. The communion of love is shared in every part of our person. For many of us shame is so pushed down and ignored. Jesus because he loves us, he helps us to open our hearts and let it surface and process our shame with him.

    Hillary Jacobs Hendel LCSW and author of It’s Not Always Depression teaches a lot about the importance of feeling and experiencing the physical nature of emotion and the practice of AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) which highly emphasizes the importance of the relationship between therapist and client which allows for the deep self emptying expression of all pain, emotion, thought and shame for the sake of healing. The therapist being full of compassion and in a sense guiding, “sharing the feeling”, allows the emotions to rise to the surface, be shared and processed and then be resolved. Priests and loved ones also do this…bearing one another’s burdens. As we meditate on Christ suffering, we also “feel”, share, and process the suffering and shame of the world and through it we are freed collectively. The relationship between Christ and man is the ultimate in healing communion and atonement. He freely opened his heart to us out of love, suffered all, passed through it and transformed it though the resurrection.

    Lord have mercy and help me to believe this.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Shame is a tricky word. It covers a lot of things that could be discussed separately. It can mean the terrible, destruction of toxic shame. It can also refer to a very natural physiological response to mild experiences of vulnerability. Essentially, what the fathers describe as “humility,” is precisely the willingness to “bear a little shame” (emphasis on the little).

    St. Therese of Lisieux once said: “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a place of refuge.” That, I think, captures the very heart of humility.

  17. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father for your reply to Christine

  18. Christine Avatar

    Thank you for the clarification Fr. Stephen.

  19. Vasilia Avatar

    Yes, Fr., thank you. It is hard for me to mentally process the idea of shame vs. pain, but that quote by St. Therese of Lisieux is a wonderful one. I am no good at “bearing serenly,” but I will surely have practice ahead.

  20. Johanna Avatar

    Father, I look at Him on the cross and I look at the Bridegroom icon and I can see no shame. I see Peter’s shame, the apostles’ shame, the priests’, Adam’s, Eve’s, mine… I also don’t see the pain, or if I do, it’s a different kind of pain than the one we experience. I look at Him and I can only see His beauty. He is nowhere quite as beautiful as He is in that bridegroom icon.

  21. Dino Avatar

    Cs Lewis, consistently insightful in a very orthodox manner, has this notion in the ‘Lion, which, Wardrobe’ when the Lion is shaved/shamed for his sacrifice. He even speaks of Aslan”s serene acceptance of the shame as strangely most dignified. So this notion wasn’t lost in the West entirely.

  22. Mary in Tennessee Avatar
    Mary in Tennessee

    Christ bearing shame: The Athos icon of Christ being mocked by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers.
    There’s a copy available from Legacy Icons. I’d link here, but I don’t know how.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is interesting that Christ Himself does not exhibit the experience of being shamed. When we are shamed, we automatically blush and turn our faces or eyes away. In Scripture it says, “He did not turn his face from the spitting and the shame.” Everyone around Him is shaming Him, and He bears it but without exhibiting that it has any power over Him. Just the opposite. He defeats the shame at every turn.

  24. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Mary Benton – I honestly believe that the icon and the music Father shares at the end of his post explains it all.

  25. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    Thank you, Father Stephen. The Prodigal Son is such a helpful parable, with the “shame healing shame” theme. The son had determined to accept the shame that came with an abject return and pleading – “Make me as one of the hired servants”. The father did not let him languish.

    The trauma methodologies, CBT, EMDR, etc. all include some version of re-entering the trauma and reframing, de-fanging, processing, accepting the event. But this is not done alone, and it is NOT just rehashing the shame, that would be the traumatic re-living that is so crippling (this seems like maybe what Mary Benton was concerned about, but perhaps I am wrong). The first step is establishing safety. “Come to me, all you weary and heavy laden, I will give you rest”, etc – Christ establishes safety for our souls. The Cross and Resurrection do that, establishing our safety in Christ, death is despoiled, and Life is opened to us. With Him, we can enter our shame, enter His death, and emerge in His glory. We can have the ultimate therapeutic bond with our Lord, who will never abuse our trust or vulnerability.

    It is not love or shame, it is His love through His shame, extended to us in our shame, inviting us to His love. And He did do it for a reward, for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame (Heb 12:2). “Despising” here is kataphroneo, “thinking-down”, the same mind/thought word that we are seeking as an “Orthodox phronema”. He set His face to Jerusalem, He set His face to the shame and spitting and he “thought it down”, and now He sets His face towards us. Will we look up and meet His eyes?

    May you all have a glorious Pascha!
    Christ is Risen!
    Mark M

  26. Byron Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    I must say, this Pascha has been full of surprising temptation and grace (and, for me, shame as well)! Glory to God!

  27. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    Father, you mentioned the Shroud of Turin. What media (books and/or documtaries) would you recommend for further study of this important Christian relic? Thanks.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are several decent Youtube videos. I like those done by Gary Habermas. He is quite reasonable and accurate, not given to strange theories.

  29. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    Thank you , Father. I appreciate the direction.

  30. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Father I think the older brother in the Prodigal son story illustrates the theme of envy you spoke of in your other article

  31. Steve L Avatar
    Steve L

    Father Stephen,

    I think this is a very interesting argument against wrath. But, in an attempt to strengthen the argument, what is bad about wrath? Is it the pain? Or is shame also embedded within the expression of wrath? As moderns we focus on the pain. But perhaps the ancients weren’t so pain-averse and recognized the shame within wrath as well

    Just a question to ponder. Again, very creative angle contra wrath.

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