Friday, March 25, 2016

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure

In the novel Theophilus, Michael O'Brien portrays the main character, a physician like Luke but not initially a Christian believer, as sickened by the cruelty of crucifixions. He is therefore horrified when he finds one of his servants praying with a crucifix in his hands. He cannot understand why the Christians have made a symbol of worship out of this horrible instrument of torment. O'Brien captures very well the surprising nature of the Christians' veneration of the cross. And indeed, the oddity--either for Jews or Gentiles--of the early glorification of the cross is one of many pieces of evidence that they had strong reason to believe that Jesus was not just another victim of the evil of man, that God had vindicated him.

I was struck by this conflict between the cross as symbol and as reality this evening while singing "In the Cross of Christ I Glory." The title is taken from St. Paul's avowal in Galatians, "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Christ." The last verse goes

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure
By the cross are sanctified.
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that through all time abide.

And I began thinking of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil (though I couldn't then remember his name) who has been captured by ISIS in Yemen. The nuns of his order fear that he will be or has been crucified by ISIS today, Good Friday. Others have argued that the fear is unfounded, but in any event, Fr. Tom is certainly in danger if not already dead, and ISIS has been known to crucify people.

How, I wondered, could I glorify the cross as a symbol of my salvation while Christians are literally being killed on crosses by the most evil of men who glory in torturing and mocking Christians by this means of death? When the notion of crucifixion ceases to be a notion and becomes all too real, it becomes difficult to sing about how "peace is there that knows no measure."

Yet the Apostle Paul was not a comfortable, 21st-century, American Christian. He lived in a time when men were crucified. He personally knew Peter who, according to tradition, was later crucified upside down. Paul escaped a similar fate only because he was a Roman citizen. And it is the Apostle Paul who first teaches us in Scripture to glory in the cross. "For I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified." "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world."

Somehow it was possible for those early Christians to hold the cross in their minds as both a symbol and a reality and to embrace that reality because, as Paul quotes a "faithful saying," "If we die with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him." "Buried with him by baptism into the likeness of his death, raised in his likeness to walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection."

And so, they were willing to die, like Christians facing the evil of ISIS. Like Fr. Tom. It wasn't that they did not know, that they did not understand. It was, and is, that they understand better. They go past the easy thoughts of the cross, mind half-wandering, heart unmoved by what has become old hat. But so, too, they go beyond the sheer, stark, horror, a horror to darken the mind, of the thing itself. For on the other side of the horror that Our Lord suffered, and that all Christians are called in some measure to suffer with him, and that some suffer literally, there is a deeper meaning yet again, which is neither easy symbol nor mind-paralyzing evil and torture. And that meaning is the reversal of evil, accomplished by that death. If it had not been accomplished by that crucifixion, then every crucifixion would be nothing more than, at most, a tale of gross evil nobly born by an innocent victim. And at worst we should suspect that perhaps even nobility itself had no meaning at all.

But now, we see through a glass darkly that death need not be just death, that crucifixion, yes, even real crucifixion, need not be just crucifixion, because Jesus died and, by death, defeated death, and lives again.


John said...

This post deserves comment, and I regret letting it go by unnoticed (probably because Lydia set forth a flurry of new posts).

The "crucified with" notion begins with the saying of Jesus that any to follow Him must take up their own crosses--apart from that none could/can be His disciple. The Lukan parallel actually has "take up his cross DAILY" (9:23)--the first hint that the ensuing death (death always came for those who took up crosses) was not quite necessarily to be understood literally.

I appreciate your citation of Romans 6, because it captures the Biblical association of believer's "crucifixion" with baptism. The severance of that association is the greatest disservice to Christendom to follow in the wake of Protestant Reformation. Baptism is the place where a believer (first, and ever thereafter) enters a death that intersects his/her experience with the Cross-death of Jesus--and so portends resurrection. Baptism is the new birth. Curiously, Jesus gave up His spirit (Spirit?) at His crucifixion, and the Spirit is received by believers in (water)baptism.

The believer's crucifixion (as you well noted) has everything to do with the end of sin, which is why it is essentially a death to self--well, a death to the "old self." This death-while-yet-alive is well expressed in 2 Cor. 5:15.

Finally, this believer-crucified-with-Jesus notion also has everything to with the peculiar NT expression of "obeying the Gospel" (an expression that all alone sends shockwaves into Reformed theologians). What, pray tell, could it mean to obey the Gospel, when the Gospel is the telling-forth of Jesus' Cross? It seems bare-bones logical that the only way to obey His death is with a death of our own, to answer His Cross with my own. See Romans 1:5, 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17 (with 2:8 and 3:1). It seems that to disobey the Gospel (the expression normally contains a negative warning of condemnation) is to reject or pass by the offer of repentance and baptism, which is where one (initially) gets nailed to cross.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, Paul consistently uses having died and/or being crucified to refer to that daily, repeated death to self.

I suppose that I suffer from an over-vivid imagination. I have difficulty imagining what it would be for that death to take any sort of literal form--torture, for example. It seems like "too much," unendurable. That, though, may be exactly the sort of pummeling of one's heart and mind against which I tried to warn just a few weeks ago concerning trusting God. One is not asked to _imagine_ every conceivable bad thing that could happen and nerve oneself or have contempt for oneself on the basis of the thought, "I couldn't handle that." It's better to be humble and die to self in the daily things that now get labeled with the hashtag "First World Problems." For even in those things we can live by the faith of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.