It’s a way that many in the American South speak about God’s work–“Jesus suffered and died a gruesome death that you rightly deserve in your place so you don’t have to.” No, something says in our gut, that’s not quite right. Could God be so ugly?
Not a small number of people have refused to speak about God like this. The idea behind this language itself originates in the late middle ages with St Anselm of Canterbury, and the idea is completely foreign to God-talk of the pre-Reformation Church.
But even then, the ideas hang heavy and heady in the imagination of disenchanted people for whom this was the bread and butter of a religious imagination that strove to remind them how worthless they were in the sight of God–as if God were doing us some cosmic favor and saying, “you owe me one.” And so some words still throb with a certain pained beauty–at the communion this morning we sang “How Great Thou Art,” which has that problematic line,
and when I think that God, his son not sparing,
sent him to die; I scarce can take it in–
that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
he bled and died, to take away my sin.
When my voice breaks with hidden tears as we’re singing, the faithful are queuing up at the altar rail to eat our glad-burden-bearing God.
Take, eat; this is my body broken
But this hymn doesn’t have to be read like that or sung like that, as if it were a celebration of a God gleefully beating his son into a pulp to get out of doing the same to us. No; here is poetry, here is a picture of the way God works in deep and radiant mystery. And I, singing it, do not have to reject the poetic cradle for this mystery.
Drink this, the cup of the new covenant in my blood
In the divine poetic, Jesus gladly bears the burdens of being human–perhaps even demanding that we cast our burdens on him lest we believe for a second that we are excellent enough to hide behind our effort. And he dies to take away sin by allowing himself to be plunged into the worst that humanity has to offer and dragging those things down to the grave whence they came.
We proclaim his death until he comes again
For Christians, anyway, the Cross is where we see God in God’s true incomprehensible form. It is no miracle that the God of life would rise from the dead; the real miracle is that God would die in the first place, identifying utterly and totally with God’s creatures in the process. The God who dies is a God who is for us, who feeds us out of the fruit of a divine sacrifice, whose broken body is reconstituted in the body of a broken and suffering Church that bears witness to a God who is for us up to and beyond death.
Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia
I hate what this hymn does to me. Every time I sing it I’m reminded of the men whose favorite hymn it is, of their witness to the power of a new-thing-doing, life-out-of-death God, a burden-bearing God, a world-inverting God. And so I weep, not for sadness, or nostalgia, or even the joy of having the burdens of human brokenness taken off my shoulders. I’m not really sure why I’m crying. Perhaps it’s just the utter weight of beauty, a burden itself heavier than stars and lighter than air.