Saturday, July 14, 2012

It is finished

The other day I heard "I Will Glory in the Cross" on the car radio. It's been a long time since I heard it. Good song written by Dottie Rambo. (Ignore the slightly odd video that goes with this nice vocal performance.)

What is the significance of the final line? "I will weep no more for the cross that He bore. I will glory in the cross."

Here we cannot ignore a parting of the ways between a generally Catholic and a generally Protestant sensibility. One need only think of the fact that Catholics have crucifixes and Protestants have, if anything, plain crosses. (Some are even uncomfortable with that.) To a certain kind of evangelical Protestant mind, we should no longer think of Jesus on the cross but only of Jesus' victory over death. It is finished. Jesus has accomplished his work, and we should not harrow our feelings or our thoughts by meditating on Jesus on the cross. There are deep theological waters here, for we could get into the specifically Roman Catholic notion of the sacrifice of the Mass, which goes beyond the more general Anglican concept of the Real Presence. But let's not actually go that far. Let's just ask about this question of thinking of Jesus on the cross.

Without getting into the specific theology of the Lord's Supper, we can remember that Jesus said, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you show the Lord's death till he come." So for all Christians, including memorialists, there is supposed to be at least one time in their regular Christian practice when they do meditate on Jesus on the cross--namely, at Communion. This makes it a pretty hard thing to argue that a crucifix and meditation thereon is actually unbiblical or theologically incorrect.

Well, what about the Apostle Paul's statement that he glories in the cross? Does that mean that we should "weep no more" over the suffering of the cross? It's important to realize just what a shocking thing that was to his audience. Both to Jews and to Gentiles, it was a real scandal, a stumblingblock, to glory in the cross, to worship a crucified Savior, and to take the cross as a symbol of one's religion. Crucifixion was an entirely concrete matter to first-century inhabitants of the Roman empire, and a horrifying business it was. Paul is certainly deliberately engaging in a reversal of the usual thought processes both of his own Jewish people and of his Gentile audience when he says that he glories in the cross. Does this mean that we should entirely transform the cross into a symbol of victory over death?

I think we should be willing to weep over the cross. In that sense, much as I like the song, I don't agree with the strictly literal meaning of that line. If we truly "show the Lord's death," if we want to remember His death and thank him for it, we will have compassion on His sufferings, we will be filled with awe at what He suffered for us, and we may even weep for the cross that He bore.

Gratitude is one reason for this, but I think there is another: Jesus' sufferings are over, but there are others whose sufferings are not over. At this very day and hour, at this very moment, there are people suffering all over the world. Some of them are suffering torture and death for the cause of Christ. Some of them are just suffering--chronic pain, illness, torture, murder, grief, total loss, mental illness. Sufferings innumerable. On the cross Jesus took all the pains, griefs, and sins of mankind upon Himself. When we meditate on Jesus' cross, we acknowledge the pain of mankind and the evil of man toward man which is such a weight and a darkness upon the earth.

And we see how all of that can be swallowed up in victory.

That point is the truth in "weep no more for the cross that he bore." Not taken literally, but taken to refer to the fact that Jesus' death gives meaning to human pain and suffering and ultimately conquers it. That is why we can glory in the cross. Ultimately it is about both suffering and victory, and our meditation should cover both. Not either/or. In worshiping Jesus as the crucified Savior, thinking of Jesus as the crucified Savior, we are both acknowledging the reality of evil and suffering and also the reality of its ultimate defeat. So we weep. And then we weep no more. We glory in the cross.


William Luse said...

On the cross Jesus took all the pains, griefs, and sins of mankind upon Himself.

I take this quite literally. One reason Paul may have "gloried in the cross" was in understanding that, whatever he suffered, Jesus suffered it first, suffered with him, and to the fullest degree.

And then there was the command to any who would follow him: Let him take up his cross. I can't imagine being a Christian without thinking upon this daily.

Lydia McGrew said...

I struggle a lot with thinking of all the suffering in the world. Golly, what a cliche. But it's true. The Internet brings it home through prayer requests and news stories. Little children with painful diseases and people being horrifically tortured. It can overwhelm the mind, and one has to be careful not to let it do that. Which is why I don't approve of graphic torture scenes in fiction, actually. It just overwhelms.

But at the right moments, when my heart is attuned, I can poise on that cusp--between knowing that these things are real, that they happen, that we cannot simply turn away from them because they are inconvenient, and knowing that Jesus' sufferings give it all meaning, so at some level, there is peace. It's not just despair and chaotic evil. There is a plan. God will make all things new through the work of Christ.

A difficult balance to keep. Most of the time I just get on with life. But it helps to stop and try to put those things together every now and then.