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I may have told you all this story from my childhood, so forgive me, but I want to look at a slightly different angle of the experience. Late one Christmas Eve, when I must have been around eight or nine, I snuck out of my bedroom to watch TV in the living room after everyone had gone to sleep. I took the comforter off my bed, wrapped up, and started flipping through the channels.
After a few clicks, I saw a strange worship service from an enormous church. There was a choir chanting, clergy (I didn’t know the word priest) in layers of robes, candles, and it was all in another language. I had stumbled on Midnight Mass from the Vatican, and something in me came alive. I never told my family about my secret excursion to Rome that night, but I think it probably did trigger an awareness or desire that helped lead me to where I am now.
I watched the service, transfixed, as this one person (who I learned later was the pope) carried this type of staff that had a cross on the top of it, and on that cross was the body of Jesus. This was the first time I saw a crucifix.
Now as proper baptists, we had no need for a crucifix. We had crosses around, but they were all empty. When we remodeled our sanctuary in our church, one of the stained glass windows actually depicted the crucifixion, and I would go and look up at it. But, we didn’t have crucifixes. There was something, well, just a bit too earthy or bloody about them. When I asked folks about them, they would say things like, “The cross is empty, as is the grave, so we celebrate the defeat of death.” We’ll come back to that.
But there is something extremely powerful–and necessary–about keeping a crucifix in your line of sight. I have come to see that the very thing that may repel us from them–the earthiness and suffering of them–is the thing that helps ground our practice of faith here and now, in our human experience. Loss, death, grief, sin, frailty, suffering…somehow, Jesus held all this within Himself. Somehow he entered so fully into our human experience that the parts that we want to badly to avoid in ourselves–namely our death and finitude, our mortality and limits–He took on, took within Himself.
In the person of Jesus, God entered fully into human life. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus said in the 4th century: “what is not assumed is not healed, or not redeemed.”
I don’t know about you, but I have found myself drawn to the image, the symbol, and the truth of a crucifix. I need them–more specifically, I need to be reminded of the truth in that symbol–so that the pressure I feel from my own existence can be grounded somewhere. The image, the story, of the crucifixion gives me permission to feel what I am feeling, because I can prayerfully unite it to Christ there on the cross. My suffering is joined to Christ’s suffering, because Christ Himself is the deepest part of my own being. There is a sort of reciprocity there, an awareness that, as St. Paul says, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If Jesus didn’t try to skip over or shortcut any parts of human existence, then I don’t need to either. I can lay it all there, place it all there, because it is already there, within Christ, being made whole.
Now, some may say that the image of an empty cross should be our main image, a reminder that God so entered into human existence that death itself was defeated in the crucifixion. I would ask this: why are we so quick to skip over or rush through the actual experience of the suffering and strain being made whole? When we rush like this, we so easily take for granted the healing acts of God, and we neglect the strain of our own humanity–and the lived experience of countless brothers and sisters struggling around the world.
I’ll put it this way: our souls need to deeply know that God entered into suffering and death itself before our hymns celebrate that God triumphed over them. The deep transformative work of our spiritual practice happens when we look at the whole–and do not omit the suffering.
And maybe that is the awareness that is growing in us this year, celebrating these holy days in these circumstances: that we need to focus on the earthiness of our practice of faith, the way it is embodied. If St. Gregory was correct (and I believe he is), that “what is not assumed is not redeemed,” perhaps this extended time we have will give us the opportunity to reflect deeply on just what is being assumed in Christ, in terms of our lives. What are those parts of ourselves that we feel are being united to Christ in the crucifixion, so that they can be made whole, so that healing can take place?
So let us keep going, giving thanks to God for the sacrifice God made of Godself to so fully enter into our human existence, that we are made whole.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Good Friday Reflection
April 10, 2020