Sunday, November 24, 2013

First Cup—Lectionary Sunday

The Reign of Christ Sunday

Recently in chapel at Warner Pacific College, we heard some really fine poetry slamming by four young Christian poets. They were thoughtful, articulate, passionate—with a fairly heavy theological bent to what they were slamming. And that’s I want to do some ruminating, cogitating, considering, deliberating, meditating, self-reflecting about. It was a good slam—good stuff; at points quite powerful and moving. As I heard it, their primary focus was informed by a heavy cruci-centric, sacrifice-centric, blood-centric set of images. Jesus was crucified again and again that morning, in all the bloody splendor we often associate with medieval Christianity when the church used to “Dream of the Rood”:

Men carried me [the cross]
Upon their shoulders and set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.
And then l saw the Lord of all mankind
hasten with eager zeal that he might mount
Upon me.

“O blessed cross. Oh blessed blood! Oh blessed gore”: the gore is important; all of the human emissions of Jesus on the Cross were celebrated. Sometimes, they are prayed to:

Blood of Christ, shed profusely in the Scourging, save us.

Blood of Christ, flowing forth in the Crowning with Thorns, save us.

Blood of Christ, poured out on the Cross, save us.

Blood of Christ, price of our salvation, save us.

Blood of Christ, without which there is no forgiveness, save us.

Blood of Christ, Eucharistic drink and refreshment of souls, save us.

The church once celebrated the fall of Adam and Eve because, through the fall, we came to experience grace—manifest in its starkest and loveliest ugliness in the bloody cross of Jesus.

I do not want to take down the cross. It’s central in my own understanding of my faith. I do not want to demean or diminish the Eucharistic table, which is at the heart of my own understanding of church. I do not want to suggest that the death of Jesus does not correspond to, build upon and in remarkable ways complete the whole Jewish system of sacrifice. In fact, it would be surprising if this understanding of Jesus’ death were not at the heart of how a predominantly Jewish people came to see and understand that event. (I have often wondered what form atonement might have taken had “the fullness of time” been another time and in another place? The guillotine? The gas chamber? C. S. Lewis explores this in his “Space Trilogy.”) But I am uncomfortable with the bloody theories of atonement primarily because I repudiate the idea of an offended God, who in his divine pettiness, must be made to feel better or whose offended honor must some how be placated.

I know that if anyone actually reads this blog, I’ll be taken to task for dismissing this millennia long set of arguments. I know that most theologians would say something like the vitality of the doctrine of atonement is essential and that the question of atonement is so large and mysterious that no one theory could ever fully address it—we need all of them and, probably, more, even old Bernard.

Years, no decades, ago, my Christian education professor, Dr. Irene Smith Caldwell, helped us to think about translating difficult theological concepts and the challenging realism of biblical stories for children. She answered the question, “How do you help children understand the crucifixion?” saying, “You tell them that because Jesus was unwilling to tell a lie, selfish and jealous persons put him to death.” Children understand the importance of truth telling. As an adult, I understand “unwilling to tell a lie” to mean that he was unwilling, ontologically, to be other than who he was. Period. I think this is the point: Even though the crucified Jesus does sum up the life and teachings of Jesus, it also allows us to ignore his life and teachings. We miss the point that it is how he lived and how he connected and how he related to highest officials and the lowliest non-officials.

These are the realities that brought him to the cross. To deny his identity—no matter how painful or consequential—would be a pain greater than death, akin to Jeremiah’s yielding:

Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him,
Nor speak anymore in His name.”
But His word was in my heart like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
I was weary of holding it back,
And I could not. (Jeremiah 6:20 KJV)

Or, in his own words, “He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’” (Matthew 26:39 KJV).

I do not run from the cross. I run to the cross. I believe the Christian faith is most clearly expressed as cruciform. But what I see there is not my substitute, not my ransom, and not some satisfying sop thrown at the demanding throne of a little god. What I see there is the love (agape, khesed) of God—compelling and attractive and demanding and inviting and, yes, ugly and frightening and horrid and demanding. What I see there is the summation of a whole life; it is not the only moment; it is the fullest witness to the Incarnation, which I take as the most important idea. I see most clearly the extent to which God was willing to say, “I love you.”

I don’t think that’s sentimentality—how can one be sentimental looking at a cross (unless, of course, it is one of those pretty, shiny, golden Protestant crosses that have lost any compelling power and have become little more than costume jewelry). Sentimentality is a hallmark card. Sentimentality is telling a parent grieving over the death of a child that God must have needed another cherub. Sentimentality is a nostalgic longing for a time remembered as better. Sentimentality is “soap opera” love.

No, I’m writing about the crucifix.

Sentimental is not what the crucified Jesus is. Rather, the crucified Jesus is the hardest, most challenging, and most demanding, the most difficult to look at, the most relentless picture of the God who never gives up; the God who, as Lewis said, “Is utterly shameless in what he will do to bring a sinner into the kingdom.” This is the God who risks all 99 sheep to save one; who searches, sweeps, every square inch to find one lost coin; who runs shamelessly down the street of the village in front of “God and everybody” to welcome home the lost son who not many years ago spit in his face; the crucified Jesus is “the hound of heaven” God who refuses to give up and who most fully and more completely than any other picture or icon or theological principle shows the sacred heart of God toward God’s creation. As if God rips open God’s own chest and there, where the heart should be, is the crucified Jesus.

And the contemplative reflection on this heart leads us ever deeper into love; love that convicts and redeems, love that transforms and reforms, love that demands and enables, and love that binds and frees.

Laughter came from every brick.
Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy me.”
What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ.
Love once said to me, “I know a song; would you like to hear it?”
And laughter came from every brick in the street
and from every pore in the sky.
After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy me.”

—St. Teresa of Avila

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