The Crucified God
(Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42)
Suffering, pain and grief are things that we have a natural inclination to run away from and in one way our inclination is right: these unpleasant experiences weren't part of God's original plan for the human race. Unfortunately, however, we live in a world that isn't the way God planned it. The world is fallen and our lives are marked, and marred, by selfishness, by moral weakness, by cruelty - in other words by sin, our own and other peoples.
In these circumstances some kind of suffering is inevitable for everyone and in fact the few people who manage to get through life without any setbacks, disappointments or struggles usually have something unsympathetic about them. They often take a condescending and dismissive attitude towards the weaknesses of others. Since they believe themselves to be the products of their own resilience and will-power they are unmoved by other people's sufferings.
For us as believers and followers of Christ our journey through life is always, sooner or later, a cross-bearing journey. The cross isn't a matter of choice. It's an unavoidable part of the journey, part of the commitment we make when we answer Christ's invitation to become his disciples.
The way that the cross appears in each person's life is different. What's important isn't that it's burdensome or unpleasant. The important thing is that it faces us with a decision: the decision whether or not to co-operate with God's grace, and the choice of whether or not to react in a way that brings out depths of faith and love and understanding which we might not have believed we were capable of.
Of course we might not react in that way. We might refuse the cross. For some people an experience of suffering or pain destroys any faith they might have had in God and destroys their trust in other people. Human beings are fragile and ultimately that kind of reaction has to be left to God's judgment.
But others have a different experience and a different reaction to suffering. They would say, perhaps, that they didn't draw close to God in the first stages of their conversion to him, when faith seemed to bring them a sense of contentment and peace and everything seemed to fall into place. They would relate, perhaps, how the anger and bitterness they felt in the throes of suffering gave way later to a deeper faith in God, a surrender of pride and self-sufficiency and a deeper sensitivity to others.
In short many Christians who do not turn away angrily from God when suffering comes their way will often say that they actually only got to know God more deeply when things started to go wrong, when things fell apart in some way. Then they were forced to leave behind the comforts and superficialities of a feel-good religion to find the real God. And the real God, of course, is the God of Jesus Christ: the crucified God.
Usually in our lives the cross that each of us has to carry isn't something we're able to know in advance. It's not something we can anticipate. That's part of the burden. Suffering is a mystery in every sense.
If we knew what painful experiences we were going to face in the course of our lives they might be easier to cope with: we could prepare ourselves somehow. But usually our real cross is something we're not able to anticipate, and what's more, it's likely to be something that feels at the time to be more than we can cope with. It's something we would never have chosen for ourselves.
I suspect that if we cling to some cross of our own choosing we could be avoiding our real cross: the sacrifice or the trial of some kind that helps us to genuinely convert, to turn to God, to become the person that he wants us to be.
So suffering, in itself, doesn't have anything redemptive about it. Often it crushes people and diminishes them. Nor are we entitled to cite Jesus' Passion as an excuse for acquiescing in, or even causing, the suffering of others.
But if we're able to persist through the mystery of our suffering, turning to God and trusting in him, it expands our capacity for him, very often in ways we don't realise. It brings us into communion with him, it joins our will to his will. At the end of the day that's what's important: not what we do or what we achieve, but how close we come to God. Let's try to concentrate on that as we commemorate Christ's own passion and death, for our sake.