Rethinking What Happened on the Cross
Advent is just around the corner & with it the start of the new church year. On nearly all Sundays in Advent, we are brought back to a place of repentance and deep introspection. The only exception is Gaudete Sunday (the pink candle!) when we are reminded to rejoice. Like bookends, Advent & Lent are times of reflection, repentance, and almsgiving.
During Lent, we are encouraged to fast, make sacrifices, compassionately suffer with those who are suffering, practice abstinence, give alms. We often see Lent as a time of suffering, as a time of sackcloth and ashes, and as a time of bleakness and being wracked with guilt.
In my own life, I’ve had so many times when I confused faith with suffering, when I thought that my pain and my hurt were somehow more noble than any joy I could have. I heard the refrain from so many others that we are to just hold on for dear life until the end of days when we will finally be happy in heaven. That life, this life, was meaningless and that the only reward in life was a heaven that was so far off. And I thought my spirituality was lacking when I didn’t always feel this heaviness, when I didn’t feel this burden, when I didn’t feel this pain.
I would look at the cross and the lives of the saints and think to myself, “I need to be in that much pain to ever hope of achieving heaven.” I thought my joy was frivolous, that chasing after health and happiness was somehow less than everything else, that enjoying myself was a crime. My heart was turned toward the Father but it was afraid and guilty and felt like it couldn’t possibly measure up to the standards I thought He had.
In the past few years, I kept feeling a tug at my heart that said “this isn’t all there is… there’s something more… keep going… you’ll find it.” I started listening with earnest to authors, musicians, speakers, and writers who were living in the freedom and joy of the gospel, not in the realm of dust and suffering. Who were declaring victory over their lives instead of defeat. These Gospel lights were showing me the path to a faith I didn’t quite understand.
This faith was one of declaration, joy, strength, celebration, calm, peace, certainty. This faith was forged in pain and trials & made into something entirely different: a faith that lived & breathed here and now, not just in the eternities. Without guilt & fear & mirthlessness. Joy & happiness that could be found not in spite of the suffering, but in the midst of it. This personal certainty & faith wasn’t necessarily tied to the religion of the believer, but was tied to the joy of the Gospel itself.
It was in this time of reflection and awareness that I found the story of Christ on the cross and His declaration: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” How could this faith
I was beginning to see clearly have room for a Father abandoning His Son when He needed it most? How could a Son despair of the love & provision of a good & kind Father?
And there it was, a footnote. An asterisk that changed my life. On the bottom of the page was the note “Psalm 22.” How had I never noticed this before? (I love when God plants these things on our path at just the time we need them!)
I quickly flipped to Psalms & saw for the first time the meaning behind this declaration. There in black & white was a heartfelt answer to my questions on suffering & a decisive victory over any kind of confusion or despair I might have had at the time.
What I saw was Jesus quoting a scripture verse that everyone around Him would have immediately recognized, like the hook at the beginning of a Top 40 single we would all know. He said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” and the crowd would have filled in the rest. They would have immediately remembered Psalm 22:
For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn;
He has done it!
Do you SEE that? Do you HEAR that? Are you seeing what I’m seeing?!? This isn’t about God turning away from His Son & looking away. This is Jesus, God Himself on the cross saying, “I am in the worst pain in my life & all of humanity has turned on me. I am afraid but I am not beaten. I am broken but I am not defeated. The God of the universe gave me a path to fulfill my vow to you all, and LOOK! We have done it! And we will never leave you or forsake you. Go forward with gladness & thanksgiving & song & praise because it is finished! The gates of heaven are just about to burst open! Brace yourselves! I found you, you are mine, fear not! I’m right here. And I have always been. Rejoice right here, right now & let Us show you the way! Pick up your mat & follow Me!”
At the moment I read that, my heart just cracked in half like the earth on that fateful day. Cracked right in half & was rebuilt again in only 31 verses!
THIS is what happened on the cross. This is what happened when God met us on the day He was born. This is the fulfillment of all those promises for generations & all the promises of Advent. This, right here, this is what He was asking us to see all along.
Advent & Lent are here to remind us about our past suffering and to encourage us to look to Emmanuel, God WITH US, when we’re right in the thick of it.
It’s also here to show us how to pray. Declare who God is, declare His promises, rejoice, give thanks, worship, and tell the world, tell yourself, that He has done it. I don’t know that many of us learned how to pray in such a way. That we have strength in declaring who God is, in shouting down the darkness, in quoting His word when we feel like things, like we, are falling apart.
On Gaudete Sunday let’s see the light through the cracks. Let’s open up the world a little more to the light of Christ. Let’s let Holy Spirit burst through us a little more & really rejoice in what we have, what we’ve been given, what is yet to come. To not feel guilt & shame when we’re grateful & full of joy. I know, it’s SO HARD here to take our eyes off the darkness. It’s SO HARD here to remember God’s words over us, over our families, over our world. I will, like Jesus did, insist that the light is there, the joy is there, and this is His gift to us. The Light has come. He is with us. He is for us. And He will never forsake us. He has done it! And we will never be the same again.
A note about the artwork:
I saw this inspiring piece at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia a few years ago. Of course I had to take a picture! It’s called “The Gates of Hell” and was inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Rodin himself reworked this initial inspiration and the piece became a reflection on the exquisite suffering of man. If you can see this in person, please do!