Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Wondrous Cross and the Tears of God

The unspeakable events of midnight, Friday in Aurora, Colorado caught all of us off guard.  It’s summertime, and the big stories this season have been unbearable heat, drought in the west, the threat of crop failures in the nation’s breadbasket. 

Mass murder in an entertainment complex wasn’t on our radar screens.  We were left speechless, uncomprehending.  Still, events of this sort provoke a gut-level quest to answer the question, “Why?”  Newspapers, television, blogs and social media struggle with the question, and the proffered answers don’t shed much light.  However, I do not believe there is nothing to be said.

The Christian faith is built upon the conviction that God has acted, and continues to act in the midst of humankind’s repeated lapses into senseless violence.  God joins us in our tears and grief, yes.  The first heart broken on Friday morning was God’s.  But God has done more than that, physically bearing the worst that humanity can dish out, and rising from it, to make a way for us to withstand the darkness and become bearers of the light.

In the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn:

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.  Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

Despite the continued popularity of this timeless hymn, appreciation of the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith has fallen on hard times.  Ours is an era that values comfort above all else, particularly when it comes to religion, and the cross can make us very uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable or not, the cross is front-and-center in the Christian faith.  We struggle with it, but it is the key to Christian spirituality.

I remember clearly the day when the depth of what Christ did on the cross became real for me.  I was serving as a minister to youth at the time.  One morning at eight o'clock our phone rang.  One of our High School Fellowship members was leaving for school, and as she walked out the door, watched in horror as a moving van backed over the fifteen-month-old son of a neighbor.  I spent the morning with the young woman, just being present and listening, as she struggled to cope with what she had witnessed.

When it was time to leave, I drove to a deserted beach, stormed along the sand and railed at God in anger.  “Can’t you feel?  Don’t you care?  What happened next changed me forever.  A deep calm descended, and I heard a deep voice say with great power and incredible gentleness, "I UNDERSTAND." I closed my eyes, and in that moment saw a pain-wracked hand against a rough wood beam, a heavy ragged iron spike driven through the wrist.

That subdued me considerably, but something inside still wasn't ready to quit.  "Okay, what about his parents?  His father, pacing up and down in front of the house?  Or his mother, unable to even look out the window?"  Then came another calm, and from someplace further up, and further in, a voice like distant thunder, filled with sadness, and gentleness and love, "I UNDERSTAND".  Again I closed my eyes, and this time saw a scene as from a medieval painting: the mourning figure of God the Father, tears streaming down his face, cradling in his arms the limp figure of the Crucified Christ. 

In that moment I understood too, not with logic, not with my intellect, but with another part of me.  What Jesus did upon the cross, he did for that baby, for his father and mother, for the neighbor girl, for us all.  He did it for the shooting victims in Aurora, for their families, for the casualties of history’s wars and conflicts, for all the times we as human beings sink below our humanity.  He did it for the victims and, yes, he did it for the perpetrators.  He took upon himself all the brokenness in our lives, and did it with no guarantee that we would ever respond. This unconditional gift, beyond all price, reveals what love truly is, and shows the heart of God to be filled with knowledge and compassion for our condition.  It was not done in folk tale or myth, but in the midst of our history.

Over a century ago George MacDonald said, “The Son of God suffered unto death, not that we might not suffer, but that our suffering might be like his.”  This was what God showed me that day on the beach, and while it does not make tragedy easy to bear, it declares that we are not alone in an uncaring universe, but that the Source of all things stands with us, bearing our sorrow and grief, and holding a light for us to move forward.

Howard MacMullen
© July, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Skip,

    This is a beautiful and profound reflection. It mirrors my own experience of the love and solidarity of God through suffering in the cross of Christ. Thank you so much.