Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Lent Reflection: "A Secure Passage"

When you were a child, you cried out in the night at the nameless threats in the darkness, and human hands held you and assured you, “It is alright.” Is it?

Jesus, unlike the first Adam, was tempted in a desert, in the “wasteland”, in the fallen world. In no sense was he naive of, or removed from, the sufferings and pain of the creation. He might, as many do, have taken the cursed earth and the sufferings of its denizens as proof against a loving and all-powerful God. It could have been part of his arsenal in a league with the original argument opened in the garden against the goodness, truthfulness and beauty of God’s will. Neither was his response to politic with the devil and draw out debate on God’s righteousness. Instead, he responded with the superbly spare and to the point, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:1-11) (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:17). Adam, in a garden, in luxuriance and vitality, fell to the tempter. Jesus, in barrenness and extremity of physical weakness and discomfort, kept perfect faith with the Father, in complete love and fidelity. “I and the Father are one,” He could tell his disciples.

Christ, taking the form of a servant, that is, a man, didn’t fall, though all have fallen, and he didn’t impugn God, though he was the most fully aware of the suffering on the earth, and the most fully compassionate, with an eye not in the least compromised by sin and a heart not in the least dulled to the sufferings of others. To appropriate the words from my prayer book this morning, in him no languor oppressed, no iniquities chilled, no mists of unbelief dimmed the eye and no zeal ever tired. Those who did not believe must have missed the heaven in his eyes.

He chose to walk the road of being desolated to the bitter end, which all flesh, including his, loathed, rather than to speak against God or to break faith with His Father.

This we have not done. We have not been Jesus. Whatever we have been, we have not been perfect. We have fallen. We fall. And the Father vanishes from the picture. Confronted with these two points of references, ourselves and Christ, a mistake is to think of Christ only in terms of an example and an embodiment of the Law. I might easily think of Christ’s victory in the desert over temptations merely in terms of a feat of ascetic discipline, an act of spiritual heroism. “If I am faithful in the little things then I will be faithful in the big things.” If I “think positively”, I will “think and grow rich”. “Whatever you conceive, if you believe, you will receive.” “If I have true grit, I will break these chains that bind me, like a gravitating kung fu hero with a ‘spiritual’ sticker.” That is missing the point. It is nearly missing the boat. It is density in the face of enormous grace and generosity. “Do not be like the horse or mule which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32).

The point is not merely to redouble your efforts in the “wasteland”, in the midst of pain and suffering, given such a shining example and wise guru. “For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Exiled from Eden, cursed and cursing, suffering and sinning, we are not able to storm the gates of Eden. Even if we agree to “be good” now, and we exert rare and amazing will power, which humans sometimes surely can do, the hour is late, the situation is more desperate, and darkness falls. But it is into this that Christ has come, not to mock and revile, but to hold and to heal. He has been revealed to our wounded hearts as the Way, the Truth, and the Light. He is the “new and living way”. The angels with the flaming swords tasked to bar return to the garden, until now stern, terrible and unsurpassable, will part to Jesus and you, and will look on you with joyous love.

Suffering and pain have, through Christ, become not merely the take home message at the end of a realistic movie that gives you the bite of authentic reality, that makes you feel more desolate but more real. They have become a secured passage. What we could not accomplish in Him is given (Romans 5:12-19). It is not a secular stoicism He has braced us for; it is a beating heart of warmth He has bound us to, the warmth of God’s love, cutting decisively, as one with authority, through the blurr and the blister of it all, and justifying the fragile assurance a mother gives to her child when he cries in the night. The desire of nations has come. Humanity’s hope is not a vice and a delusion but a forerunner of Christ and a signal of the transcendent. It is alright, in an astonishing reversal of the atheist’s stoic realism. It is a greater realism into which the children of man are brought through Christ and through which they are adopted, redeemed, and led home to God.

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