I grew up in the faith in an American Baptist Church in southwest Ohio. It was, like many such churches, staunchly anti-Catholic. One thing our pastor was always hammering Catholics over was the crucifix.
“Why do they have a crucifix on their walls?” he would ask. “Jesus is no longer on the cross. That’s why we have an empty cross on our wall—to show that Jesus is no longer there.”
Baptists 7, Notre Dame 0.
For a long time I bought that rhetoric. After all, our faith is built around Easter Sunday sunrise services that celebrate the empty tomb. The resurrection is what sets us apart from all other religions whose gods stay in their graves. And come this Sunday you will find me celebrating the risen Christ with a heart filled with laughter and praise.
But let’s not rush past the cross of Good Friday. And let us not be too hasty to dismiss the crucifix. I now disagree with my Baptist pastor. Jesus is not off of the cross. In a very real sense, as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world he has always been and always will be dead. And this—the dead Christ—is our hope and our salvation.
In his great first novel, The Life Of Pi, Yann Martel presents us with Piscine, the son of a zookeeper in India. While on vacation with his family, Piscine, a good Hindu, encounters Jesus in a Catholic church. At first, the Christian story is just weird to him.
The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”
Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.
Hallelujah, my son.
But then this weird story makes Piscine angry. He cannot understand how God could encounter death.
That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes. Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified—and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions—that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?
Martel captures in a few words the essence of Good Friday. The death of Jesus must be a very real death. It cannot be a “semi-death,” as in, “Well, Jesus’ body died, but his spirit lived on.” Jesus either died or he didn’t. And only that which is dead can be brought back to life. If Jesus did not die a complete and full death, then there is no resurrection to celebrate. And, as Martel says, “once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected.” Jesus must always have that taste of death for our sake.
Part of our problem with embracing the dead Jesus is our being creatures of linear time. We see Jesus coming to earth and dying and rising again 2000 years ago. When we try to comprehend that he died for our sins before the world was founded, or that he is still dead for our sins today, we recoil. That does not compute in our linear minds. What happened yesterday is past. What will happen tomorrow is yet to come. Today is all we can really deal with.
So to say something is still happening after thousands of years—that it has happened and is happening and is yet to happen—causes us to grab the TV remote and a beer. It’s just too much to try to figure out. So it’s easier to say that Jesus died in 29 A.D., rose again three days later, and is now in Heaven. Is Easter lunch ready? And who bit the ears off of my chocolate rabbit?
The death of Jesus was not just some transaction that gets us off the hook before the judgment seat. It’s not just our ticket out of hell. Jesus swallowed up death itself in his death. He destroyed the power of sin in his death. Are you hearing this? In his death, Jesus became my death and your death. Death has no more power because Jesus died every death there will ever be. He swallowed death itself. Death is now dead because Jesus died.
We read about the earthquake that shook Jerusalem when Jesus breathed his last, and how that many rose up from their graves and went into the city. The great zombification of Jerusalem was just the first glimpse of what it now means that death is no more. Those who were dead are coming back to life because of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death trumps all other deaths. “Death is swallowed up in victory” is not just a line to use when preaching a funeral. Death really has been defeated by the cross. I need to know that death has been defeated for all time. That is why I need to see Jesus on the cross for all time.
Robert Capon asks how anÂ omniscientÂ and omnipotent God can forget our sins as we read in Hebrews (For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more, Hebrews 8:12, NIV). Here is his theory. When Jesus died, all of him died, including his mind. His mind became dark, his thoughts ceased to exist. Capon says he can see God placing all of our sins—all sins of the past, the present and the future—into the dead mind of the dead Christ. And when Jesus rose from the dead, the only thing that rose with him was Life. Our sins died when Jesus died. All of our sins. And now we are free to live. Really live. And that is another reason I need to see Jesus still on the cross. I need to know all of my sins—all of them—are dead as well.
Yes, Jesus rose again. Without the resurrection, we are hopeless people. Without the resurrection, Jesus was just another Messiah wannabe. Sure, his teaching was unique, but hardly what you would call successful. He drove away most of those who tried to follow him, and those who stuck with him left him when he was taken before Pilate. We only know of one of his disciples who was present at the crucifixion—John. And John was there with Peter to see the empty tomb. In his resurrection, Jesus showed himself to be very God of very God. Jesus died and rose again: that is our hope and our confession. But let us not forget the first part of that. Jesus died. And let us not rush to take him off of the cross, for it is the cross—the cross filled with the lifeless body of Jesus, not the empty cross that does not force us to face the dead Christ—that has purchased life for us by destroying death.
I know what I’m writing is not what you are used to hearing. It’s offensive for me to refer to the dead Christ. You will no doubt respond with, “You should say, The Christ who died but rose again.” We don’t like to be faced with the crucifix of Friday. We want the empty cross of Sunday. We want a socially-acceptable religion that is as easy to wear as your Easter bonnet. We want an inoffensive theology that will not cause any embarrassment with family and friends. But God does not offer us that choice. To get to him we must come through the death of his Son.
Tomorrow is Good Friday. I will walk through the Stations of the Cross at my church. I will weep until I have no more tears in me at the death of the Son of God, knowing he died to destroy death once and for all. Death that came into the world because of my sin. Mine. The nails that held Jesus to the cross were driven in by my hands. And when he breathed his last breath, he exhaled so that I could breathe now and forever.
Sunday I will celebrate the risen Christ. But for now, I will gaze upon the crucified Christ, and thank him that he will forevermore taste death so that I might live.