Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen. [For Fridays, BCP 99]
The cross as way of life and peace is not self-evident.
I’m a pacifist. The version of Christianity that hoists Jesus up as a conquering king and sacrificed lamb is not my native land. It’s a huge part of the broader tradition, and a part that I am willing own as a facet of the landscape. At the same time, I recently instructed my parish director of music to “find something less bloody-Jesusy.” I’ve done that more than once. My fear is that in glorifying the suffering of Jesus, we risk setting that above the ministry of Jesus. And glorifying the suffering leads too easily to a place of quietism when we come to actual suffering in the world. And the idea of a God who desires the sacrifice of “his” child to satisfy some ghoulish debt? Not my religion.
Still, the cross is at the center of Christianity. The center: it’s the hinge point that brings us from God’s incarnation to the risen Christ we know in the sacraments. Instead of spending a lot of time at the cross, I tend to look at the love that brought Jesus there in the first place: love that refused to answer evil to evil. Rather than some cosmic imbalance that requires blood for blood, the crucifixion is about non-violence overturning the violence of the world. This is what Jesus always did in his ministry (see: Rene Girard). It’s easy, though, in that comparatively sunny interpretation, to forget that the way to the cross was a long way that Jesus actually walked. Not a metaphor. Not a myth that takes the many varieties of human experience and creates something new out of them. But an actual person taking actual steps.
When the vestry at my parish decided to adopt the Stations of the Cross from St John’s, Bowdoin St, when it was closing, I was delighted. (Pictures from the move and installation here). I loved St John’s, and the idea of having a little piece of that holy barn, now being turned into an office space, was lovely. St John’s was the first church that was just mine, not just the St Mary’s in Erie, PA, where I grew up. In deciding whether to adopt them, the we published pictures of the images in the newsletter, announced it at church, and offered field trips to go and see them. Things were different when they turned up in the back pews waiting to be hung. This being a parish of actual human beings, there were—and probably still are—some mixed feelings about them. They are, in fact, very, very large. They are moonlike and bright compared to the somber and dark colors of the rest of the church. In talking to my spiritual director, a priest I see regularly to talk about my work and my prayer, he asked mildly, “Well, have you asked God what they’re doing there?”
Indeed I had not.
The mixed feelings are appropriate. As one person on the vestry leadership board pointed out, they’re not supposed to be attractive. They are images of a dead man walking. I’ve seen stations of the cross with images of the AIDS crisis, homelessness, gun violence, climate change, and, now, the refugee crisis in Europe. Episcopal Relief and Development created a rite for the Millennium Development Goals. This willingness to see suffering is half the heart of Christianity. The other half is the faith that such evil and suffering doesn’t have the last word. But we have to look and see the pain to receive the gift. I had not asked why the Stations of the Cross were there, possibly because I didn’t quite want to know.
I have written a fair amount in these pages about suffering and privilege. I have a lot of privilege, I know that. Being present to the suffering of Jesus—step by step, moment by moment, makes it harder to close my eyes to the suffering in the world. The first time I did the prayer service for them, my kids were along. It’s one thing to hear abstractly the words to Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.” It’s another to hear those words while your own children are right next to you, blissfully unaware and climbing through the pews. Death and suffering are real. They will face them. I can't protect them any more than Mary could.
In this time of truly awful political rhetoric, when entire peoples and religions are demonized, we need this broken savior. He didn’t win. He didn’t get everyone to love him. He didn’t succeed. That’s where God was 2000 years ago, and that’s where God is now. We have to look.