Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday: The Unseen God

“Inscribed upon the Cross we see, in shining letters: God is love.”
This line from one of Thomas Kelly’s hymns expresses a profound truth appreciated by every Christian. But as countless generations of artists have since reminded us, it is not at all what we actually see upon the cross.
We do see the love of Christ. We hear his prayer for his executioners: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We hear his promise to the penitent thief, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We hear his care for his mother as he commends her to the home of the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27). We even hear his own trust in God as he dies, calling out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But of the love of God it seems we hear nothing and see nothing. There are no ‘shining letters’, only a condemned man dying a brutal death.
Yet within weeks of the crucifixion, Christ was being proclaimed to the world as Saviour and the cross as the very proof of the immensity of God’s love. And to this day, it is the form of the cross which visually declares the presence and influence of Christianity.
But despite this, even Christians find it hard to keep the cross in focus, often treating it as a mere passing phase: tragedy giving way to triumph, shame giving way to glory, darkness giving way to dawn. This is understandable. We serve a living Lord, a risen Saviour, a reigning King. But when we relegate the cross to the margins, the result is as undesirable as it is unexpected. For the more we seek to find God truly in triumphs, glories and light, the less we find of the true God. And the demonstration of this is always found in our encounter with suffering.
Suffering is the contemporary world’s antidote to the Christian God, the sure proof that he cannot exist as the Creator of a world such as ours. And the Christian who has moved beyond the cross can only respond to this in vague generalities about ‘free will’ and ‘human responsibility’. “It is not God’s fault,” is what they are trying to say. And in the strict sense of God not being ‘at fault’ they are correct. But in the popular sense of it not being God’s responsibility they are wrong, for if it is not his responsibility, it is not within his control, and if it is not within his control then he is not God!
But if suffering is ultimately God’s responsibility (as the Bible clearly says and as former generations of Christians were happy to accept) then we must look to God himself for our understanding of why it occurs and how the questions it poses should be resolved, at which point the cross reasserts itself at the centre of our thinking.
These reflections, then, begin from the assumption that the cross is not simply an event in the life of Christ, nor only an act of God in history, but rather an outward expression of something which is eternally at the heart of God himself. For it is at the cross that the streams of good and evil converge. And where the outward eye sees only such suffering that God must surely have turned away, we find through faith that God is fully to be seen there as he truly is—in justice and in love, but also in power and in weakness, in wisdom and in foolishness. And it is only through the cross that there flows out to us a stream of life where death is “swallowed up in victory”—overcome, yes, but overcome by being embraced, not rejected.
In the Cross of Christ I glory:
Towering o’er the wrecks of time,
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
John Bowring
From "The Eternal Cross: Reflections on the Sufferings of Christ"

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