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Wondering at the Cross

            Later, there would be doctrine.
            After whispers and mayhem;
            After dinner in a locked room and a show of hands;
            After “mass hallucinations”, private consultations,
            Promises and re-commissions;
            After sea and sand and sunrise,
            And a parting in the clouds.
            After fire falling, filling, overspilling;
            Raging and enraging;
            After news and bread and bodies breaking.
            We would tell our stories, and again,
            And get them straight;
            Repeated words, half-heard before, would ring,
            Would gather meaning;
            Ancient writ would be appropriated, scandalously.
            We would write an awful lot of letters,
            Then and there, however, there was only death:
            The murder in broad daylight of a loved one
            At the hands of cowards and careerists
            And by popular demand.
            A done deal
            Struck between religious and political elites
            For maximum expedience,
            And sealed with a lucrative kiss.
            Then and there was agony and thirst,
            A fight for every breath to live to die a little longer;
            Sour wine and words and unrequited scorn;
            Depravity’s completion.
            There was water at the end.
            And it was dark,
            And I had lied to save my skin,
            And even then
            I couldn’t say for sure I wasn’t glad that it was him
            Instead of me.
            And in that moment, that was all my certainty.         
            Carolyn Whitnall, 2018.

There's this song we sing on Sunday mornings – 'The Wonder of the Cross'. It's rather lovely; usually one of my favourites.
O precious sight my Saviour stands
Dying for me with outstretched hands
May I never lose the wonder
The wonder of the cross
May I see it like the first time
Standing as a sinner lost
We sing with everlasting joy
For sin and death have been destroyed. 
(The Wonder of the Cross, Vicky Beeching)
But the other day I stopped short at the line "May I see it like the first time". Imagine actually seeing the cross "like the first time" – the visible, visceral violence of real torture and death, inflicted on a really innocent real person you really knew and loved, with all the ingenious cruelty and status-quo-preserving indifference to justice that humankind could collectively muster. Consider: the resurrection hasn't happened yet; none of Jesus' hints over the last three years landed securely enough to inspire hope in the face of such unmitigated horror; there isn't even one theology of atonement to draw on for reassurance, let alone several to anxiously debate. Would such a sight really move you to musically beautiful wonder ... or would it move you doubled over to the floor, tearing your hair and choking on your own tears and vomit?

I found myself wondering: in church, there is a lot of talk (and singing) about looking to the cross, considering the cross, approaching the cross. Which is hardly surprising or unusual – Jesus' crucifixion is hugely foundational to Christian doctrine. But if we're not seeing the cross as it was "the first time", what are we seeing? And what are we not seeing, and with what consequence?

From my admittedly narrow experience (mostly within a UK free-evangelical tradition), when we talk about "the cross", we predominately have in mind three things: Jesus' willingness to die, our gratitude to him for doing so, and jubilant hope at having been spared from sin and death as a result. And I'm not at all saying it isn't 'about' those things. But I do want to suggest three examples among the other things that are there to be seen, and that we too easily (and damagingly) close our eyes to.

Jesus' willingness...but also our culpability

"You chose the cross with ev’ry breath; // the perfect life, the perfect death. // You chose the cross." (Lost in Wonder, Martin Layzell).
The Bible is pretty clear about the self-giving nature of Jesus' death (and life, for that matter), and about God's sovereignty over all that took place. "I lay down my life for the sheep. [...] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again." (John 10:15b,18) "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son..." (John 3:16a) "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matt 26:53-54)

But I wonder if there might not be a danger in emphasising Jesus' self-sacrifice to the exclusion of the fact that his death was also the unjust and brutal act of human beings. He gave his life freely, but it is a good thing that he clarified this to his disciples in advance (John 10:18) because the events that played out would certainly not resemble an instance of life freely given. Neither do his willingness, nor God's forward planning, negate individual and collective human culpability in the betrayal and violence that he suffered. "The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!" (Matt 26:24a)

The cross is a breathtaking display of self-giving mercy and love, but it is also a gut-wrenching display of all the reasons we so desperately need that mercy: hypocrisy and cowardice and power-mongering and bloodlust and cruelty and greed and careerism and nationalism and populism. And if I can look to the cross and not see the very worst of human nature, recognising my own part in all of that, then I am likely to be numbed to the ways that human beings (myself complicit) continue to brutalise and tyrannise and perpetuate injustice to our own advantage. [1]
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. [...] You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you." (James 5:1,3b-6, emphasis my own). 

Gratitude...but also grief

"Thank You, thank You for the blood that You shed // Standing in its blessing we sing these freedom songs" (Thank You for the Blood, Matt Redman).
It would be weird and wrong to believe what Christians believe about Jesus' death and not to feel wonder and gratitude at the contemplation of it. But it also feels weird and wrong to not feel grief and horror. It is essential to the power of the cross that it really happened: God didn't reach out to us with an abstract theological concept; He intervened, bodily, historically, concretely. Jesus experienced – holistically, including physically – the reality of what it is to be human, and the reality of what it is to suffer and die at human hands.

And Christians claim to be in a relationship with Jesus: "Christianity isn't a religion!" we chirp. But when you're truly in a relationship, you can't help but anguish over the suffering and death of the loved one. "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [...] When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept." (John 11:5,33-35) Jesus cried for his friend and for those mourning him, even though he knew what was about to happen next! As for me – I might be viewing Jesus' own death from the other side of the resurrection, but he still went through what he went through, and it troubles me that my relationship with him is not yet close enough for that to grieve me like it should.

But the problem doesn't end there. When we get comfortable singing nice songs about someone else's profound suffering it can contribute to our general desensitisation to other people's pain – that of strangers halfway round the world in extreme circumstances of war, famine and natural disaster; that of people trapped in homelessness and destitution whom we pass day-to-day; that of friends and family in sickness or financial difficulty or disappointment. As I've written about before, we even fall into habits of suppressing our own pain – deeming it somehow un-Christian. I often hear Christian friends shortcut to the bit where "it's all OK because God has it in hand"; I often hear myself do it – as though we owe that reassurance to each other. And when the pain becomes too much to suppress, the only option can seem to be to avoid Christian fellowship altogether.

Not that, for me, my response to Jesus' death is the only numbing factor, or even a primary one ... but if anything the cross should surely awaken me to grief, not inure me. And when I only dare look at it through the sanitising lens of doctrine I reduce it back down to an idea, and it's much less likely to trouble my feelings in that form.

Spared...but also challenged

"Oh to see my name written in Your wounds // For through Your suff'ring I am free // Death is crushed to death life is mine to live // Won through Your selfless love." (The Power of the Cross, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend)
For all the diversity and tension and interweaving of the different Christian understandings of how Jesus' death accomplishes God's saving plan, there is widespread agreement that it means forgiveness and reconciliation for sinful people, victory over death, and the possibility of transformed, new creation life:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation... (Col 1:19-22, NIV)
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15, NIV)
It is natural, believing this, to feel relief and hope – "it is finished"; sin and death no longer have ultimate dominion.

But when we think only about what we have been spared by Jesus' death on the cross, we risk ignoring the challenge and example that it sets. "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.'" (Matt 16:24-25; see also 1 Pet 2:21). Jesus shows us how to die to self, which sometimes means physical death; his own death and resurrection releases us to die, precisely because death no longer is the final word.

I guess for me and most of the people reading this, losing one's life isn't, on an average day, likely to mean physical death. But it can mean taking personal risks for the sake of others; it can mean seeking to make peace when I am wronged, rather than perpetuating cycles of retribution and resentment; it can mean being content to miss out materially or reputationally rather than play by the rules of a 'predatory economy' (as Brueggemann puts it in the Bible notes I'm following).

Sin and death still operate in the here and now, and people still exploit the threat and fear of death and loss to secure power and advantage for the few at the expense of the many and the vulnerable. To the extent that I benefit from this arrangement, whether actively or passively (either way, I'm still complicit), Jesus' victory over death should give me pause: the days of flourishing on that basis are numbered. "It is finished" is, I think, as much a solemn warning and a challenge as it is a promise. The cross makes possible a hope-filled new reality; I also need the cross to show me how to live in that reality.
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Phil 3:10-12, NIV; emphasis my emphatic own).

[1] Some close-to-home examples which spring too easily to mind include the Windrush scandal, UK complicity in the war in Yemen, poverty-inflicting benefits cuts, the Grenfell Tower fire and aftermath, child sexual abuse in the church, and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

[Thumbnail image my own.]