Demonstrating His Love
“A God on the cross! That is all my theology.”~ Jean Lacordaire
I was recently looking at a book on the pastoral care of the dying that I have in my library (Peace at the Last – Norman Autton – London, SPCK – 1978). The author recommended the spiritual exercise of sitting in front of a cross.
Think of the cross as regularly as you can, for it is a sermon carved in wood. It will speak to you of the wonderful love of God. It’s not always easy to believe in the love of God at times like this – it’s so hard sometimes to believe that it seems all but impossible. There are very few of us indeed who have not cried out in moments of acute bodily pain or mental stress – “Can God really love me, when he lets me suffer so much?” But listen to those words of Christ – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16). Or those words of St. Paul – “God commendeth his own love toward us. In that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ upon the cross is the everlasting proof of the love of God. God in giving us Christ gave us his all. In the face of so wonderful a proof, can we any longer doubt, in spite of all our difficulties and troubles, that God does really love is? The greatest thing in the life of Christ, that by which he achieved most for the world, is not his teaching or his example, but his death. (62)
This reminds me of the story that the late Brennan Manning told about sharing a train trip across Canada with an elderly Protestant minister who was on his way to Vancouver to catch a boat to Korea where he was planning on living out the rest of his days teaching English to grade school children. As he made conversation with Brennan, a Roman Catholic priest, that old minister said, “You know, young man, I often visit your churches.” And when Brennan asked him why he did that, the old minister explained, “It’s to see the cross with the figure of Christ nailed on it. There I find the essential fact of Christianity.”
I made this discovery for myself on a visit to the California Mission in Ventura when I was just a kid. I didn’t hear about Santa Ana and the Alamo growing up in California, but I did hear about Fr. Junipero Serra and the string of 21 Missions that he planted from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north, each one just a day’s journey by foot from the previous one along the El Camino Real.
Every California school kid gets his or her fill of the Missions before puberty. I had visited eight of them by the age of ten, and had made the obligatory play dough, sugar cube and popsicle stick model of one of them in the fourth grade for the school history fair. And so, needless to say, I was less than thrilled when a group from my church insisted on stopping at the Mission San Buenaventura on the way home from a weekend retreat in Santa Barbara.
I drug myself through the restored buildings and gardens of this historic mission, the ninth and last one that Fr. Serra himself personally founded. We traipsed through the sanctuary as our tour guide rattled on and on about the historic artifacts and all of wonderful pieces of Spanish art that could be found there. It was as we rounded a corner to leave that out of the corner of my eye I saw something that made me stop dead in my tracks.
It was a crucifix, a life-sized, anatomically correct, and gruesomely realistic image of Jesus Christ in His dying throes on the cross. Now, I had seen crucifixes before. We were Episcopalians. We even had one at the front of our church back home. But it was nothing like this one. The Christ who was nailed to the cross at our church appeared calm, cool and collected. In fact, He had a golden crown on his head and wore the robes of a priest. It was an image of Christ the King, our great High Priest. But on the crucifix in Ventura, where Christ had been pierced there was blood, and where Christ had been beaten there was gore. It was all so realistic that it actually startled me, and so I just stood there and stared. And as I gazed on that image of Christ in His suffering, slowly it dawned on me, for the first time in my young life, that this was how much God loved me.
St. Bernard, the man not the dog, said that whenever he looked at a crucifix he always heard the voice of God speaking to him personally from each one of Christ’s five wounds saying, “I love you.” I find that I have this experience each week at the Lord’s Table. Alexander Campbell in his essay on Communion in The Christian System – the closest thing to a systematic theology that our movement produced in its earliest days – wrote –
Upon the loaf and upon the cup of the Lord, in letters which speak not to the eye, but to the heart of every disciple, is inscribed, “When this you see, remember me.” Indeed, the Lord says to each disciple, when he receives the symbols into his hands, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” The loaf is thus constituted a representation of his body – first whole, then wounded for our sins. The cup is thus instituted a representation of his blood – once his life, but now poured out to cleanse us from our sins. To every disciple he says, “For you my body was wounded; for you my life was taken.” In receiving it the disciple says, “Lord, I believe it. My life sprung from thy suffering; my joy from thy sorrows; and my hope of glory everlasting from thy humiliation and abasement even to death.”
God was on the cross in Christ to demonstrate the breadth and length and height and depth of His great love for us (Ephesians 3:18). This is why whenever I see a crucifix I reflexively sing –
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?
And as we approach Holy Week, I invite you to join me in the song.