Sunday, April 17, 2011

thank you for the cross

Titian ca 1555
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

….  The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
                   (T. S. Eliot, East Coker, IV)

There are more words written about the death of Christ than any other event in history: spoken of centuries before it happened, recorded by more eyewitnesses than any other moment in ancient history, documented by historians of the time, religious and secular, discussed, debated, dissected for two thousand years since.

The crucifixion appears as well in art and literature of all kinds: maudlin, moving, mocking, deeply memorable. Strange, isn’t it, that the death of an uneducated carpenter on the other side of the world would still echo around the globe.  

Yet, here we are, still trying to understand what happened there on that desolate hillside, Goglatha, Skull Hill, the rocky wasteland where criminals were left to die. Rob Bell, in his brilliant and controversial new book, Love Wins, takes on this question: 

What happened on the cross?

Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system
Or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled
Or a guilty defendant who’s been set free
Or a battle that’s been won
Or the redeeming of something that was lost?

Which is it?

Which perspective is the right one? Which metaphor is correct? Which explanation is true?
As Bell tries to make clear (offending theological purists of all camps in the process) no one image, metaphor, explanation, will ever fully do justice to something so “massive and universe-changing.” So we keep trying. “It’s like this … It’s like this….”

For me, the illustration that first caught my heart was Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My uncle brought the Chroncles of Narnia home from England when I was just launching into chapter books, and I read the first one through with great excitement. I was sure I was Lucy, the younger daughter, the little sister, the odd man out in family conflicts. Like Lucy, I felt an immediate allegiance to Aslan. I craved his warmth, strength, kindness. I remember grieving with Lucy when Aslan agreed to the white witch’s terms, offering himself in exchange for foolish traitor Edmund, and I remember following with Lucy up the dark hill to the stone table where Aslan would be sacrificed.

What a terrible story! The sisters crying bitterly, the hideous celebration of the witch’s company of hags, wraiths and horrors. I could hardly read on. And yet, I had to read on to the finish.

I don’t remember how I came to see that Aslan was a picture of Christ, offering himself for me. Did my uncle explain it? Did someone say “Aslan is Jesus”? The book was still new in the US at the time – who would have told me?

Yet, I do remember understanding the cross more clearly once I’d read Lewis’ story. Aslan’s love brought Christ’s alive for me. His powerful surrender made the cross more real, more awful, more moving.

Yet no story will ever do justice to the full mystery of the cross. I remember thinking that when I saw another powerful crucifixion image. Gandalf, in Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, stands in the shadows of the deep mines of Moria doing battle with the Balrog, “the demon of the ancient world.” While Gandalf’s companions run across an narrow bridge to safety, Gandalf plants himself in the Balrog’s way and cries, with great authority and power, “You shall not pass!”

He sends the Balrog tumbling back into the depths of darkness but as the monster falls, it catches his foot with its whip and pulls Gandalf into the darkness behind him. It’s a stunning image of protection and power in the face of looming evil, and of a sacrificial offering for the safety of the others. Yet it only captures a tiny part of what happened on the cross. Any explanation, depiction, illustration of the cross is by necessity partial. Finite creatures, we see in part, and understand in part. 

As Rob Bell summarizes: 
What happened on the cross is like . .
 A defendant going free
A relationship being reconciled
Something lost being redeemed,
A battle being won,
A final sacrifice being offered,
So that no one ever has to offer another one again,
An enemy being loved.
And more.

Think of the food imagery surrounding the cross – “this is my body, broken for you.” We draw back, alarmed, at the hint of cannibalism latent in that Eucharistic terminology. Yet in places where food security is in doubt, in ravaged lands where water is scarce and hunger certain, Jesus points to the cross and says “I will be your food and your drink. Your water, and your wine.” What does that mean?

It ties back to the idea of sacrifice. Some human sacrifice was appeasement for guilt. Much more was intercession for continued crops. Traveling in Guatemala, we visited Ixim'ché, a pre-Columbian Mayan city where young men and women were sacrificed to the god of corn (Ixim'ché translated means"tree of corn").

We stood in the ballfield where young men competed in a game preceding soccer; the outcome of the game would determine who was sacrificed next. The day we visited, we were warned to avoid the wooded area beyond the ruins since a sacrificial ritual would be taking place. While in most parts of the world human sacrifice no longer takes place, in Guatemala and other places there are still offerings given, of grains, candles, incense, even animals, in an attempt to ensure harvests and appeal for food in the face of hunger.

The cross offers food, bread, water, wine, in ways we can't understand, in ways we reenact every time we take what we call the eucharist, the Lord' supper.

The cross also offers healing. In pagan cultures there is a continuing belief that blood or body parts from another can bring healing. Muti killings are the most well-known remaining example of this. Despite laws forbidding it, regions of Africa and Asia still struggle with tribal medicine that depends on harvesting human body parts.

The western world shakes its head at the pagan superstition that would take one life to heal another. And yet we do the same thing in new ways, looking for healing in organ transplants, stem cell research.

Isaiah says “by his wounds we are healed.” What does that mean?  Peter expands this: “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” The healing is eternal – but also a present reality, as the disciples demonstrated in the early day of the church

Healed, forgiven, fed, reconciled to God, brought to life, protected.

One more image:

Isaiah prophecied: “he was despised and rejected.” Jesus himself said he would be rejected by the elders, chief priests, teachers of the law, by his generation. On the cross, that rejection went further, as he cried out to God himself: "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

I have never been really hungry. Never had an illness with no doctor to turn to. I’ve never faced actual battle with a visible enemy. But have I felt rejected? More times than I care to count.

At the cross, Jesus faced into total rejection, so we could be adopted into the household of God, brought into a place of belonging beyond any we can imagine: children of God, sisters and brothers of Christ himself, part of an eternal, global body where every part is wanted, every person welcome, every gift celebrated, every burden shared. Relationships restored, but even more: orphans given families. Aliens accepted.

What happened on the cross? We grasp hints of the magnitude of the miracle. We struggle to understand, try to line things up. But in the end, we bow down in awe at the mysterious heart of history, what T. S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world," what Paul called “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 

And we say "thank you."           

I will love you for the cross

And I will love you for the cost
Man of sufferings
Bringer of my peace

You came into a world of shame
And paid the price we could not pay
Death that brought me life
Blood that brought me home

And I love you for the cross
I'm overwhelmed by the mystery
I love you for the cost
That Jesus you would do this for me

When you were broken, you were beaten,
You were punished, I go free
You were wounded and rejected
In your mercy - I am healed

Jesus Christ the sinner’s friend
Does this kindness know no bounds
With your precious blood you have purchased me

Oh the mystery of the cross
You were punished you were crushed
But that punishment has become my peace . . .

For the cross, for the cross, for the cross I thank you
  (Matt Redman)
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