Bishop's Message

THE EMPTY CROSS

Apr 2006    

Who can fully appreciate the agony of Jesus who was separated from the Father for the sins of the whole world?

THE danger of trivialising the cross of Jesus is ever real – when people treat it lightly or superficially. It is not a new problem though.

In 1945, a collection of texts written in the late second and third centuries was discovered in Nag Hammadi in  Egypt.

Most of them are Gnostic texts, containing heretical views of Christianity. One of them, The Apocalypse of Peter, describes two persons on the cross – a “living” Jesus who is a spirit, and another Jesus who is merely a bodily “substitute”. The “real” spiritual Jesus feels no pain and therefore seems to enjoy the experience while the other Jesus is the one who suffers pain and dies. Peter the apostle is depicted as confused, and he asks:

“What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?

The Saviour said to me, “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.”

The Gnostics in the second and third centuries did not take the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus seriously. They kept THE danger of trivialising the cross of Jesus is ever real – when people treat it lightly or superficially. It is not a new problem though.

In 1945, a collection of texts written in the late second and third centuries was discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

Most of them are Gnostic texts, containing heretical views of Christianity. One of them, The Apocalypse of Peter, describes two persons on the cross – a “living” Jesus who is a spirit, and another Jesus who is merely a bodily “substitute”. The “real” spiritual Jesus feels no pain and therefore seems to enjoy the experience while the other Jesus is the one who suffers pain and dies. Peter the apostle is depicted as confused, and he asks:

“What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?

The Saviour said to me, “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.”

The Gnostics in the second and third centuries did not take the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus seriously. They kept real Jesus was only going through the motions of suffering – a sort of divine Passion Play, a dramatic sleight of hand. The heart-rending cries of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46), tell us that it was not just a show organised for a watching world. It was much deeper than that.

The Jesus who hung tortured and bleeding on the cross was one undivided person. Yes, he had two natures for He was fully divine and fully human, but He was one person. It was not as if one part of Him was anaesthetised and did not feel any pain, while the other part suffered. There was only one person, one Jesus on the cross, and He suffered terribly, in ways that we cannot fully imagine.

Still, people could ask whether the fact that Jesus was divine helped Him in some way. He could have used His divine powers to anaesthetise and shield Himself from the pain. But He did not. He refused the mixture of wine and myrrh that was given to Him to dull the pain just before He was crucified (Mk. 15:23). Jesus suffered the full effects of the torture that He went through in the hands of violent and cruel men.

On the cross, the exhausted Jesus whispered, “I am thirsty.” (Jn. 19:28), at which time he was too weak to push aside another wine concoction offered to Him in a miserable sponge just before He died. Jesus did not use His divinity to shield Himself from the physical pain. The same was true for the spiritual pain He experienced. In fact being divine did not help very much in that respect.

Who can understand or fully appreciate the agony of the Son of God and the heavenly Father who became separated by the sins of the whole world? If Jesus was merely a man, when God the Father turned His face away, he would have suffered as any of us would have. It would be terrible. But when Jesus the Son of God, who had enjoyed a perfect eternal relationship within the Godhead, saw the Father turn His face away, that agony would be indescribable. In this sense, being divine would have made the agony of the cross far worse.

Some might say that while Jesus did not anaesthetise Himself from the pain, whether physical or spiritual, He nevertheless had divine knowledge about the future. After all, did He not predict His resurrection? (Lk. 18:33). Would it not have helped if He knew that the pain would be only momentary?

If someone was going for an operation but knew that he would be discharged from the hospital after a week, would that knowledge not help him to go through the operation, no matter how painful it would be? (And, of course, the anaesthesia and painkillers would help too).

The sufferings of Jesus, from His arrest to His death, lasted no more than 20 hours. If He knew that His pain would be only momentary and that He would rise victoriously, would it not have helped Him to brace Himself for the painful moment, knowing that all would be well in a short while? But here is where we encounter mystery.

If we read the account of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, we would recognise this. Jesus struggled with the thought of going to the cross.

Somehow, prior knowledge of the ultimate outcome did not help. Jesus was in deep anguish, “and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”. (Lk. 22:44). An angel was sent to earth to help strengthen Jesus. Why was it that divine foreknowledge of a “happy ending” to the imminent torture did not help Jesus the God-man?

The answer, I think, lies in understanding the nature and extent of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Though Jesus hung on the cross for less than a day, and rose victoriously on the third day after death, what He went through cannot be measured merely by hours and days. We must realise here that we are dealing with eternal God. What God goes through for a moment can be stretched out to eternity, just as what may seem forever to us may be only momentary to Him.

In a mysterious way, then, what Jesus went through in the matter of a few hours and days creased and stirred the whole of eternity. As Jurgen Moltmann, in his book The Crucified God, has suggested, the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, though experienced for a few hours, have an eternal ring to them. The tremors of Calvary can still be felt today, and will never cease. There is something profoundly mysterious about this.

All this has something to say about the way we look at the cross. We somehow instinctively find the sight of Jesus on the cross too uncomfortable, and therefore are too quick to remove Him from the cross. Of course, we have Easter, thank God! We have the empty tomb to celebrate. And we are quick to empty the cross of Jesus, much to our relief. And over time, we can sanitise the cross, and let the truth about the cross remain a nice concept; and our hearts may remain unmoved by the awesomeness of it all.

Our Protestant reactions against the crucifix (cross with an image of Christ on it) has led us to look at smooth, empty crosses. Given, that this is due to our stand that Christ was crucified once and for all for our sins. Calvary is not to be repeated. This is the right biblical view, though the Bible also warns that Christians who leave the faith “are crucifying the Son of God all over again”. (Heb. 6:4-6).

But what we see with our eyes may also turn out to be what we carry in our hearts. What is the point of carrying a cross without the crucified Saviour? The cross was only the instrument of death.

The reality is in the One who bled for us on it. Even after He was risen, Jesus bore on His body the marks of His suffering (Jn. 20:25-27).

Notice also how in the book of Revelation Jesus is frequently referred to as “the Lamb”. That title keeps pointing us to the cross, to the Lamb who was slain for our sake. It is clear that the scene of Calvary and the memory of Christ on the cross will never fade away.

If there is a cosmic photograph of Jesus hanging on the cross, that picture will take central place in the family album in heaven.

It is thus important that we avoid being too quick to empty the cross, lest we sanitise and trivialise the cross. We need to linger at the foot of the cross and see our suffering Saviour. The tremors of Calvary can still be felt in our hearts today, if we choose to visit Calvary afresh. Let us behold the Lamb who was sacrificed – for you and me. And let His wounded hands touch and heal.

REACH OUT

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