‘God is on the Cross’
That’s the name of a little book of reflections for Lent and Easter, inspired by the writings of a brilliant German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Believing, as he once said on the radio, that, “leaders of offices which set themselves up as gods, mock God” Bonhoeffer was engaged in a plot to overthrow the Nazi regime. Imprisoned and moved from one camp to another he was hung by order of Adolf Hitler on April 8, 1945. He was just 39 years old. His unwavering witness to the Gospel of Christ is honoured along with that of a number of other martyrs of the twentieth century whose carved likenesses occupy the niches over the west door of Westminster Abbey in London, England. From their stations they look out on the world with a kind of collective testimony to Bonhoeffer’s conviction that “it is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”
Bonhoeffer was a renowned teacher and a prolific writer. Fortunately, many of his lectures, homilies and papers have been preserved. So have a number of his letters to his fiancé, Maria Von Wedemeyer, his parents and his friend Eberhard Bethge.
Of the night of Christ’s birth Bonhoeffer wrote God is in the Manger and of the day of Christ’s death he wrote God is on the Cross. It’s an image that reminds us of St. Paul’s teaching that, “though Christ was in the form of God he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant; being born in human likeness, and being found in human form he humbled himself, became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
This is what we remember today—how Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, and poured himself out. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “God let himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross.”
Crucifixion was a horrible way to die and the Romans who occupied Palestine at the time used it as their form of capital punishment for those charged with insurrection. They made public spectacle of those condemned and showed no mercy as they stumbled under the weight of the cross they bore. As the grim procession made its way through the streets, many stepped back in horror and others wept. A few stepped out in some act of mercy as Veronica did to wipe the face of Jesus. Nailed and tied to the cross those crucified literally hung there until they died of asphyxiation. The bodies were often left on the crosses for days—a grave warning of the fate awaiting anyone engaged in disrupting the so called “Pax Romana”. The cross was the tree of their cursing, the cruel instrument by which they be forever silenced.
“Today,” writes Bonhoeffer, “we are the Church beneath the Cross.” For centuries the chosen reading from the Prophets for the day is Isaiah’s depiction of the suffering servant of God. (Chapter 53)
“He was despised and rejected by others,
a man of suffering acquainted with infirmity…
one from which others hide their face…
He was oppressed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth…
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
He was numbered with the transgressors,
he bore the sin of many and made intercession for them.”
Today we look to Christ Crucified and are moved to sing with Isaac Watts,
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’r such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown? (386 Common Praise)
Many of us keep company with Catherine of Sienna in her reflection that “only the power of love kept the God-Man bound there not mere cross and nails.”
Today we listen to Him, and are awed by his word of forgiveness, and his promise of a place in paradise to one of those crucified with him. We are brought to tears by his love for his dear Mother in all her anguish, and his trust in the beloved disciple to take care of her. We are haunted by his cry of feeling so utterly abandoned. We are humbled by his longing for love’s redeeming work to be hastened to its finish. We are utterly silenced as he draws his last breath, and commends his spirit to the Father.
Today we pray to Him using an anthem recited by generations of the faithful.
O Saviour of the world, by your cross and precious blood you have redeemed us.
Save us and help us we humbly beseech you O Lord.
Save us from our waywardness and help us by your grace and strength to live as you intend—in reconciled love, in holy communion one with another and in harmony with all people of faith and good will.
We pray for the Church, confessing the sins of which itself is guilty and yearning for integrity, steadfastness in its witness to the Gospel.
We pray for the world ravaged in the past year by global pandemic and the immense suffering so many have endured, the enormous grief borne by so many families, the exhaustion of frontline health care workers, the struggles of public health officials and politicians to contain the spread of the COVID 19 virus and now its alarmingly deadly variants;
We pray for the world alarmed by an appalling escalation in hate crimes, driven by deep-seated racism.
We pray for the world gripped by the suffering of so many people living under oppressive regimes, struggling in poverty or running for their lives in the hope of refuge in other countries.
And then having looked, listened and prayed to Christ Crucified we sit in silence for a time… remembering how the centurion so moved by the patience of Jesus through those awful three hours , uttered a declaration that would become the very heart of Christian Faith, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Mark 14:39)
As the day passes and evening comes we remember Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus but in secret and Nicodemus, who had first come by night to visit Jesus. We remember their respect for him and their great devotion in preparing his body for burial. Perhaps we may recall the great truth spoken in the midst of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus “that God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Perhaps we may recall St. Paul’s teaching that in Christ, “ God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2Cor. 5:19) Perhaps we might recall Paul’s passion in saying “far be it from me to glory in anything but the cross our Lord Jesus Christ.”(Galatians 5:14)
As we keep the deep quietness of Holy Saturday let us remember that it was the precious body and blood of our Lord Jesus that transformed the cross from being the tree of death to being the tree of life. Since the 6th century Christians have extolled its glory, singing,
Faithful cross, thou sign of triumph,
now for us the noblest tree,
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer maybe;
symbol of the world’s redemption,
for the weight that hung on thee! (185 Common Praise)
To Him who loved us and gave himself for us, be glory now and ever. Amen.