Several months ago, an older woman who knew I was a Christian approached and asked if she could speak with me; she proceeded to share many different themes that all of us could relate to—moments of hurt, long periods of loneliness, pent-up anger, health issues, financial difficulties. Sometimes she would cuss as she spoke, apologize, cuss some more; other times she would break down crying. She hadn’t really asked me a direct question, so I just sat and listened to her, let her get it all out.
Eventually she stopped and asked, rather pointedly, “Does God even care?”
I know that question occasionally occurs to all of us in our lives. And I know that our customary “God is there”, “God cares”, “God provides” responses can sound insubstantial; they are true, but can sometimes seem intangible. What good are spiritual realities that have no material or physical expressions? The Scriptures show us God understands this tension, this need for connection to substance. His grace-filled resolution was to incarnate his very essence, God into flesh.
It is in the person of Jesus that “God is there” and “God cares”. In Jesus, God identifies himself with the whole of humanity, living out the same human experience we each trudge through day in and day out. Though he was God, he did not make his human existence more comfortable for himself; quite the opposite actually. He lived under the same conditions each of us human beings must endure throughout our lives and was spared none of its hardships and horrors. He willingly took them upon himself so we can know God cares. What I attempted to convey to this lonely, panicking woman in my answer was that Christ-on-the-cross, in suffering, abandonment, and death, is probably the clearest and most substantial expression of just how much God does care.
It is in Jesus’ suffering on the cross that God joins humanity in our suffering. In our unbearable moments of pain, suffering, fatigue, and sorrow, Christ-on-the-cross is God saying “I will go through this with you”, “You are not alone in your pain.”
It is in the Father’s abandoning of Jesus that God joins humanity in our abandonment and loneliness. In our moments of loneliness and perceived or actual abandonment, Christ-on-the-cross is God saying “I, too, know the pain and panic of abandonment.”
It is in Jesus’ death on the cross that God joins humanity in our death, that cumulative consequence for all that sin has wrought. In the moment of our death, Christ-on-the-cross is God saying “I, too, entered this terrifying and inescapable unknown.”
This probably is not the answer we hope to hear in our wearisome moments, but I believe it’s the answer we need. As “God with us”, Jesus is the clearest picture of God at work. His birth, his life, his teachings, his actions, how he interacted with others, how he suffered and died—these are all earthy, tangible expressions of God caring for us. When we wonder “does God care?”, in all these moments, Jesus puts a face to the mystery and shows how God is answering the question. But this earthy expression is still not without divine mystery.
It is here in Jesus’ crossing of death’s threshold we see God’s great care for us wonderfully displayed, not in how our identities are similar, but how they are not. By entering death, Jesus’ divinity is unleashed in all of his brilliant glory, majesty, and power. We are saved, not just by how he identifies with us, but because of who he actually is—the sovereign LORD of life.
With Good Friday approaching, the time is opportune to contemplate how, in Christ, we are not alone or abandoned. In Christ, God’s caring presence is constant. My prayer for us throughout Passion Week is that, through Scriptural and prayerful contemplation, all of what we are aware will be saturated with the sanctifying presence of Christ through whom God is always working his salvation in us by how he care-fully identified with us on the cross. Comfort of Christ to you.
Horror could be humanity’s most consistent contribution to history. I don’t mean horror just in terms of viciousness, but also of a deep sense of pain and suffering, sorrow and loss, fear and chaos, shame and inertia, bitterness and distrust, disappointment and despair—realities churned up in the wake of all that human sinfulness has wrought.
Most of the time, I really don’t know how to comprehend much of the horror I hear or read about, how to process it, or know what to do with it. Like many of us, a lot of times I feel like there’s nothing to do. In some situations we can write our representatives, sometimes we can donate to charity or volunteer, try to alleviate some pain, but eventually all we can do is wait, for something or nothing. And while we wait, we wonder; what’s the meaning of this, what is the world coming to, why is this the way it is? Then usually as we go about life, we learn to ignore it. But the reality with human horror is at some point it finds its way in and can no longer be ignored.
Some time ago, one of our Bible study members lost her mother to a long battle with dementia; every time she came to Bible study, she would give us an update on her mom, which wasn’t so much an update as a reminder that her mother’s life was gradually winding down and there was nothing she could do except be patient and present and let everything unfold. At the funeral mass, as her mother’s draped casket was wheeled forward, she followed behind, her face exhausted and wrinkled, her eyes dripping with tears. As much as she had tried in the past months, there was no more ignoring the horror. But near the end of the service, the priests observed the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the tradition commemorating renewal God initiated in the death of Jesus. While watching it reenacted, it made perfect sense.
The Eucharist at a funeral. Jesus’ death powerfully present in the place of death. We are not alone in the horror. Horror is, in fact, just the context and conditions from out of which God’s salvation shall come forth. This is why the death of Jesus irrevocably changes everything. The death of Jesus is not merely a tradition for the religious. Christ-on-the-cross is the redefining moment of history.
In Christ’s birth, God embodied and identified with humanity as hope stepping into our path of history, as well as our horror. While living life as “God with us”, his witness of words and wonders paved hope into the horrific path of human history through which he walked. Now since death is the only destination toward which horror can go and since death is only as far as it can go, to death is exactly where Jesus went; in dying, he endured horror, the consequences for all that humanity’s sin has wrought throughout history. But only after horror did its worst to him could Christ-on-the-cross be revealed as hope-in-the-horror; thus it was in his resurrection that hope triumphantly emerged from the horror, creating a divergence between horror and history.
Horror can only go so far. In view of Christ’s death, horror is revealed to be limited and in Christ’s resurrection, hope is revealed to be transcendent. Hope can go anywhere horror can, but only hope can go further, dig deeper, climb higher, reach wider, and hold on longer.
The Eucharist is God’s testimony that death is being dealt with; that the horrors scarring human history are not allowed to have the final say in history. When your congregation takes Holy Communion this Maundy Thursday or Resurrection Sunday, you are both celebrating and proclaiming Christ as hope-in-the-horror; that the world’s horrors cannot defeat the hope planted and paved in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and that history cannot wear down a humanity following in those footsteps. To a humanity so accustomed to its horrific nature, Christ showed us what it looks like to be truly human by not allowing history to be defined by our horror, but by the hope of him who redeems humanity and redefines history.
In him we are becoming hope-in-the-horror, showing a weary world what it means to be a people of hope in a place that has none; a people who stop asking “what is the world coming to?” and start testifying “Christ-on-the-cross” so all may see the hope beyond horror in a redeemed humanity as a new history dawns.