A colleague in the pastorate a generation older than me asked me one spring a few years ago what I was preaching on in Lent. I replied, "The cross." He paused for a moment, furrowed his brow, and wondered how on earth and in the pulpit I could find enough to say on that subject for two sermons, let alone fifteen. Seminary in his time was a wellspring of optimism, when graduates went forth to build the kingdom and had little doubt that they might accomplish that if only they tried hard enough and rallied the Christian church to the cause. The cross, at best, was an heroic example (which it also is!). But a preoccupation with the cross (as in my Lenten series of sermons devoted to the two crossed beams of wood) was deemed, well, morbid. Like the director of Christian Education I once listened to in complete astonishment, the one who said the cross should not be taught in Sunday School, because it's too violent for little children.
Mel Gibson, where were you when we needed you?
Speaking of whom (Mel Gibson, that is), his conception of the passion of the Christ dwells on the terrible suffering Jesus endured. For our sake. Because there was no way we could ever pay back God for the evil we have done. Just so, Jesus takes our place, dies for our sin, suffers for our sake. The substitutionary theory of the atonement, say this for it, catches the grand, eternal scale of that scaffold erected on Mt. Calvary. That something is accomplished there beyond all human endeavor, however immense our goodwill, a restoration of a connection with heaven severed in Eden, a stupendous outpouring of grace spilling upon the whole world, almost willy-nilly, without regard to the virtue or lack of it of those of us swept along in its redeeming health.
I am comfortable with this theme, if not with the sometimes attendant focus on the wounds and blood and pain of the Lord. But in this season of my life when I no longer need to prepare two sermons a week for the first six weeks of Lent, and five for Holy week; in this return to lay status, when the only person in the community who calls me "Rev" is our auto repairman; in this neighborhood where our closest neighbors and many of our dearest new friends are Jews, for whom the cross throughout the past two thousand years has been more like a sword than a saving refuge; now, when I am able to step back from the inevitable hype of the pulpit: I prefer among the many-splendored aspects of the cross of Jesus one that insists he not only died for us but died like us.
What do I see? The cross as God's solidarity with us.
Let me explain.
(1) The world we live in (and probably everyone at anytime has lived in) witnesses day in and out violence, bloodshed, treachery, accidental horrors, and gut-wrenching agonies which were not on the agenda when God designed the creation and its creatures. Tsunami. Chicago judge's husband and mother murdered. Suicide bombers. 9/11. Dafur. Holocaust. Choose any moment in time, find a newspaper published that day, and the front page will report the bad news, of which there seems to be an endless supply.
The other night we went to the movies. "Million Dollar Baby," the Academy Awards winner of Best Picture, was our viewing fare. It's a love story, a triangle, between two aged boxers and one young one. Their affection, compassion, and care for each other brought a dampness to my eyes more than once. The world around them, however, is filled with venality, families without forgiveness and devoid of grace, a priest more wooden than a roadside cutout, and doctors and nurses more concerned about protecting themselves against lawsuits than showing compassion for their patients. Worse, the veniality is punctuated with random, deadly violence. As I sat in the dark of the theatre, the spectacle before me took me to the foot of the cross. To make sense of it. For some meaning.
(2) Because there, on the cross, God died not only for us but with us. God has seen the human propensity for squandering divine love and patience. Once God even tried to wash it away. But that didn't work very well. In the fullness of time God devised a better way, coming down to us as a baby become a man, a good man, a very good and loving man, true in every respect to eternity and to humanity. Jesus. In the shortness of his time, just thirty-three years, those whom he came to help and love and serve strung him up on a couple of crossed beams of wood. Like the closing scenes of "Million Dollar Baby," in the acute care unit, wired and tubed. Like the courtoom in Atlanta. Like the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Like the bloody fields at Gettysburg. God knows the trouble we see, the trouble we endure, and the trouble our evil creates.
Which thought should provoke an obvious retort: how on earth can God's solidarity with us make any difference? Did it incinerate the Nazis manning the gas chambers, staying their genocide? Did it miraculously heal boxer Maggie Fitzgerald's broken spine? Did it bring a sudden dawning of peace to the Blue and Gray engaged at Gettysburg? Will it restore Terri Schiavo to a meaningful life?
We want deliverance not just sympathy.
(3) But, could it be, that the one is often the other, that God's companionship on the cross opens the way toward "redemption and release"?
My mother on her deathbed at Stamford Hospital never once in my hearing longed for more days on earth. What she did clearly want was companionship, not to be alone in her dying. She didn't fear death. She feared loneliness. It was a lifetime preoccupation, precipitated by her separation from her parents at the tender age of eleven, leaving home for the New World, never again to see her Mom and Dad. The greatest Biblical encouragement to her was the promise of Jesus, "And remember, I am with you always."
Consider that declaration I delivered above, in the paragraph beginning with Mel Gibson, about the cross as the hinge of history, where the eternal and unstoppable tide of God's love was unleashed, beyond all human attaining. That grand turning of human history is not accomplished by the cross as a magic wand. It's the cross as God's baton, leading the orchestra of those of us who are captivated by its melody to play the harmony until the whole world takes up the song. The passion of the Christ becomes our impassioned struggle to redeem the world. To make peace. To feed the hungry. To release the captives. To comfort the sick and those in prison. To be reconciled to our brothers and sisters, all of them. All of those good things a venial and violent world needs so badly. Made possible because we are not in it alone, because God is with us, a God who knows defeat and wounds and fear, a God who has suffered the cross. Not only for us, but with us.
The Cross, beyond inspiration but not just magic, enables me to see the world for what it is and, with the companionship of God assured in this struggle, empowers me to do whatever needs to be done to lessen the pain, indifference, and violence. Like the Apostle Paul declares in I Corinthians 15:38-39: "For I am convinced that neither death, no life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."