He will swallow up death forever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. -Isaiah 25:8
I’m trying to relearn how to think about the cross—that is, about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, its theology and its necessity. Perhaps this would’ve been a post better suited to yesterday (Holy Saturday) than Easter Sunday. Ah, well.
The Resurrection I “get.” The ultimate triumph of Life over Death, and the hope of bodily resurrection after death into a new kind of life that, unlike a mortal existence, lasts forever, and in which there is no longer any division between Creator and created, or created beings with one another and Creation as a whole. The framework for how to view/think about the death of Christ preceding his Resurrection, however, is bit trickier for me.
I suppose virtually every child growing up in a Protestant tradition in America (or any Western culture, perhaps) learns one way or another to view the death of Christ on the cross through the “courtroom” framework, or at least encounters this metaphor at one time or another during their early spiritual development. I know I did. The narrative is familiar to many: God as Judge passes a sentence of death on human beings for their many sins, and requires this bloody payment of the guilty, who are thus disqualified from being able to enter paradise; but when this sentence is pronounced, the One perfect Human Being (God’s Son Jesus Christ—perhaps in the courtroom as a lawyer or something) offers to take the punishment in place of the guilty criminals(s)—the guilty ones being humanity—and thus purchases their pardon and access to heaven for them. For a number of reasons, I now no longer find this framework (which I believe is called the “Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory,” what a mouthful!) very helpful; on the contrary, I find it, at the very least, highly disturbing and unsettling—and not in the healthy kind of “God’s gonna trouble the waters” for deliverance way.
I’d say I’m a fairly amateur theologian—a large portion of my (informal) personal pursuit of”theology studies” lies in engaging with the work of poets and poetry and writers of fiction and stories and creative essays. Sorta literary eclectic. Hardly up to seminary-rigorous snuff. (Though for awhile now, I have started to seriously consider Div School as one of my more likely options for “someday soon.” Or at least, I’m considering considering. But that’s another post altogether.) With that mini-disclaimer, here’s some of what I’ve got so far as a better way (for me, at least) of thinking about Christ’s work of salvation through his incarnation, life, death on the cross, and resurrection:
- Sin as an illness or sickness leading to death, of which the brokenness in our world and individual lives is symptomatic. On the cross, Christ took our sickness upon himself, allowing it to break his body and yet ultimately transcending that sickness with his triumph over the grave in his being raised back to life.
- Christ’s passion, suffering, and death as full solidarity with the whole human experience; how could he fully help/aid, comfort, and lead human beings without experiencing all of what it means to be a mortal being, which turns upon the fact that—as mortals—we all will die someday…? The Human Condition as we know it now inevitably involves pain and death; Jesus, as fully human as well as fully God, needed to undergo death in order to complete his perfection as the perfect human being; and then in his resurrection, he showed us what we are destined for, too—that we humans are meant to live forever, and enjoy the full vitality and healthfulness of all the life can be. (I think.)
- Christ’s death as example, and even simply as the inevitable outcome of what happens when one preaches and lives out such radical teachings as “love one another” and “love your enemies” (and all the other of Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom of God teachings that he both preached and practiced) on this earth; it gets you killed. More often than not (I’m starting to think) as the victim of state-sanctioned, “necessary” violence. (Remember the words of Caiaphas, the high priest when Christ was killed: “it is expedient that one man should die for the people, that the whole nation should not perish…” —which was ironically/paradoxically also a prophesy of exactly what Jesus’ death was/accomplished. See John 11:49-52.)
- The Cross is powerful in its physical symbolism as well as in its actual meaning of redemption via whatever theological theory; the physical dimension of the cross represent both reconciliation w/ God (vertical beam) and reconciliation w/ self & others (horizontal).
- ALSO, Christ’s unresisting and violent crucifixion on the cross is, paradoxically, the ulitimate act of resistance and creative non-violence (supreme act of NVDA), taking/absorbing an act of violence and converting it into salvation of the world via the means of Christ’s willingness to take the world’s sin and the violence of pain upon Himself, voluntarily, absorbing it with his own body to the point of it breaking him, and thus swallowing up Death forever, so that it can no longer swallow/devour us.
Yesterday I watched this very moving 2012 documentary by Shola Lynch—Free Angela and All Political Prisoners—about the trial of Angela Davis in the 70’s. (It’s excellent. I highly recommend. It literally left me weeping when the verdicts of Not Guilty were pronounced, and she was fully free. But the work goes on…)
Being Holy Saturday and all, the doc. made me think of a different trial, that of Jesus before his execution—the outcome of which trial, unlike Angela’s, was a miscarriage of justice.
If we must include a courtroom scene in how we think theologically of the death of Jesus, then I think Jesus is like Angela Davis: the defendant, the Innocent accused, being put on trial before the world, and in that trial representing/standing for more than just their individual selves. And God, angry or otherwise, is not the one bringing the false charges. Only, in the case of Jesus (again, unlike Angela’s trial), the Innocent is pronounced Guilty, and sentenced to the worst kind of death. The wheels of the perversely Almighty System turn, and another innocent victim of state violence is crushed beneath them, as things keep rolling on, business as usual, the status quo protected and maintained.
. . .
Only—thank God!! And this is Easter’s great hope—in the story of Jesus, that was not the end. Violence, Injustice, and Death does not have the last word, and because Christ rose again and Life overcame/overcomes Death in the end, we have the hope and the promise that the same can and will happen for the followers of Jesus, too. For those who walk in the way of Christ—the way of self-emptying love that leads, in one way or another, to death on behalf of others for the cause of peace and for the healing of the world—for all those who follow in that way, we can be confident that Death never has the final say. Life is the last word, and Love the destiny to which we are all called. We already know the end of the story; and it is a good, happy ending. (Ultimately. Eventually.) The story we are a part of is not—in the end—a tragedy. (Though it may sometimes feel that way for a little while; I don’t want to minimize at all the very real pain that all people experience in some way during life.)
But returning to “Literary-Quirky” theology, I’ve saved the best of my current attempts at better ideas/images for how to view the death of Christ for last: Harry Potter. And no, I don’t mean Harry’s death/come back to life scene in Book 7 (though that is also certainly in the running). As silly as it may seem, by far the best image (again—for me) I’ve come across to date for illustrating the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus is in Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It comes in one of the very last chapters of the book, near the end of Dumbledore’s epic wizards’ duel with the series’ wicked top-villain, Voldemort:
There was a burst of flame in midair above Dumbledore just as Voldemort reappeared, standing on the plinth in the middle of the pool where so recently the five statues had stood.
“Look out!” Harry yelled.
But even as he shouted, one more jet of green light had flown at Dumbledore from Voldemort’s wand and the snake had struck—
Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide, and swallowed the jet of green light whole. He burst into flame and fell to the floor, small, wrinkled, and flightless. – from Chapter 36, “The Only One He Ever Feared”
He has swallowed up death…
Maybe it’s completely childish, but I get chills when I read this passage and imagine Fawkes the Phoenix sweeping down in front of Dumbledore (the bird’s owner), with total disregard for his own safety, and swallowing the death-curse so it doesn’t hit his beloved friend. And then, as those mythical creatures do, Fawkes is reborn out of the ashes.
(Also/By the way, as I remember it from my Medieval Lit. class in college, attributing Christ-like qualities to the phoenix in stories is not original with me; the phoenix as a symbol for Christ was a fairly common occurrence in medieval literature…so, one could say that I’m drawing on ancient as well as modern sources for my Fawkes-the-Phoenix imagery of Christ here in my attempts to depict the the death and resurrection in more helpful terms, haha.)
He has swallowed up death forever… The season of singing has come! upon us once again, now that all the migratory birds have returned and spring is here! Warm weather is back again, and new life is all around us. The grass is actually green again. There are all these pretty little purple wildflowers that I don’t know the name for under all the trees that Finley and I walk under when I take him outside in the morning and evening. There’s a light spring rain falling softly outside my open window as I sit in my wicker-bottomed old desk chair and type these words. Finley is asleep in his crate, curled into himself and heart-breakingly adorable. There’s a whole lot of hurt and mess and fragility in the world right now, but there’s also a lot of life, and a lot of hope.
And He will swallow up death forever. … He will remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. That’s what I’m holding onto this Easter Sunday night.
Happy Easter, everyone! Whatever way is most helpful to intellectually try to grasp/think about Christ’s death and resurrection, I think what is most important, perhaps, for those of us who believe, is to rejoice in His victory over the grave…and all of the hopeful Big Picture implications of Christ’s Death & Resurrection, whatever the theological details. (Yes, even after all those meandering bullet points of mine! 🙂 )
Now the crickets are chirping…
Christ is Risen—He is Risen, Indeed! Alleluia, ALLELUIA!!!
Image source: Phoenix by Frau-Kruspe on DeviantArt
4/17/17 Postscript: Relevant to the above – came across the following this evening in the “Mosaic” section (“A patchwork of Anabaptist news and ideas”) in the April 10, 2017 issue of the Mennonite World Review, which arrived in my mailbox today:
A God who doesn’t require death
Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver presents the theology of nonviolent atonement in the March issue of the Church of the Brethren Messenger. ‘God does not require death,’ Weaver says. ‘On the contrary, God acts to restore Jesus’ life.’ Salvation without violence by God invites people to join in the reign of God with Jesus as its Lord.