When my little girl asked me why Jesus had to die, she had no idea that entire theological paradigms and overwrought theories of atonement had been built to deal with this very question. She just felt sad about the crucifixion.
That’s where we ought to begin, you know. Not with trying to explain it, make it make sense, rationalize the horror as a necessary evil serving some greater purpose. No, we need to start with just feeling the hurt, the pain of loss, the heartbroken desolation that befits any great tragedy. We need to be sad.
We can talk about what it means and how the cosmic plan of salvation operates, if that’s what you really want to do, but if we try to skirt the pain and go straight to the hopeful explanation, we proclaim salvation without any stakes, because maybe it wasn’t really that bad, anyway.
And sadly, it really was that bad.
Some people feel alienated by images of Christ suffering, and that’s nice in it’s own way. The humiliation and abandonment and brutality of the cross should be grotesque and foreign – these shouldn’t be things we recognize from our lived experience. It’s a fortunate position to be in, finding Golgotha unrelatable.
But for many of us, the cross makes only too much sense. It’s too familiar, because we know about things like that.
I once heard a marine speak about the torture he perpetrated at Abu Ghraib, in Iraq. He did monstrous things, things that broke his own moral code, things that were incompatible with the person he had thought himself to be. But it was a fact - he did these things. He really did.
In the years that followed, as he felt his understanding of himself and his nation unraveling, something from his upbringing was becoming more clear. He’d grown up in Catholic church, and always disliked the ubiquitous images of the crucifixion. Now he was drawn to them, particularly those showing the men pounding nails through Jesus’ hands. He realized that those men weren’t evil superhumans. No, he thought. Those are regular guys, ‘just like me’.
It’s a terrible thing to look upon the cross with comprehension and familiarity.
I know of a survivor of sexual assault and trauma, whose ordeal was compounded by the abandonment of friends and the scorn of her community. When she’d shared the information about the assault, people believed her, but they also blamed her and were protective of the man who assaulted her. She had been brutalized, and when she spoke the truth about it, it cost her almost everything, because of how badly people didn’t want the truth to be true. In the years to come she kept her story confidential, but once told a friend her favorite bible verse was, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
I might be able to tell you why I think Jesus had to die on the cross, though I’m less confident in my explanations than I used to be. What I know better and better over time is simply how many members of this human family have lived the crucifixion – as abusers, as the abused, as onlookers wailing at the foot of the cross. They see Christ’s suffering and say, ‘I have been there. I am there with you, now.’
My prayer for you, friend, is that in your moment of greatest pain and desolation, you would the voice of Jesus, a voice of comfort and love, saying the same thing.
God bless you,
Pastor Rob Leveridge
The Table is gathering for worship on Easter Sunday, April 9, at Emeis Park on West Locust Street in Davenport, at 11am.