Cross-Shattered Christ

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Salvador Dalí, “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951)

The title of Stanley Hauerwas’ meditations on the seven last works of Christ, Cross-Shattered Christ, is taken from John F. Deane’s poem “Mercy”:

Unholy we sang this morning, and prayed
as if we were not broken, crooked
the Christ-figure hung, splayed
on bloodied beams above us;
devious God, dweller in the shadows,
mercy on us;
immortal, cross-shattered Christ—
your gentling grace down upon us.

As these meditations sunk in, I received an epiphany: the seven last words of Christ, a biblical number connoting perfection, are cruciform; they consist of horizontal words (spoken by Christ to man) and vertical words (spoken by Christ to God).

  • First Word (vertical): Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
  • Second Word (horizontal): “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
  • Third Word (horizontal): “Woman, behold thy son!” . . .  “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27)
  • Fourth Word (vertical): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
  • Fifth Word (horizontal): “I thirst” (John 19:28)
  • Sixth Word (vertical): “It is finished” (John 19:30)
  • Seventh Word (vertical): “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)

For each of the seven last words of Christ, I will offer a favorite passage from Hauerwas’ book.

FIRST WORD
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. —Luke 23:34

We think it is very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.

Moreover, as soon as these words from the cross are bent to serve our needs, to give us a god we believe we need, it is impossible to resist entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of Jesus’s words from the cross. For example we think what a wonderful savior we have in Jesus, who, even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness. Of course we are not all that sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to try to think up something. Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the “human condition” rather than the cross and the God who hangs there” (27-28).

***

According to Herbert McCabe, these words, “Father, forgive,” are nothing less than the interior life of the Triune God made visible to the eyes of faith. The Son asks the Father to forgive, a forgiveness unimaginable if this is all about us and our struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives in the face of death. By this deed, by this word, Jesus rules out all speculative theories that seek to subject these words and this death to our understanding about what is required for the reconciliation of the world (29-30).

SECOND WORD
Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise. —Luke 23:43

Remembrance is quite literally to be re-membered. Through baptism we are given a new body, a body no longer isolated from the bodies that constitute Christ’s body, and we are thereby made capable of remembering that we live through memory. Only Christ, only the Second Person of the Trinity, could promise to the thief and to us that today we will be with him. To be with Jesus, to be claimed by Jesus to be his friend, is paradise, for Jesus is the kingdom of God, the autobasileia, the kingdom of the crucified. We need to know no more than this. To be in paradise is to be “with Jesus,” to be pulled into God’s life by the love made visible on the cross. Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten.

Here, in this crucified Messiah, we see the love that moves the sun and the stars. To be “with Jesus” means we are not ‘”lost in the cosmos,” but rather we can confidently live in the recognition, with faith, that God is not other than the one found in Jesus of Nazareth. How could we ever think we need to know more than this thief? Like the thief we can live with the hope and confidence that the only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus” (43-45).

THIRD WORD 
Woman, behold thy son! . . . Behold thy mother! —John 19:26-27

In the New Testament Jesus is often designated or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham . . . The reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple—Mary is our Abraham. Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I” because just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness (51-52).

***

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so the that we might live. As Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that this death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Issac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross (52-52).

FOURTH WORD 
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? —Matthew 27:46

Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been. Here, as the Second Council of Constantinople put it, “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” The Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word through whom all things came into being, the Word that shines in the darkness, the Word that assumed our flesh, suffering even unto death, is God. The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation, instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis—complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love (62-63).

***

God is most revealed when he seems to us the most hidden. “Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity—the absolute dereliction of the cross—is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world,” says David Bentley Hart. Here God in Christ refuses to let our sin determine our relation to him. God’s love for us means he can hate only that which alienates his creatures from the love manifest in our creation. Cyril of Jerusalem observes that by calling on his Father as “my God,” Christ does so on our behalf and in our place. Hear these words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by the cross (65).

FIFTH WORD 
I thirst. —John 19:28

The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Such a desire is as “physical” or real as our thirst for water, our thirst for one another, and our desire for God. Surely that is why our most determinative response to those who ask how we can ever come to worship this Jesus is to simply ask, “Do you not need to eat and drink?” Our God, our thirsty God, is the One who is capable of saying to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38).

Through the waters of baptism we have been made God’s body for the world. We thirst for one another so that the world may know that the world has been redeemed and that this redemption is as real as the water we need to survive. That redemption is found in the body and blood of our Lord that forever slakes our thirst. So refreshed, we become for the world the reminder that God has not abandoned us, and we can, therefore, trust in his promise that just to the extent we take the time—in a world that believes it has no time—to care for those who thirst for God’s kingdom, the kingdom will be present.

>>Passages from the remaining two words will be added once they are read.

Bonhoeffer’s “Prayerbook of the Bible”

A close friend and I have completed reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible (1940). Here are my take-aways and questions.

3 Take-Aways

  1. God hears us “not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “All the prayers of the Holy Scriptures are summed up in the Lord’s Prayer and are taken up into its immeasurable breath” (from “The Introduction”).
  3. “The same words David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke in him. Christ prayed along with the prayers of David or, more accurately, it is none other than Christ who prayed them in Christ’s own forerunner, David” (from “Those Who Pray the Psalms”).

5 Questions

  1. What impact does a Christocentric theology of prayer have on the Trinity? “Only in and through Jesus Christ can we truly pray” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will ‘soon take leave’ of those other light and personal ‘little devotional prayers and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard’ (Luther)” (from “The Worship Service and the Psalms”). Should I only pray the words of the Psalter and the Lord’s Prayer?
  3. “Jesus Christ himself has offered the perfect worship service, in that he fulfilled all the ordained sacrifices in his own voluntary, sinless sacrifice. In his own person Christ offered God’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for God. For us there remains only the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in prayers, songs, and in a life lived according to God’s commands (Ps. 15, Ps. 50). So our entire life becomes the worship service, the thank-offering. God wishes to acknowledge such a thank-offering and to show salvation to those who are thankful (Ps. 50:23). These psalms wish to teach us to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands” (from “The Church”). How do I cultivate a life that becomes the worship service? 
  4. “Even in the deepest helplessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction. The one who suffers sets out to battle against God for God. God’s promise, God’s previous redemptive deeds, the honor of God’s name among all people, are again and again held up before the wrathful God” (from “Suffering”). How do I battle against God for God without blasphemy?
  5. “If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me? If I am not guilty, why does God not end my torment and demonstrate my innocence to my enemies (Pss. 38, 79, 44)? There is no theoretical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already being sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and tribulation upon God: ‘We can no longer bear them, take them away from us and bear them yourself, for you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all the psalms of lament. They pray about the one who took upon himself our sickness and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ as the only help in suffering, for in Christ is God with us.” Should projects of theodicy be abandoned, referred instead to the work of Jesus Christ?  

Poetry and pain

What do a poet and a theologian have to say about being diagnosed with incurable cancer in the prime of life? Listen to the conversation between American poet Christian Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, and Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings, author of Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ

Related

God’s vengeance

In Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

God’s vengeance did not fall on the sinners, but on the only sinless one, the Son of God, who stood in the place of sinners. Jesus Christ bore the vengeance of God, which the psalm asks to be carried out. Christ calmed God’s anger against sin and prayed in the hour of the carrying out of the divine judgment: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know they are doing!” No one other than he, who himself bore the wrath of God, could pray like this. That was the end of all false thoughts about the love of a God who does not take sin very seriously. God hates and judges the enemies of God in the only righteous one, the one who prays for forgiveness for God’s enemies. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found. 

So the psalms of vengeance leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God that forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God by myself, only the crucified Christ can; and I can forgive through him. So the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all in Jesus Christ.

Battling against God for God

In Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

The Psalter has rich instruction for us about how to come before God in a proper way in the various sufferings that the world brings upon us. The Psalms know it all: serious illness, deep isolation from God and humanity, threats, persecutions, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth (13, 21, 35, 41, 44, 54, 55, 56, 61, 74, 79, 86, 88, 102, 105, and others). They do not deny it, they do not deceive themselves with pious words about it, they allow it to stand as a severe ordeal of faith, indeed at times they no longer see beyond the suffering (Ps. 88), but they complain about it all to God. No single human being can pray the psalms of lamentation out of his or her own experience. Spread out before us here is the anguish of the entire Christian community throughout all time, as Jesus Christ alone has wholly experienced it. Because it happens with God’s will, indeed because God alone knows it completely and better than we ourselves, therefore only God can help. But then, all our questions must also again and again storm directly against God. 

There is in the Psalms no quick and easy surrender to suffering. It always comes through struggle, anxiety, and doubt. Our confidence in God’s righteousness and, indeed, in God’s good and gracious will, is shaken, for it allows the pious to suffer misfortune but the godless to escape free (Pss. 44, 35). God’s ways are too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction. The one who suffers sets out to battle against God for God. God’s promise, God’s previous redemptive deeds, the honor of God’s name among all people, are again and again held up before the wrathful God. 

Jesus offers the perfect worship service

In Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes what I sometimes forget: worship is sacrifice. Since no human, in his sinful condition, can offer a perfect sacrifice, only God can appease God—through the “voluntary, sinless sacrifice” of his Son. The modest and imperfect sacrifices that I bring to church are acceptable only because of what Jesus Christ did for me.

God has promised to be present in the worship service of the congregation. So the congregation conducts its worship service according to God’s order. But Jesus Christ himself has offered the perfect worship service, in that he fulfilled all the ordained sacrifices in his own voluntary, sinless sacrifice. In his own person Christ offered God’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for God. For us there remains only the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in prayers, songs, and in a life lived according to God’s commands (Ps. 15, Ps. 50). So our entire life becomes the worship service, the thank-offering. God wishes to acknowledge such a thank-offering and to show salvation to those who are thankful (Ps. 50:23). These psalms wish to teach us to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands. 

Heaven is a city and a Body

In the tenth chapter, “Heaven,” from The Problem of Pain (1940), C. S. Lewis writes about the polyphonic choir of worshippers in heaven.

Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another, the communion of the saints. If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members. Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others—fresh and ever fresh news of the “My God” whom each finds in Him whom all praise as “Our God.” For doubtless the continually successful, yet never completed, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others (and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations) is also among the ends for which the individual was created.