Of the Cross, of Sin, of my Son’s Legs, and My Girl in the Kitchen
I didn’t get a Good Friday blog done yesterday.
That’s embarrassing: three of the highest holy days of the Church, I’m a theologian of the Church, annnnnnnnd…..I didn’t get a blog done.
Turns out that the legs of my son Karl, who has a TBI, are acting up.
Happened in January, too. Then, the trouble stretched over two interminable weeks.
Gosh, I hope that we aren’t entering into a repeat of that: this poor boy, his legs bicycle, intensely springing up and down, and almost constantly, day and night. Poor kid hasn’t had any sleep to speak of for the last two nights.
We don’t know why it happens, and we don’t know why it stops, but we do know that it’s all related to the brain injury of nigh upon 16 years ago.
When I asked Karl how he felt about this whole matter, and named a variety of possible emotions, Karl, normally happy, content, never one to want to cause concern, said, for the first time about anything near as I recall, “mad.”
And who wouldn’t be?
I’m mad too. This son of mine suffers every day the unwelcome effects of a trauma he incurred by absolutely no fault of his own.
And I’m sad. I’m sad that the three of us had been so looking forward to making our Easter feast—it’s one of our favorite family bonding times—and instead, I’m in the bedroom with my boy, trying to calm his poor legs down and help him rest, and my girl is in the kitchen, making our meal alone.
I’ve been through way worse.
Others have been through way worse.
But man, still and even so, it’s just not right, on so many levels, and we are beyond ready for a TBI cure.
In the seminary class I’m teaching on the Lutheran Confessions, we got to talking on Maundy Thursday about ‘atonement’ theories, the fancy name for the different, what…reasons…why Jesus died on the cross.
Traditionally, there are about three that are most often floated around, and naturally have labels: the Classic Theory, the Substitionary Theory, and the Subjective Theory.
In the Classic form, Jesus is considered to be a victor over death. It’s very dualistic, very bad vs. good, very Satan vs. God, and often very violent. It’s a way of thinking about the cross that informed C.S. Lewis’ notion of the White Witch and Aslan, and the Deep Magic and the Deeper Magic.
Jesus is Aslan, so to speak, who on behalf of the enslaved, in-bondaged humans, fights the good fight, and ultimately vanquishes the enemy and saves humanity.
It’s not like there aren’t Scriptural texts for it: Genesis 3, the tale of the servant who taught Eve and Adam the difference between good and evil, and tore their allegiance from God; John 8, especially verse 44, in which Jesus says that he is from the Father, but that our father is the Devil, for we do our father’s bidding, and not his; and Hebrews 2:14-18, in which the author tells of how we share flesh and blood with Jesus, who on our behalf destroyed the devil and thereby freed us.
The Easter human “Welcome, Happy Morning” expresses this theology: “…Hell today is vanquished, heav’n is won today….” and “Source of all things living, you came down to die, Plummed the depths of hell to raise us up on high….Died as a mortal man to save us by your love…” and “Free the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan’s chai; All that once had fallen raise to life again….”
For that matter, so is “A Mighty Fortress.” “He breaks the cruel oppressors rod, and wins salvation glorious…” and “No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, Whom God himself elected, You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he! Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.”
So, as we’ll find in all of these forms of atonement theories, there’s scriptural tradition, and there’s historical tradition. But there are also problems afoot.
For example, we really don’t need to do anything but watch the battle from the sidelines. We can be grateful to the vanquisher, because without him we’d still be the vanquished, but still, the change was made outside of ourselves, rather than within us.
Too, given that, we really have no motivation to change. “The Devil made me do it” cuts it, in this model.
So there’s neither much motivation to make structural and personal changes, nor, as far as that goes, much reason to form a framework of ethics.
Jesus’ got this one, and therefore we don’t have to.
There’s the Substitutionary model too.
We might know this approach musically best as “Ah, Holy Jesus.” The folks at Live From Here did a beautiful rendition of it, which you can find here.
“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast though offended/That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?” “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee/‘Twas I, Lord Jesus/ I it was denied the/I crucified thee.” “Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered. The slave that sinned/and the Son hath suffered/For man’s atonement/while he nothing heedeth/God intercedeth.” “For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation/Thy mortal sorrow/and thy life’s oblation/Thy death of anguish/and thy bitter Passion/For my salvation.”
Roots for it are everywhere in Scripture. Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many;” 1 Timothy 2:5-6 “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all…” Revelation 5:9, ““You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation,” and that’s just for starters.
An infraction has occurred, and a price has to be paid.
It’s our fault, but Jesus takes one for the human team. (Here also Aslan can be a reference). For this reason, it is called the Substitutionary Model, because Jesus, pure and sinless, is substituted for sinful people.
It’s arguably the theological bent that has made the cross such an element of the faith of Christians, over against that of Easter: we are so horrible, Jesus is so pure, Jesus sacrificed himself for us, and we are (literally) undyingly grateful.
But it’s got troubles too:
God the Father (always the Father—I do believe we’d realize a bit more quickly the troubling elements of this approach if our primary notion of God were as Mother) is nothing but an angry executioner, appeased only by righteous blood. We have every reason to still live in fear, because that sort of divine being already has the street creds for capricious decisions.
Too, sin is nothing but immorality, and makes the reconciliation of it violence rather than mercy born out of love.
And again, because the change took place this time in God (rather than the devil), we don’t have reason to change, to do anything else.
It’s been done.
And last, the Subjective Theory of Atonement.
This framework has a different spin on matters, for here, the goal of Jesus’ death on the cross is that we are changed.
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is thoroughly grounded in this approach: “When I survey the wondrous cross/On which the prince of glory died/My richest gain I county but loss/And pour contempt on all my pride.” And “Forbid it Lord that I should boast/Save in the death of Christ, my God/ All the vain things that charm me most/I sacrifice them to his blood.” And “Were the whole realm of nature mine/That were a tribute far too small/Love so amazing so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
You can surely find textual basis for it in Scripture: John 13:15 says, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” and 1 Peter 2:21 “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Here, Jesus is a teacher, and we are the students. We most of all have to learn to love. We have to learn because we are sinful, and weak, and thick-headed. Jesus loves God this much, and so should we.
But while more liberal theology is more comfortable with some elements of this take on the cross, it is ultimately insufficient, just as the two prior atonement theories are.
Here, we are reduced to being blockheads.
The depth of sinfulness, therefore, is not just relativized, but is rejected.
So, all of these approaches: Classic, Substitutionary, and Subjective, have truth, and none of them quite do the trick, and none of them entirely quite tell my son whose legs are tremoring or my daughter who is in the kitchen by herself what the cross has to say to them.
I’m not audacious enough to say that I have it all figured out.
I definitely don’t have it all figured out.
But there are a couple of things that have bugged me about these three approaches, these three takes on the cross that get, in one form or another, or in a Venn-diagram-esque-y way, the bulk of attention in the life of faith.
All of them have to do with sin.
None of them have to do with my boy’s legs.
None of them have to do with my girl’s default love and default sacrifices for her brother.
None of them have to do with the immeasurable grief at the deaths of thousands of people who died because of accidents, of cancers, of Coronovirus.
None of them have to do with the starvation and the desperation of those utterly at the mercy of robber barons and base politicians and the voters who are down with it all.
None of them have to do with those suffering from depression, bi-polar, alcoholism, abuse, or prejudice.
These theories speak to sin, and only to sin.
But here’s the thing: there is suffering to be had, injustice to be had, victims of sin to be had, and sweet Jesus the cross must have something to say to them!
It must have something to say to my son.
And it must have something to say to my daughter, who rather than making a meal with her mama has been (and ever so gladly, for which I am so grateful) helping her brother by stretching his legs, by rubbing cream on his skin, by sleeping downstairs in case I need her in the night, and by readying for Easter in the kitchen alone while I sit with my spasmodic boy.
To write this blog, I flipped to my old, old systematic lectures, written by Walt B.
In them, he teased out all of these atonement theories, more or less as I have above.
At first, his lecture notes didn’t seem to notice this pesky detail, though, this piece that each of these theories, while decidedly different, reduce the cross just various ways of thinking through forgiveness.
That they speak to the sinners, but not to those sinned upon, nor to the sufferers.
That they don’t speak to the why of forsakenness felt not just by Jesus, but by people still, every damn day.
But then I came across these points, three of them, all under his Point D: The Cross of Jesus is something that happens to the world. He wrote:
1. The world—all of humanity—crucified the Messiah: religion and politics, Jew and Gentile, enemies and disciples, men—women—children.
2. Jesus’ death on the cross calls the whole world into question. Jesus is, in some sense, vindicated in the resurrection. But the unmasking of false gods is in the dying. “Pilate and Herod are revealed” (Gollwitzer). The world is revealed as “old alone” IN the death of Jesus its oldness—its way of death-dealing in order to cling to the illusion of power—is revealed. The old has passed away; it has come to an end (II Cor. 5:17).
3. In the death of Jesus God has made a final and irrevocable decision about the world. He will not abandon the world. He will not give up on the world. Atonement means that the world has been changed by God’s identification with it in the depths of its oldness.
That, all three of those points, that helped me, as I sit in this bed mid-afternoon, my legs wrapped around my son’s, trying to press the tremoring muscle groups with my toes and knees, and by knotting his legs around mine in hopes that this odd position will perhaps break the tone.
At the very least, perhaps after two sleepless nights, he’ll rest?
But these points reminded me that God did not kill Jesus: we did with our quests for power and our fear of its loss; our hubris and our anxious unwillingness to transform hope into a new way of being.
I was reminded that death can come naturally or it can come with violence—and one doesn’t even need to lose one’s breath for this to be so.
And I was reminded of how easy it is to make despair the god, the thing I trust most.
I was reminded that death is real, and that God entered into it.
And I was reminded that the way of God is not the way of the world: We crucify. God raises up.
So as I sit here with my boy, yet one more twist of my ankle to help untwist his, all the while listening to my girl clatter away in the kitchen making the meal that we had so looked forward to cooking together today, I am reminded that that’s exactly what Holy Saturday is about.
Death is real.
God must not just know that, but enter into that, for I need God to ache with me as my son’s TBI-born muscle spasms tremor into my own heart, and I need God to ache with me as that same heart reaches to my girl in the kitchen around the corner.
And I know that my son’s tremors and my daughter’s loss once again of mama-daughter time is someone else’s virtual farewell because of COVID, someone else’s inability to access water to cleanse their hands, someone else’s frightened self behind a locked closet door of a raging abuser, someone else’s despair at being alone.
The cross must speak to that.
But there must, there must, be more to the story than that.
We can’t make sense of the cross if we don’t hold out hope for that.
If there isn’t reason to hold out hope for that.
If there isn’t the possibility that perhaps, though death is real, life is real-er.