Adrianne Haslet-Davis loves dancing, and she excels at it. An award-winning ballroom dancer and an Air Force vet, she returned from her tour of duty in Afghanistan ready to pursue her dream of dancing in—and winning at—ever higher levels of competition all across this country.
She says, “Dancing is the one thing I do that when I do it, I don’t feel like I should be doing anything else ever. I feel so free.”
Celebrating their return home from the war, Adrianne and her husband Adam attended last year’s Boston Marathon. They were standing only a few steps away from the second bomb blast. Adrianne felt the explosion’s impact. She knew that she had lost her left foot when she heard Adam screaming and saw him holding her severed limb.
How do you ever set a thing like this right? Searing pain. Permanent disfigurement. A dream shattered. A life forever altered.
There is an ache at the heart of our world. Adrianne’s story brings that ache into sharp relief, just as millions of other lives might do should we draw near enough to see and to feel.
Parents grieving children who die before their time. Children terrorized by abusive parents or crushed by want and neglect. Victims of unspeakable sexual violence. Families shattered by insurmountable poverty. Lives consumed by chronic hunger.
There is an ache at the heart of the world. How do you ever set it right?
The wonder is that this ache fails to defeat us, that we do not tumble either into despair in our own suffering or into indifference to others so as not to disturb our own temporary comfort and good fortune.
The wonder is that we yearn for something, for someone, to set things right. And that is precisely what God is doing in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Only, God does it in a way that stands our accustomed way of seeing things on its head.
In our shock and horror at catastrophes like the Boston bombings, we predictably look for someone to blame. We want to fix things, to put things right. We figure that finding out who is to blame and punishing that person will give us the justice we crave.
Police killed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a shootout. His younger brother Dzhokhar will face the death penalty when his trial gets underway. Let’s assume that the jury finds Dzhokhar guilty and that the state puts him to death.
The guilty will have paid the ultimate price for their crimes. Will this heal the ache? Will the suffering of the Tsarnaev brothers, and their family, restore Adrianne’s foot and give her back the dream she lost along with that foot?
Punishment-centered solutions to the ache—solutions that use violence and coercion—leave a human remainder: shattered limbs and broken hearts, wounded families and lost dreams.
God acts decisively in Jesus to heal our ache. Instead of punishing offenders, Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the very ache that’s killing us.
During his trial before Pilate, Jesus says just one thing. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “You say so.” In other words, “Yes, but not in a way that you would recognize. You force your way upon other people. You blame and you punish. I embrace people and let them into my life.”
Many of us have heard that Jesus died on the cross as a punishment, as a punishment that we deserve. In other words, God blames us for the world’s ache and solves the ache by punishing his own son in our place.
This makes God sound depressingly like Pilate. As one who blames and punishes. God embraces and heals. And so I invite you to think of Jesus’ suffering and death in precisely those terms.
Let’s consider what Jesus is doing on the cross as the continuation of what God began in creation and continued in the Incarnation.
God created everything that is in order to be in relationship. God loves. He can’t really help himself. It’s who he is. God created frogs and red tail hawks and Golden Retrievers and protons and black holes and mosquitos (and yes, he’s got some explaining to do). He created these beings just to love them.
God did not create the universe to watch it and grade it. He created it to be involved, to impart to everything and everybody the joy of being, the joy of loving, the joy of self-giving that is his life.
In Jesus God embraced everything that is human. He made himself utterly vulnerable to skinned knees, weary feet, pollen allergies, the common cold, wrenching grief, cruel rejection, bitter disappointment, and crushing sorrow. Get your head around this. In Jesus God lets us in. We get under his skin. Our wounds become his.
With this in mind, remember what Jesus says on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In Jesus, God has made himself vulnerable to the ache. He feels it for himself. Every shame and regret and sorrow, every fractured heart and shattered dream. God refuses to keep a safe distance. And so he suffers and fears and weeps along with us.
He refuses to break relationship with us even when we feel godforsaken. In a way that I still find hard to wrap my mind around, Jesus even lets himself feel our own godforsakenness.
Jesus knows what we feel like when we need God and we wonder what on earth, what in heaven’s name, is keeping him.
And yet, Jesus does not yield to despair. And there lies our hope. There lies his redemption for us.
Jesus says, “My God.” In the midst of horror and suffering and humiliation Jesus knows that God is with him. God is bearing him through this present misery to a new place that he cannot see clearly yet.
Rob Bell illustrates what I have in mind in a NOOMA video entitled “Rain.” Bell is hiking with his one-year-old son Trace in a backpack carrier. Miles from home, a powerful thunderstorm rolls in. Pounded by a torrential rain and rocked by peals of thunder, Trace begins to wail. He is terrified. His whole world is nothing but that drenching downpour and those ear-splitting thunderclaps.
Rob Bell stopped, knelt down, took him out of the carrier, and clutched Trace close to his chest. Carrying him the rest of the way home wrapped in his jacket next to his heart, Bell says again and again, “I’ve got you, Buddy! I’ve got you!”
Jesus can say, “My God,” precisely because he hears God say, “I’ve got you, Buddy! I’ve got you.”
In Jesus, especially Jesus on the cross, that is just what we hear God saying to us. So long as we we think of God as the blaming punisher, we’ll waste our lives trying to straighten up, trying to put on our best self in preparation for our final presentation to God as Judge Dredd.
By contrast, when we know God in Christ as our holy healer, we can bring ourselves to him in whatever messy, dysfunctional, confused, flattened state we find ourselves. Instead of having to get ourselves all together before coming to God, we can come to God to be made whole.
And the whole into which God forms us is more than we could have made for ourselves. God doesn’t just put us back together after life has dropped us carelessly on the floor and shattered us. God makes us a new creation.
In Matthew’s version of the Passion Narrative, a strange thing happens as soon as Jesus breathes his last. The dead come rambling out of their tombs and stroll around Jerusalem. It’s like Jesus wormed his way into their graves and just crowded them right out of death into an entirely new kind of life. A life in which every form of tomb is just a memory.
One year after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, Adrianne Haslet-Davis’ story is still unfolding. Her new life is still unfolding.
Doctors have provided her with a prosthetic foot right out of a sci-fi film. She’s working hard at learning to compete in ballroom dancing again.
This is, of course, remarkable. But there is something more remarkable still about Adrianne’s new life. She has grown in a new power: the power of vulnerability and compassion and connection. Now she reaches out to other amputees and helps them as they stumble, and crawl, and hike through their own emotional storms.
Listen to her own words: “I know that I’m not inspired by the amputee that’s standing on top of the mountain or the amputee that crossed the finish line. I’m inspired by the struggle and the journey it took to get there.”
On the cross Jesus shows us once and for all that we are never godforsaken. We may be shattered or pigheaded, hysterically misguided or willfully self-destructive, lost or in hiding. But God is embracing us. Making us whole in a way that we cannot yet see.
In the meantime we can hear him say from the cross, “I’ve got you, Buddy! I’ve got you.”