Recalibrating our Hearts

Good Friday     March 25, 2016

“There is both so much and so little to be said on Good Friday. In some ways the Gospels, with their terse, spare narrative, give us the blank fact that brings us to standstill: ‘And they crucified him.’ We can just stay with that and look, seeing things as they are. Or we can draw breath and try. year after year, to articulate what this means, and has gone on meaning for us.”

So begins poet and priest Malcolm Guite his Good Friday meditation (email 25/03/16).  His words ring true for me today, as I’m sure they do for every preacher this day – at least I hope they do.  There is so much to be said, so much meaning in this central event of our faith. There is so little to be said, because the story itself stands with such stark power.  It brings us to a standstill.  And that standstill is perhaps exactly where we are supposed to be this day.  The problem with interpretation is that it sets us in motion again, helps us to move beyond standing wordless and broken at the foot of the cross.  It helps us to make sense of what has just happened.  But to a large extent, we are trying to make sense of the senseless, and that seldom ends well.

Take, for example, the theory of the substitutionary atonement, which has been so influential in Western Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic.  That is, the idea that Jesus Christ went to the cross to pay the price owing for our sins.  Our sins are so grievous that God’s justice can only be satisfied by our death; Jesus takes our place, and his blood assuages the wrath of God. Now no doubt this theory touches on some truth: the crucifixion certainly has to do with human sin, and the end result of Jesus’s self-giving is to reconcile us with God. But the theory goes way too far.  It takes the idea of the blood sacrifice, the scapegoat, which the hard reality of the crucifixion actually blows out of the water, and perpetuates it as the centre of the story.  It makes God into a blood-thirsty tyrant.

And for all its talk of sin, it actually looks away from the very concrete human sin that the story unmasks in such painful detail.  Jesus didn’t crucify himself. It was the eternal cynical logic of power, the willingness of empire to use violence and death to dominate others; it was the cowardice of the mob, eager to turn on one of their own; it was the fundamental brokenness in the human soul, that chooses the thrill of evil and violence over boring old goodness and responsibility.  The problem is, we have loaded the cross up with so much useless theory, that it clogs up our access to the simple, stark story itself. And so, in many ways, the best thing we can do today is to forget all that stuff, to place ourselves once more beneath the cross, to let the story wash over us again in all its rawness, to let it break our hearts again.

How we have tamed the cross.  Crosses are, apparently, “in” as a fashion accessory these days.  Interesting, how after a successful campaign by secularists to banish the cross from the public domain, from schools and council chambers, it is now reappearing in this most secular of places, the fashion industry.  Robbed of all its content, no doubt.  I am reminded of an experience of a lady in my first parish, who went into a jewelry store to buy a cross for her niece’s confirmation.  The young salesgirl asked her: “Do you want one of those crosses with the little man on it?”

But we Christians do the same thing.  We have turned the cross into our own corporate logo, on churches and in churches, on tombstones and business cards and around our necks.  And that’s fine, I guess – it’s an appropriate logo for the message we have. Except that we have tamed the cross, made it harmless.  We forget what the cross really was, originally: an instrument of brutal torture and death, a tool of violent domination designed not only to kill the enemies of empire, but to do so in a way that would rob them of every last shred of dignity, of their very humanity; that would make death as slow and painful as possible; that would make them a public spectacle to terrorize the entire populace. It is as though Black Americans would wear the lynching tree as the symbol of their identity.  Now it is the miracle of Good Friday that Jesus was able to take this instrument of brutality and torture, and turn it into a symbol of love.  We wear it as a symbol of love, yes – but we should never forget what it originally meant.  If we forget that, then the cross becomes merely harmless; if we keep its horror in mind, then in the very tension between this symbol of hate and this symbol love the cross proclaims the core of the gospel.  And so we need to go back to this story, again and again, to relive the horror every year.  Without it our faith is merely harmless.

I read an article a week or so back that has got me thinking (Robert Cunningham, In Love with Donald Trump –  The subject of the article – and I apologize for this, the buffoon really gets enough attention – was the question of how evangelical Americans are supporting Donald Trump in such large numbers. It’s a good question: Trump stands for the opposite of everything these evangelicals profess to believe in.  The opposite of the gospel, certainly: brash, vulgar, greedy, racist, contemptuous of the poor and needy.  Also the opposite of the whole moral agenda that has driven the religious right for so long: a serial divorcee and adulterer, lewd, disrespectful of women.

Well, the point this article made was that we are not really driven by the ideas we profess.  We think we are: this is one of the fundamental illusions of our supposedly rational society, the conviction that we are driven by ideas, that thinking the right thoughts will determine our behaviour and our values.  And so the earnest guardians of the public good will spend endless energy trying to convince people by rational argument what is good and healthy.  And then a buffoon like Trump comes along and blows it all away by being completely irrational.

The point is that people – all of us – are not swayed by what they think, but by what they love.  These evangelicals flocking to the Trump banner may profess Christian ideas, but their hearts are elsewhere.  What they love is the tough-talking, flag-waving, showbiz, illusion of wealth and power and success that it the Trump image.

This got me thinking.  It seems to me that this is saying something important about the Christian faith.  What makes us Christian, what really matters in our faith, is not so much what we think, the ideas we have, but what we love.  Belief is not about doctrine, it is fundamentally an act of love.  Now, I don’t think that makes doctrine irrelevant.  I think the ideas we have about faith are actually really important, too.  But they are not important in their own right.  They are important because having the right ideas can shape the way we love.

We are here not because of what we think, but what we love. Or rather, who we love. We are here because we love Jesus. We may not always understand him.  Sometimes he may even offend or annoy us.  But fundamentally we love him.  We love the humble gentleness with which he came among us in the babe of Bethlehem, born in a cattleshed to ordinary folk.  We love the wisdom of his teaching, the compassion of his healings, the warmth of his acceptance of the poor and marginalized.  We love the wit and courage with which he confronted the religious authorities. We love the inclusiveness of his vision, the sincerity of his conviction. We see in him a human life worth living, a life that can give meaning to our own through the simple fact that we love it.

And the cross? Can we love the cross?  For many, that is the deciding argument against Christianity, the idea that we are somehow perversely in love with suffering.  And that can happen, sometimes, when we sentimentalize the cross, when we forget its cruel and brutal origins.  That’s why we need to keep coming back to the story.

When we immerse ourselves in the story again, when we walk with Jesus this lonesome road, in imagination and prayer, when we expose ourselves to his suffering, it is not for the simple love of suffering itself. It is because it does us good to have our hearts broken in this way.  He breaks our hearts in order to recalibrate them, to reorient us again in what we love, and what we hate.

We do not love the cross, not at first, anyway.  When we hear this story, it is to learn to hate it again.  To learn to hate violence, and cruelty, and oppression, and arrogance.  We hear this story to take a long, unvarnished look at the ugly underbelly of empire, to learn to hate from the bottom of our hearts the human desire to dominate and control and hurt others – so that we may never again be taken in by the glamour of power.

We hear the story in order to learn to love the victim.  We witness his sufferings, we feel the animosity of the mob, we even take their cry to “crucify him” into our own mouth, that the taste of it might sicken us, we do all of this to learn compassion for the victim, to love and care for all victims, everywhere – so that we might never again be taken in by the lie that the weak are contemptible, that they deserve their suffering, that the powerful are right to lord it over them.

And we hear to story to meet with wonder and amazement the one who willingly and freely took upon himself to die in solidarity with the weak and oppressed, who died with the words Father forgive them on his lips.

See from his head, his hands, his side
Sorrow and love flow mingled down . . .

We come to witness this love, and to let it stir in us the only response we know, the quick flame of an answering love within our hearts.

And so we return to this story each year, not for the ideas and interpretations it may offer, but getting back underneath all that, to stand before the “terse, spare narrative . . . the blank fact that brings us to standstill: ‘And they crucified him.’” We come to stand at the foot of the cross, to let our hearts be broken, that Christ might remake them, recalibrate our loves and our hates, in his image.