Coming to the cross is frightening. Some people think it morbid that we Christians have this feast at all. They think we focus on death too much. So we are tempted, partly in response to this criticism, and partly due to our uneasiness to jump over the cross and talk only about the “happy parts” of Jesus’ life and ministry.
When I say that many Christians are tempted to focus on only the happy parts of the incarnation, I mean that is easy for us to focus on the Christmas images of a little baby in the manger on a gentle starry night with angels singing carols. And from there we want to jump straight to Easter, where the risen Jesus appears to his friends, the ultimate happy ending. Maybe we’ll pick up a healing or parable or two along the way, but it is very tempting to just jump over the hard parts.
The problem is that the faith that is nourished on just the "happy parts" is like a faith that only looks at the teachings of Jesus but not the miracles, or the words of Jesus that make us comfortable but not the ones that challenge. We are led to an incomplete understanding. We cannot have a living, breathing, nurturing relationship with such a two-dimensional Jesus. And certainly, a Jesus who is only a baby, or only a wise teacher, or only standing outside the empty tomb, is not a Jesus who can accompany us when we are hurting, afraid, lonely or in trouble. We are certainly not challenged by such a Jesus. These may be the place to start, but we can't stay there long. For if we do, there is no one to hear and answer our prayer or walk with us in all that life brings. We will never know the fullness of life in Christ.
Sooner or later, all of us have to come to the cross. If we are to really understand Christmas, if we are really to take hold of his teaching, and really understand the way God is at work in the world—and if we are really to take hold of the fullness of Easter—we must go to the cross.
The Episcopal Bishop of the American Churches in Europe, Pierre Whalon, recently described what he saw when he visited Haiti, months after the earthquake shattered that country and weeks after the first major relief efforts went home. Whalon described the devastation and the dislocation of the Haitian people. In particular, he described how he came across an open pit of bodies that people were also using as a heap into which they also dumped their household refuse.
If how we care for the dead is some indicator of the dignity we attach to the living, then this is a startling, horrifying picture. This is not some conquering enemy hiding the dead in mass unmarked graves. It was people co-mingling their own dead with their own trash. Bishop Whalon said that all he wanted to do was climb down into that pit and clear out the rubbish.
Giles Frasier, canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, wrote this after he heard that story.
Christ jumps into the pit of death to claim even the grave for his victory. With this last act, the victory over death, Christ is the Lord of all. There are no corners of human experience that cannot be redeemed by his love.This is what God is doing when Jesus is crucified. Make no mistake. The God who came among us and lived and worked and played and loved as we did, died. On the cross, he was killed.
And in that death he took with him all of our suffering and all of our pain and all the ways we degrade and hurt and divide ourselves. He took them with him to the cross where they died with him. In his suffering, he takes on and identifies with our suffering. In his death, he goes to the places where we alone, divided, separated from God, each other and creation, and he pulls us out of the pit.
In our Baptismal Covenant, and in the Apostle’s Creed on which it is based, we say that we believe that Christ descended into hell. This means that we believe that there is no place, no dark corner of our hearts, no deep recess in our soul, no place in our past, where Christ cannot go. And there is no place he will not go to take our hand and pull us out of that pit of sorrow, or shame, or guilt or fear.
Here we need to learn from the Eastern Churches. Macarius of Egypt puts it beautifully: “If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled.” God enters the pit of bodies, and emerges triumphant. Thanks be to God.As Jesus walks with us in our suffering, he also walks with us in our deep desire for healing, hope, justice and reconciliation. In the incarnation, Jesus takes everything it is to be fully and completely human: our frailty, our fears, our limitations, our hopes and our possibility. So for us to know fully what God offers us in Jesus Christ, we must go past the “happy parts” and know that in being born God takes on everything it means to be human, especially death.
Today I found this poem by Benedictine Oblate, Christopher Evans, which perfectly expresses the connection between the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas and the crucifixion we contemplate tonight.
What God is This?
What God is this, who, bleeds and sweats,
as Mary mild is weeping?
Whom soldiers cheat by games of chance,
while passers curse in greeting?
Why hangs he high upon a tree,
court dog and eagle keeping?
Come far, come near: all nations hear:
the Word for us is pleading.
So see him broken, bruised, and bare,
on bended knee, adore him;
the King of kings creation frees,
let all the world draw near him.
This, this is Christ the King,
whom soldiers guard and robbers ring,
haste, haste, to him behold,
the man, the Son of Glory.
W. Christopher Evans ©2010