As a child, my first picture of Jesus on the cross was a moody depiction in Marian Schoolland’s Big Book of Bible Stories. I recall three crosses silhouetted against a slate-grey sky, a portrayal obliquely angled for impressionable eyes. Still, it hangs sombrely in my memory.
I was 13 when I first watched Ben-Hur on television. It was deeply affecting. When Jesus stumbled to his knees on the cobblestones, doubled over with the weight of the cross, I ran to the bathroom, sobbing. My mom followed. Unable to calm my hysterics, she slapped me. Don’t think less of her, it worked!
As an adult, I saw The Passion of the Christ in the theatre. I controlled my tears, but the raw physicality still shocked me. I watched it all – the endless whipping, the hammer blows of spikes through flesh, the thrust of the spear into Jesus’s side, blood spurting in a sudden arc onto the soldier. Averting my eyes seemed a Peter-like betrayal, a denial of the torture endured for my sake, so I forced myself not to turn away.
From Advent through Lent, Christians make the annual trek from manger to cross. On Good Friday we reach our destination and behold what God himself called “accursed,” a gory death upon crossed timbers. Introducing Jesus to his followers, John foresaw the scene: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” “Behold” is a better translation than “look,” I think. It’s dramatic and authoritative. I sense urgency. I hear a command.
I need that. There are wormy holes in my brain and heart. I take the Atonement for granted, casting only casual glances at the cross. I’m squeamish. Lazy. Busy. My spiritual life charts itself in fits and starts, jittery lines graphing through peaks and valleys, just another Israelite wanderer. I need to be guided back to Golgotha repeatedly. Like Moses in the desert with his bronze serpent, the Spirit must tilt my obstinate chin and direct my gaze so I can behold my Saviour and be restored.
In “A Crescendo of Wonder” (Christianity Today, 3/31/2010), Calvin College’s John Witvliet describes the immensity of what we are trying to process as we gaze at Christ on the cross: “This is the day when the Living Water says ‘I thirst.’ It is the day when the Bread of Life hungers, the Resurrection and the Life dies, the Priest becomes the Sacrifice, the King of the Jews is killed like a criminal. No wonder we stammer in the face of this mystery.”
Witvliet’s words remind me about why we cultivate imagination, why Reformed Christians are rightly passionate about staking our faith within education, the arts and culture. Madeleine L’Engle has commented, “It takes all the imagination at our disposal to comprehend a loving God, who created the whole universe, choosing to become incarnate as an infant and suffer death at the hands of his creatures.” My faith is enriched, the holes in my brain and heart healed, when I behold Christ before and behind, day and night, like a cloudy pillar or fiery column. Not just in sermons, in prayer and in Scripture, but in my daily world – in literature, art, movies, science, the garden.
I behold Christ in Shardik, a novel by Richard Adams. A religious cult is finally rewarded by the arrival, the incarnation, of their mighty bear god, Shardik. The epic tale chronicles the rise and fall of the prophet Kelderek, who seeks to serve Lord Shardik with devotion, but who is often deeply misguided (much like me). Shardik descends voluntarily into the Streels of Urtah, an abyss of unspeakable misery, a journey that parallels Christ’s suffering on the cross and his descent into hell. Kelderek, following his master from a distance, is also marked by this hellish experience. Later, the wounded but still powerful Shardik dies a sacrificial death, saving not only Kelderek but a band of abused slave children.
I behold Christ in Gran Torino when Clint Eastwood’s character sacrifices himself for his neighbourhood, his arms spread in a cruciform gesture to accept the inevitable gunshot, or in Lord of the Rings when Frodo models a self-sacrificial determination to complete his quest for the sake of the shire.
I behold Christ in every self-effacing and loving deed I witness. What remains is for me to be Christ-like, marked as his own, so that others may behold Christ in me. That’s a lifetime pilgrimage. As Yale theologian Miroslav Volf tweeted this week: “Every step following Christ, every act marked by goodness, truth, and beauty, is a promise; it gives hope about the future to us and to others.”