Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

“What Wondrous Love Is This?”

Those words begin a deeply meditative American folk hymn often associated with this season of the year.  As with most songs in the folk tradition there are many verses, but three in particular capture the core message of Holy Week and Easter, and it is worth contemplating as we prepare to begin the week.  In deep and brooding chords the first verse marvels,

What wondrous love is this, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

The reference is to the words of Isaiah, whose vision of the Messiah as suffering servant, inform our understanding of Christ's suffering:

“We all like sheep have gone astray...and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”   (Isaiah 53:6)

The events of Holy Week do not merely recount the tragic end of a good man.  They help us comprehend God's plan for setting right the wrongs of the world.  If Jesus was simply an ordinary man, trying to do good, but caught in the kind of hysteria that can overtake any movement, then the events of Holy Week would be but one more sad episode in the history of human beings stooping to subhuman behavior.

But if these same events were actually an expression of love, if the sufferer were to be none other than God Incarnate, and if in the suffering He was lifting for us a burden beyond our ability to bear, then awe and wonder properly mingles with grief and mourning as we watch the drama unfold.  Which is it - an act of amazing love, or of deluded tragedy?  It all depends on who Jesus was.  Fully human, yes, else it would be play-acting.  But faith insists there was far more at work, and the second verse continues:

To God and to the Lamb, O my soul,
To God and to the Lamb, who is the great “I Am”
While millions join the theme I will sing!

The reference this time is to the scene in the Revelation of John, in which the company of heaven offers praise to God for the gift of Christ whose death and resurrection make possible human liberation from sin and death.

“And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth...saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and power for ever and ever!’”   (Revelation 5:13)

Jesus is the Lamb, and this is what gives his loving sacrifice its power to lift fallen humanity.  The cross, far from being a snare to stop Jesus' work, turns out to be the very tool by which he shows the scale of God's love.  Furthermore, he shows us the intrinsic power of self-giving love.  Just as Christ's sacrificial love transforms our relationship to God, so we are called to bring that same self-giving love into our relationships. 

All this would be hot air, if we were remembering a good man who just died, no matter how heroically.  The experience of the Disciples, however, is that beyond all expectation, and to their utter amazement, the story was not ended.  The accounts of the first Easter, and the weeks that follow show us a collection of men and women who were nothing if not skeptical.  Yet over a period of a month or so they became convinced that Jesus had triumphed over death.  They do not tell of some ghostly “survival,” nor of a shared conviction that his work must go on, but of the real presence of the man they had known, translated into a new dimension of existence, yet very much with them, teaching and preparing them to receive his Spirit into their lives.  So transforming was this experience that they were changed from simple, fear-filled people into spiritual dynamos who, in their lifetimes, carried the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the entire Mediterranean world.

Their message, and the presence of the Risen Christ, has been changing things ever since, and so it is in triumph that the hymn concludes:

And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on,
And when from death I'm free, I'll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity I'll sing on!

May we now journey through Holy Week, not skipping over the rough or unpleasant parts, taking into our minds and spirits all there is to experience.  And having done so, may we share the surprise of Jesus’ followers and have the most joyous of Easters.

Howard MacMullen
© March, 2012
To hear the tune, click here

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