Last night, in a darkened sanctuary, I was called to worship with these words: On this day Christ the Lamb of God gave himself into the hand of those who would slay him.
To this, the people were meant to reply:
We walk with his family, his friends and disciples
who gathered in the upper room
and watched him die for our salvation.
But, I couldn’t speak these words. I couldn’t find it within myself to voice this prayer because that’s not what brought me to that darkened sanctuary. I wasn’t there to memorialize his death. I was there to remember his love — to remember that commandment that gave us. To take into my body with bread and juice. Maybe even get down on my hands and knees and wash a stranger’s feet. But, love wasn’t the focus. Instead of talking about love, instead of taking that love into our bodies, there was talk of sacrifice. For some, I know, it is the same.
Sacrifice is what Christ does. It’s what happens on the cross. He gives his life for the love of this world. His sacrifice is the ultimate way Christ reveals his love. I’ve heard this said many times — but I am not so sure I understand how and why Christ died.
I’m not sure that I ever will.
Because I don’t understand death. I’ll never understand death. I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to understand how my mother died and I still don’t know. I have no idea why she died. Explanations have been offered to me. There’s no shortage of that. I’ve been told all sorts of things to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. But, there is no answer. There is no way to explain someone so young and so loved could die.
And I believe the same is true for my Lord and Savior.
So, I won’t go to worship today. I didn’t go. I had planned to attend the traditional three-hour thing at a nearby church with the last words and meditations. But, instead, I chose my coffee and a book. This Good Friday, I decided to read Tony Jones’ A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.
Though I’m still not sure exactly what atonement theory the author has chosen as “better” amid all of the theological possibilities he outlines, I appreciated his certain faith that “God cannot be bound by a law, a moral code, a universal sense of justice, or a ‘deep magic from the dawn of time.'” There is a clear sense that there must be something better than our human arguments. I like that. Because I want my God to be bigger than whatever humanity is defining as sin.
What I found most helpful in my Good Friday reading meditation was found in his caveat, where the author asserts:
It must be noted, and noted in bold, that the atonement is not, nor ever has been a topic of Christian orthodoxy. That is to say, no historic creed of the church deals with the atonement, and none of the seven ecumenical councils took up the question of the atonement.
The early church never bothered with this topic. It became a concern. Things changed. Time went on. People bothered with atonement. Some time in the Middle Ages — at least according to this author — it became a matter of concern as the people of God tried to understand divine justice. And we’ve never stopped taking up this question. We are still trying to understand how and why death comes.
And we may never know.