Lent: Can It Be? Is It So?

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CHICAGO, IL (April 8, 2009) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a longtime columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each week during Lent, we are sharing one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine. The following appeared in the April 2000 issue.

By Dr. John Weborg

The removal of crucifixes from many Protestant churches may have led to unintended consequences. Looking at the empty cross, it is easy to see no cost either for redemption or discipleship. The instruments of death and torture are not clean and sterile, freed of dried blood and pieces of skin left over from the previous death.

St. Paul makes theologians wince when he writes in Colossians 1:24: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body . . .” In the minds of many, the empty cross proclaims completeness in a finished work. Easter’s victory over death can be used as a smokescreen to obscure the victory won before Easter, a victory that Jesus’ followers want to ignore.

In New Testament texts the process of Jesus’ dying is as important as his death. From Thursday night until Good Friday at 3 p.m. Jesus was tempted to summon his own deliverance. Such an exhibition of power, should it have been exercised, would not have been a victory. He prayed for his killers just as St. Stephen prayed that his killers would be absolved of all their sins. The process of dying was a proclamation of an undying love. In holding out for those undeserving of such love, he held on to them. Hebrews 2:14 proclaims the ultimate irony: faithful dying is the destruction of death and the power of the evil one.

Colossal evil is unprepared for an encounter with colossal grace. Such evil is caught off guard when grace dares it to do its worst (Colossians 2:14-15). When grace is too good to be true, it becomes the ground of its own dismissal. Yet grace won’t go away. It reaches beyond itself, as was the case at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, site of the deaths of 90,000 women and children during World War II. The following prayer was found on a scrap of paper near the body of a dead child:

“O Lord, Remember not only men and women of good will, but also of ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we have brought thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

Is this what St. Paul meant by filling up what is missing in the suffering of Christ? Is this what Jesus alluded to when he spoke of the beneficent treatment of endangered persons as doing it to him and the neglect of some as the neglect and abandonment of him (Matthew 25)? According to Susan Bergman’s Martyrs, 26,625,000 persons were martyred in the twentieth century. At that rate one wonders just what the capacity is of the container of Christ’s suffering. Say it isn’t so. It can’t be that big. But it is. And it doesn’t get better. The souls under the altar cry out, “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” They were told to wait a little longer until the number of their brothers and sisters yet to be killed would be made complete (Revelation 6:7-11).

Despite Luther’s criticism of the Mass as a sacrifice, he would not let loose of the word. In a 1520 treatise, he said that at the Lord’s Table there was a sacrifice. Jesus Christ offered us up, in union with his own, to the Father. So by extension could one say that by looking at a crucifix one sees oneself in Christ, filling up what is still missing in the suffering of Christ.

If so, then colossal evil has met its match in a grace too good to be true. But it is the grace to die for one’s malefactors before one thinks of Easter as the grace of life for oneself. If we dismiss our cross, we must dismiss our Easter. It serves no purpose. Easter is not a deliverance from death or even in death. Death is death. Easter is the beginning of a new creation. Empty crosses get me to Easter too soon, easily bypassing the vocation to die, the just for the unjust.

Editor’s note: to read previously published columns as part of this special Lent series, visit the following links:
•    Lent: Standing By Your Word
•    Lent: Tears Can Do Double Duty
•    Lent: Encountering the Divine
•    Lent: No Easy Easter
•    Lent: The Chagrin of Lent
•    Lent: Having Lost, But Not Necessarily Losers

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