Daily Episcopalian will return with a new essay on April 5.
By W. Christopher Evans
Christ is reigning from the tree: Come, let us adore him.
This antiphon for the latter half of Lent from A Monastic Breviary has accompanied me this Lent. Like in so many of the passages from Isaiah, Paul, and John for this season, God turns everything downside up. Glory sweats and bleeds.
Passion piety is out of season in our churches. Our whole liturgical reform has been and continues to be preoccupied with the Resurrection, Ascension, and now, Creation. With celebration rather than contrition. Yet, for centuries, an Incarnation and Crucifixion piety shaped Anglican Christians by the Leonine Collect, by the Cranmerian Canon. The all of our worthlessness was cast on Christ, the all of his worth given to us. This receiving of our all by trust in him in our creation and redemption was everything. Our sharing in God’s own life was predicated on God’s having shared in our own, as in this reworked version of Leo’s Collect I cobbled together for Lent:
Almighty God, you have made yourself known in your Son, Jesus, who was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw all the world to himself: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity; Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In working to correct an imbalance, it seems that now we want little to do with a pained and suffering God; with a God who nurses, shits, and bleeds; with a God who identifies with flesh, blood, and bone definitively. The Nativity, the Incarnation, is reduced to sweet manger scenes and gifts of sweets. The cross is an after thought to the joys of Easter. We want nothing of the Creator who, in J.S. Bach’s words for St. John’s Passion, dies.
But without this bodiliness, this fleshliness, the Resurrection becomes a ghostly thing. I remember recently a conversation in which was said, “The Resurrection isn’t about the after life, it’s about the living of this life free from the power of death.” Well, yes, and…
When I shared these words with my partner, he replied, “That’s not enough for me. It’s very liberal Protestant, very Marcus Borg.” What is suggested by such a spiritualizing view is that our selves wholly are not finally of ultimate concern in God’s eyes. Freed from death to live life in the power of the Resurrection, we have nothing to hold onto besides becoming flower food.
Ironically, while holding fast to the flesh of this life, such a view seems to ignore the immensity of a God who identifies so fully with flesh as to raise flesh up, taking flesh into the divine life and promising never to let us go. What of the God who promises never to let us go by “indissoluable bond” in Holy Baptism? What of the God who so thoroughly identifies with our flesh that we are promised not only life abundant, but life eternal? Resurrection, that which should affirm finally and definitively that matter matters to God once for always becomes itself distorted where passion piety withers.
It is this fleshly God, Jesus Christ, who goes all the way for us that captures my heart and imagination, that makes utterly awesome the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Communion of Saints, the Creation, the Holy Communion.
Incarnation is more than a sweet manger scene. It is God’s utter giving of self for the life of the world. As has become my custom, at the Office Hymn, I chant the Johannine Prologue in Lent, the Philippians Christ Hymn in Christmas. The placing of cross at crib, and crib at cross draws the two seasons together in a way that resists our modern want to dissect the days and seasons of the Church Year into discrete unrelated units rather than take us through the full Christological sweep, with foretastes of what is to come in each. Something I noticed recently when seeing that one of the Psalm antiphons for The Baptism of Our Lord is: “Behold, there is the Lamb of God; it is he who takes away the sin of the world.” In that time after the Epiphany, when all is light and glory, babe and joy, already eyes are cast to Lent, to Good Friday.
Just so, prefigured in the Herodian persecution and the vulnerability of his birth, on the cross Jesus completes his embrace of the human condition and of fleshly existence all the ways down, for all sorts and conditions, once for all in every time and place. Not in the bright lights of Resurrection, but in the blinding midday sun at the Crucifixion, to borrow from Robert Smith’s last work: Wounded Lord: Reading John Through The Eyes of Thomas. This midday tradition of Crucifixion and Incarnation emphases is not by accident: Angelus and Agnus go hand in hand.
Jesus Christ reveals Who God is for us in his writhing body and words of intercession: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Unto death, death on a cross,” this God will not let us go even in our betrayal, cruelty, and evil. Precisely here, he enters into the heart of death and alienation, identifying himself with us to the end, into the gnaw and gnash of oblivion:
What God is This?
What God is this, who, bleeds and sweats,
as Mary mild is weeping?
Whom soldiers cheat by games of chance,
while passers curse in greeting?
Why hangs he high upon a tree,
court dog and eagle keeping?
Come far, come near: all nations hear:
the Word for us is pleading.
So see him broken, bruised, and bare,
on bended knee, adore him;
the King of kings creation frees,
let all the world draw near him.
This, this is Christ the King,
whom soldiers guard and robbers ring,
haste, haste, to him behold,
the man, the Son of Glory.
W. Christopher Evans©2010
Christ faces into hell. And in his total self-giving even to death and alienation, he, as if from the inside, so to speak, overcomes our separation, once-for-all.
Being an incarnational and cruciform tradition, ours is a seeing and hearing tradition, a tradition of both presentation and proclamation. Both reveal Who is this God? In the words of Pilate, “Behold, the man” or in the St. Paul, “proclaim Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God.” This presentation and proclamation is pro me, pro nobis, pro mundi; for you and for me, for us, and for the whole world:
Behind our apartment complex sits a small city park with a large pond home to many creatures. The kingdoms are many. A parliament of Ducks, Geese, Swans, Crows, Ravens, Songbirds, and Seagulls. A congress of garter and gopher Snakes, Lizards, and Turtles. A council of Salamanders and Frogs. A chamber of stray Cats. We walk there often with our Dog.
Recently, meandering up the asphalt path toward home, several rocks stood about as if the remains of a fallen temple. The carcass of a small black and yellow striped garter Snake lay among the ruins. The Snake’s body was torn in pieces and ripped open long-ways along one section. Another section, belly skyward was tinged a bright blue as if some toxic substance had been applied. Her or his head was upturned and scrunched up, as if in agony. Surveying the scene in sorrow, in sudden horror, it dawned on us: Humans unknown had tortured to death this small Snake.
We paused for a moment, the realization unbearable. Tears welled up in my eyes, and my partner, so sensitive to such possibilities, could look no more, wanting to get away quickly. But I stared, as if counting every rib and analyzing what gall had been given.
I made the Sign of the Cross, hummed the antiphon to myself, offered a sentence of repentance for human cruelty and evil toward fellow creatures, and then adapted a version of my Roadkill Collect:
O God of our salvation, your Son, Jesus, was betrayed by his friends and tortured to death on a tree; and lifted up very high, he embraced all flesh in his outstretched arms: Receive now into your undying care, this, your garter Snake, betrayed by human cruelty and tortured to death by merciless stoning, that enjoying you forever according to her or his estate, she or he may behold your everlasting glory, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
At the manger, the Animals, lowing, bleating, braying, praise redemption’s drawing nigh. And by the cross, the Animals, crowing, creeping, shaking, rejoice in creation’s rise. In Christ, God offers himself for the life of the whole world, and all flesh shall see him together:
Christ is reigning from the tree: Come, let us adore him.
Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular