I feel an almost physical repulsion toward any phrase that sounds like an empty Christian cliché used by religious insiders. At one point in my faith journey, Christianity had become so meaningless (or perhaps confusing would be a better description) to me that basic statements like, “Jesus is the Son of God,” or “Jesus died for our sins,” would cause me to want to run out of the church screaming. It was only the reality of being paid to sing in the choir through those years that kept me glued to my seat. Later on, when I was blessed enough to study with several superb theology professors, these overused statements finally began to mean something to me.
Two years ago, Dan and I moved through the season of Lent living in two different cities. He had started his position at his new church in St. Catharines. The kids and I were still living in Orillia as I wrapped up my work there and anticipated my own move into our new city after Easter. We felt grief in saying goodbye to our home, friends and churches in Orillia. We felt nervous about starting over again. We missed one another. And we felt overwhelmed at the sheer volume of work involved in packing up one house and moving into a new one. At one point in our worry and sadness, the words slipped out of me. I had never said words like them before. I didn’t know where they came from or how I meant them—if I meant them. I said them in a way that could have allowed me to claim them as ironic, depending on how Dan reacted. We have to nail this to the cross.
It is a terribly clichéd Christian statement, touted out as a quick and easy response to human suffering, or sometimes as a humorous barb at someone who is being too melodramatic about their difficulties. Either way, it is based in the belief that Jesus suffered for us and that, because of his suffering, my own can better be borne, or even alleviated. For someone who is borderline religious or who is religious in a logical and intellectual sort of way, the statement might sound nothing short of ridiculous. And yet…
We both felt an immediate sense of relief from our sadness. It was an image that meant something to us.
Our Christian faith is full of poetry and image. In contrast to all of the practices that we can do as Christians, there are also practices in which we can simply dwell. Whether it is the cross, the broken bread of Communion, the cup of suffering we claim as Jesus’ blood, or the wounds on Jesus’ hands and feet and side that convince the disciples in the Resurrection that Jesus is real and true, there is ample and rich imagery in which we can locate our experience of suffering and to have that suffering become part of a bigger story of sacrifice and compassion.
As a priest, there are occasional worship opportunities when I am not the one giving out the bread and wine at Communion. I love to sit in the chancel of the church, sing the hymns selected for the day, and open my eyes to what is taking place. I see my beloved church family coming forward with hands open and stretched forward. I know something of their stories, of what they hope and pray for, who they have lost, what emotional scars they bear, the worries and sicknesses that weigh them down, the courage and faithfulness that lift them up. They have shared with me moments of suffering and encounters with joy; I have buried their partners and baptized their babies; I have prayed with them in hospital; I have heard their descriptions of how and why they pray, and how that has transformed their lives. I have encountered their stubbornness and their kindness, their limitedness and their wisdom, their flaws and their deep beauty.
In these rare quiet moments, I am easily moved to tears by the reality I see unfolding in front of me. Whether or not they would use these words to describe their experience, these people know intimately what it is to participate in the dying and rising of Christ. They have drunk from the cup of suffering and they have experienced Resurrection. They have somehow (through upbringing or choice) taken on the habit, the practice of bringing their whole selves to this meal, this sacrifice, and allowed themselves to be shaped and formed by the pattern of Christ.
We do know what it is to have our mistakes and our limited human perspective, our susceptibility to disease and harm, create repercussions for our own health and well-being, not to mention for the health and well-being of others and particularly generations to come. Whether I am struggling with my own weakness, or grieving the fragility of the lives I care about, or feeling powerless in the face of the changes and chances of life, I bear that brokenness in my body. My body becomes part of the story that we, as a community, then tell.
Our Lenten journey is quickly drawing to a close, and soon we will come to the cross of Jesus. Perhaps you are at a time in your life where you feel healthy, whole, energized and optimistic. Or maybe you, like many of us, are shouldering sadness and struggle. Maybe the nightly news programs, the enormity of the refugee crisis, the suicides and third world living conditions so prevalent in our First Nations communities, or the concreteness of climate change, maybe these realities frighten or overwhelm you. Maybe there are losses that you are trying to find the strength to bear. Maybe you don’t know where to turn.
In the coming week, the week that culminates with the cross of Good Friday, consider these two possibilities our faith always has on offer in response to our all too human need:
Nail it to the cross. This religious phrase can afford a powerful prayer image, a poetic visualization for the loss or the suffering that we might be encountering, or that we see in the world around us. Visualize your need, your worry, your hope, as a thing that you can hold in your hand. See yourself placing that thing into another embrace. Let the cross, the nails, the wounded hands and feet, the blood, the suffering, act as poetry; let your own experience slip into those graphic images, that they might come to represent some of the confusion and difficulty you are encountering. Let those words and images do the work of sacrifice for you, as good poetry has always done, expressing the depth of your difficulty and longing, carrying you through from a place of suffering to an experience of new life.
And then, go to church. You don’t have to believe the right things. You don’t have to understand the mystery. But you can enact these symbols and this story with a gathered group of people whose lives also contain fracture and sacrifice. You can hear that bigger story of suffering and Resurrection, and together we can learn again how to surrender and how to hope, how to die and how to live again.