Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Wondrous Cross: Sorrow and Love Flow Mingled Down

[Note: This writing was orginally done back in April for Holy Week, but I never posted on my blog at the time. A version of the article appeared in the Lodge Forest United Methodist Church newsletter, The Messenger, so some of you may already have read this. Having said that, I think it is worth posting here for those that never read it...]

Many of the songs we sing in our churches every Sunday proclaim the power and wonder of the cross. But I have to ask: Do we truly appreciate that power and wonder? When asked what the significance of the cross is, the common reply is, "Jesus died on the cross so my sins could be forgiven." That answer is certainly correct and very important, but I would argue that this answer is also incomplete. I believe that we lose out on so much of the power and wonder of the cross if all we do is focus exclusively on forgiveness of sins.

There are quite a few theories of atonement—explanations of the meaning of the cross—that have been developed over the years. But no one theory sufficiently describes what happened on the cross. The fact is that what Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross contains a mystery so deep that theologians have struggled to understand it for centuries. So we need to understand and appreciate the different theories of atonement, all the while recognizing that we probably will never have the "complete" explanation .

So given all that, simply saying, "Jesus died on the cross so my sins are forgiven and I could go to heaven when I die," seems like a shallow and narrow-focused answer. It's the standard Sunday School explanation of the cross, but as we grow in our faith, we begin to long for more… (Our standard answer focuses primarily on one theory of atonement—namely substitutionary atonement whereby Jesus "takes our place on the cross" and pays the penalty that by rights should have been ours so that we can be restored to right relationship with God.) My life circumstances recently have certainly forced me to "go deeper" and to search for a deeper understanding of God as revealed in Jesus, and of the meaning of the cross in particular.

The second verse of the old hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross says:

See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did ere such love and sorrow meet?
Nor thorns compose so rich a crown?

It seems to me that as we seek a deeper understanding of the cross we have to acknowledge both sorrow and love are expressed simultaneously and merge together in a single act that defies our human understanding. What we do know is that somehow, as "love and sorrow meet" on the cross of Calvary something wondrous takes place, and a power beyond anything this planet has ever known is set free in the Universe. The aftershock of that event in history continues to reverberate down through the ages. Even death itself cannot hold it back.

Still, as finite human beings we struggle to understand and enter into this "mingling" together of two completely opposite emotions. We're not very comfortable living with the tension. So we tend to choose what we think is the "easier," more uplifting emotion of love. But is love really easier than sorrow?

I rather believe that love and sorrow are two sides of the same coin that can't be separated if we wish to fully understand the cross and the message of Jesus?

I think I particularly relate to the mingling of sorrow and love right now. In the past year, we have experienced deep feelings of love for both of our daughters, and also great sorrow over the loss of one. And we have experienced these conflicting emotions virtually simultaneously. Rebecca lived and is a healthy 11-month old but her twin sister Hope died tragically two days after birth. We've had to try and reconcile those two facts. In a few weeks we will celebrate Becca's birthday but then two days later, we will honor the first anniversary of Hope's death. This is the emotional whiplash that characterizes our life now… and will for the rest of our lives…

And friends and family also struggle to reconcile these two events. You aren't "supposed" to have a birth and a death of a child two days apart; life just shouldn't work that way… but it did for us. I honestly believe that people mean well, but sometimes they just don't know what to say. So they either say nothing… or say the "wrong" thing. Not surprisingly, people tend to urge us to focus on the love we have for Rebecca and forget all about the sorrow over the loss of Hope. But we cannot separate the two!

Even though we understand why it happens and realize that no one intentionally sets out to hurt us, when others forget Hope so easily, it brings us pain. Indeed, love and sorrow have met intimately in our lives, and while we did not choose it, we must let the two emotions flow mingled down together in our lives and see what God will do with it in our case. Perhaps in some small way, this co-mingling of sorrow and love over our daughters helps me connect with the suffering and sorrow that Christ endured on behalf of the whole world a little more than I did before. Perhaps some of you could share a similar experience that has helped you move closer to Christ and your appreciation of the passion?

I think I also connect to Christ's suffering on another level. Last May, we had to make the agonizing choice to take Hope off life support. It was clear that Hope had no hope of any quality of life on this side of eternity. We chose to take on suffering ourselves so that our child that we loved deeply did not have to suffer any longer. It was the right thing to do and really the only choice we could make in good conscience, but it was still agonizing choice to let the daughter we loved, our darling Hope, pass from life support to life eternal.

I have to wonder if God faced a similar dilemma when he looked at the creation that he loved so deeply? It had drifted so far away from his original creative design and become so corrupted by human sin that the quality of life for humanity was rapidly deteriorating and only a direct intervention could save it. God became a man in the person of Jesus and willingly took on the suffering and sorrow of the world, so that the creation that God loved so deeply did not have to continue to suffer the way it was. No longer did it have to linger on "life support". Now because of what Christ did, full, abundant, and eternal life was possible for those who chose to follow Christ in the new way of life he came to introduce to the world.

John's Gospel says that, God so loved the world that he gave his only son… Because of that great love God had for the world, the cross was ultimately the "only choice" God could make. However, the Bible also makes it clear that Jesus' decision to submit to his fate was an agonizing one. We shouldn't diminish that fact. Sometimes we tend to think it was "easier" for Jesus because he was fully God, but remember that he was also fully human so I suspect the pain he felt as he suffered and was rejected by those he came to save was very real. (If the suffering and sorrow Jesus endured wasn't "real" then I tend to doubt Christianity would have had nearly as much impact that it has had on the world over the past 2000+ years.)

Not only that, but having lived through the loss of a daughter, I have to assume that in some mysterious way, God experienced deep sorrow in watching a part of "Himself" die. Even though there came a point where Laurie and I both realized the most loving thing we could do for Hope was to remove her from life support, it was still very hard to sit there in the Neo Natal Intensive Care Unit at Johns Hopkins last May and watch our daughter die in our arms. It was probably the hardest thing either of us has ever had to do.

Likewise, God the Father ultimately allowed Jesus the Son die on for the greater good of humanity, but it had to be agonizing to watch unfold. Near the end of his ordeal on the cross, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!" This suggests that there came a point where the Father was unable to bear the scene any longer, and had to turn his "face" away, and the Son was totally abandoned and alone to face his fate.

The good news is that we know suffering, rejection, and abandonment is not the end of the story. The horrible events of Good Friday mingle together with love, grace, and hope and something amazing happens between Friday night and Sunday morning. When the women went to the tomb early that Sunday, they expected to find a dead body. When they found the tomb empty, they were confused, and were filled with wonder at what had happened? But they still ultimately expected to find a dead body, just moved to a different location. It took a while the reality of what had actually happened to sink in, but when it did it began to change everything for those who followed the way of Jesus.

It was impossible, but it soon became apparent it was true: Jesus was alive! Not even death on a Roman cross could stop God as revealed in Jesus. It is the miracle on which Christians base their faith: Christ is risen… Christ is risen indeed! We celebrate that miracle on Easter, and in some way, every Sunday when we gather for worship. Even death cannot hold back God's love for creation… including you and me and every living thing. God will do extraordinary things to see that his dream for creation comes true, and that we become the people God created us to be.

It is my hope that as we begin to gain a fuller appreciation of the meaning of the cross, we will also be filled with the same sense of power and wonder that gripped those early disciples on that first Easter morning. As we do, perhaps we too will be able to experience the reality of the risen Lord in our midst in new and fresh ways.

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1 comment:

AbiSomeone said...

Oh my goodness, Alan...now I have even more understanding of your resonance with Jonathan's story.

I have 10 rose bushes in my yard, and only one purple one -- called "Angel Face" ... seems fitting to this story.

We never know how long it will take God to turn our mourning into dancing, but thank you for sharing the story of your grief and joy with others through your blog.

I once preached a Mother's Day sermon on "Joy through Loss" as part of a series on Joy from Philippians. It is a profound mystery....

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