Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 37: The crux of the matter

There comes a time when in order to focus on Holy Week you have to go to the hardware shop. We have a proper one in our town with a lot of different sized nails, sold by weight. I bought four of the longest in the shop and some garden wire fasteners. I was rather wondering (dreading) the assistant might ask me what they were for. I had my answer ready: 'for making a crown of thorns and explaining the crucifixion to small children.' He didn't ask in the end.

I found the ideal gloves for cutting lengths of thorns from our garden bush, but they were no good for the weaving, which is a fiddly procedure. The twigs don't want to bend; they are unyielding until you break them in various places, initially, to start the circle going. Then each length of thorn twig goes in and out quite nicely, though not without a few pricks on the fingers. Weaving a basket must be a similar process, but at least that has some purpose at the end. It will hold something. A wreath of thorns is just for pain.

I have to admit it's much easier to make a cross than understand the cross. I know the cross operates on a number of levels; theological, historical, allegorical, poetic, visual, linguistic. I like the linguistic angle: it's a 'crux', Latin for cross; a focal point of primary significance. A crisis point. A decision. A sifting of true and false motives. I like the idea that something evil is redeemed, made into an icon of forgiveness, life, healing and reconciliation. It has a human shape; both a gruesome and an inspired thought. It's made from a living tree - it is the tree of life. You can make up stories about trees to explain it all to kids. And Jesus probably worked in a carpenters as a child: perfect. Someone can do a clever painting juxtaposing the child Jesus with his destiny. It also looks great in gold and hangs round necks for fashion or for exercising one's 'right' to wear it at work.

But I grapple with the theology, especially the penal substitutionary atonement argument. Try to simplify it right down for an 'answer' and it just works very badly. To the question 'Why did Jesus die?' there is the political and religious answer: a set of linked cause and effects boiling up in first century Palestine, centred on a man who was perceived to be the ultimate religious trouble maker. But you can't escape the fact that Jesus saw his death as purposeful theologically. So to the question 'Why did Jesus die?' the 'answer' is, apparently, 'for our sins/to reconcile us to God.' 

And then I'm in danger of falling into the 'two gods' trap. Jesus (nice) saves us from God (nasty/ angry). 'Jesus died for my sins'; 'He died in my place' are so difficult to unpack theologically. It all comes down to a transaction in the end, which seems very mechanistic. If I can't intellectually reconcile myself to the crux of the matter, how am I going to proclaim it?

Funilly enough I get the 'living it' bit. Things which lead me away from God towards my own selfish ends are to be 'put to death', crucifixion style. It always brings life and peace, after a struggle. And the struggle is ongoing! Death and resurrection are woven into the very heart of all suffering. I really get that bit. Perhaps I should just leave off the intellectual understanding of the cross as a bad job. And yet it's getting harder, not easier, to do so.

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