Winning Words

I still remember my old way of talking about the work of God.CRUCIFXN

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.

Let God be Dead (for now)

“God, according to Luther, is found first on a cross, beaten and dead, not as a masochist but as a bearer of what is, a God who takes on our destiny of death in all its forms…God is found in the despair of the cross. God is found in our many deaths, bringing possibility out of nothingness.” – Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair
 
You have faced a lot of deaths this week, Soul. A combination of rejection, disappointment, and outright grief at the losses and lesions that have made this the Very Worst Holy Week Ever. And now this night God is dead.
 
It is okay for God to be dead. Yes, Soul,  there is an overblown Newsboys concert presently in theatres dressed up with interviews from the Duck Dynasty boys (bois?) that loudly proclaims God’s Not Dead! but in order to really call yourself Christian you have to meet the dead God. Have you met that God, Soul?
 
Can you look at God’s broken body, wracked with abuse and despair? Or is that too hard for you, Soul? Is our God only someone you understand when you are on the mountaintop, ignoring the piercing gaze of the monster of Death through the feeble veil of mass-marketed, glossy, high-octane saccharine joy? Or will you look at the dead God, who has entered into despair to destroy it from within?
 
It is comfort that God dies. Because in God’s death, God knows the despair that is winding its stitches through the sinews of your heart and body. God knows your loneliness, your brokenness, your sorrow unto death. Soul, can you enter into the passion of the despairing Christ, who despaired to rob the monster of death of its power? Can you look with awe on the one who gilt the trees with blossom and leaf, now himself pierced upon his very creation? The one for whom the earth shakes, wracked with sobs? It is here that God is lifted up and glorified in the flesh of the failed Messiah, the abandoned Teacher, hung on the tree and clothed in ragged, whispered promises of resurrection.
 
Soul, let yourself be crucified with God. Die with God that you may rise with God. In your darkness, in your wounds, in your ache and sehnsucht, there is God crucified, beaten, and dead, absorbing your despair as God undoes death from the inside. That is, after all, the only way to destroy the monster: from within. Do not rush the resurrection. Let God linger in the grave, sitting with you in your death. And when your death has been consumed, it will blossom forth in new life, Soul.
 
“In the tomb in body, in Hades in the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and seated at the right hand of the Father, you did circumscribe all things, oh Christ, yourself uncircumscribeable.”