Nobody said that love is safe or easy. Love, genuine love, is risky and sometimes painful. Honestly, it’s hard work.
We were born to love. God made us that way. Love, you see, is how we connect with God and how we become our true selves. In a way, that boils down to pretty much the same thing. As I’ve said elsewhere, we were created to be joined to God at the hip and we get there by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Despite the fact that we were born to do it, we will spend our entire lives learning the art of love. You see, there’s no simple rule book for discerning what the loving thing to do is in every one of life’s unique and varied circumstances. Like I said, it’s an art, not a science.
We need an example to follow. And that’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus shows us what love looks like in all sorts of situations. And his definitive lesson in love turns out to be a sort of ghastly one. It’s his Passion. His suffering and death on a cross.
Many of the great spiritual teachers in the Christian tradition urge us to spend time meditating on the meaning of the cross. During Holy Week, that’s what we do. We hear the stories and pray through them in worship. The idea is to let the message of the cross get under our skin. To let the cross transform us into our truest selves: love in the flesh.
As an aid to your own contemplation, I’m going to reflect on three questions:
- What does the cross tell us about the world?
- What does the cross tell us about God’s response to the world?
- What does the cross tell us about our response to the world?
My hope is that you’ll make these questions your own and, in dialogue with the thoughts I share here, you let the cross shape you in the way the God intends for you. To borrow a phrase from Richard Rohr, nobody can do our spiritual homework for us. But I would add that we can do our homework together.
So, let’s turn to the first question.
What does the cross tell us about the world?
In this life, beautiful and terrible things happen. Joy and terror occur side-by-side. Our existence is neither a utopia unfairly interrupted by misery nor a dystopia to be escaped by any means possible.
My mother used to put it this way. You have to take the good with the bad. Or, as Richard Rohr has put it, life is cruciform. Suffering and happiness intersect.
Strictly speaking, this is a problem. Nobody’s complaining about joy and happiness. Suffering? That’s the source of the problem. We all want to do something about the suffering. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to fix the world.
One of our strategies for fixing the world—a strategy vividly demonstrated by the cross—is the use of violence. The Romans used violence to maintain order. And so has every human society in history.
Whether it’s punishment meted out by the civil authorities, nations waging war against perceived enemies, or the proverbial good guy with a gun, we frequently reckon that we can set things right with the use of well-placed violence.
But ironically, violence produces suffering. It actually multiplies the very thing it’s supposed to diminish. And this additional suffering breeds fear and resentment, which lead to yet more violence and suffering. In other words, violence is never redemptive. At best it simply rearranges the distribution of suffering.
If this is all the world has to offer us, we’re likely to arrive at the same insight as the writer of Ecclesiastes. Seeing that we’re all on an apparently senseless cycle of ups and downs, joys and miseries, he writes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Or as I would put it, “This is all pretty pointless.”
But the cross does not just tell us about the world. It tells us about God. And that brings us to our second reflection question:
What does the cross tell us about God?
Jesus is God in the flesh. God incarnate. To understand the cross, you have to go back to the manger. God made the radical decision—and many theologians argue that God made this decision from the very beginning—to be embodied.
I haven’t a clue about the mechanics of any of this. Nobody really does. How the infinite dwells in the finite, how a virgin conceives, how a God could also be a specific human being and remain God. This is the stuff of mystery.
But I’ll tell you what I do get. If you have a body, you’re going to suffer. Period. Sometimes that suffering is stub-your-toe minor. Then other times it’s Kate-Bowler-stage-4-cancer major league suffering. Embodied creatures will endure heartache and disappointment, uncertainty and exhaustion.
By becoming baby Jesus, God signed up for all of this. God embraced human suffering. And God did this to redeem it. To prevent suffering from wrecking human existence. By changing our suffering and even our very death from a dead end to the way of eternal life.
On the cross we see that Jesus took into himself the suffering of the world in order to mend that suffering. Jesus even took into himself the violence that we heap upon one another and overcame it with the power of love.
Okay, I admit, you have to move beyond the cross to the empty tomb to get the full picture of what love really looks like. The followers of Jesus turn out to be not only cross people. We’re resurrection people.
Nevertheless, you don’t get to the empty tomb without walking the way of the cross. The question for you and for me is how to follow Jesus—how to continue love’s hard work—while we walk the various paths set before us on planet earth.
And this brings us to our final question:
What does the cross tell us about our response to the world?
When we look at Jesus on the cross, we see Jesus embracing hurt people. We are all hurt people. And here’s the kicker. Hurt people hurt people. Each of us has been wounded and has done our share of wounding others. We have been hurt and we have hurt others as a result.
God does not punish us through Jesus. Using violence to heal suffering is our all too human strategy. It hasn’t worked for millennia. God is pretty clear that this is no way to break the cycle of hurt people hurting people.
Instead, in Jesus God embraces us. God embraces us with perfect compassion. God is all in with us human beings. With this whole aching creation. And God’s love transforms who we are at the very core.
Love changes us from hurt people into healed people. And healed people heal people. Healed people embrace hurt people with Christ’s own compassion, because that’s just who we are. It’s hard work. But honestly, it’s the only work really worth doing.
Here’s what Anne Lamott said about my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places:
“This is beautiful and brilliant stuff, profound and plain, incredibly human, wise and charming. I trusted and enjoyed every word.”