The Beautiful Cross

The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners.  The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God.  The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails on the cross on Golgotha.  As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life, and blessedness to all people.

On account of this, the cross is both holy and blessed!  Once nothing but a dry piece of wood, it was changed, like Aaron’s staff, into a green branch full of heavenly blossoms and fruit.  Once an instrument of torment for the punishment of sinners, it now shines in heavenly splendor for all sinners as a sign of grace.  Once the wood of the curse, it has now become, after the Promised Blessing for all people offered Himself up on it, a tree of blessing, an altar of sacrifice for the atonement, and a sweet-smelling aroma to God.  Today, the cross is still a terror–but only to hell.  It shines upon its ruins as a sign of the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  With a crushed head, the serpent of temptation lies at the foot of the cross.  It is a picture of eternal comfort upon which the dimming eye of the dying longingly looks, the last anchor of his hope and the only light that shines in the darkness of death.

— C.F.W. Walther (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 622)

A Communion Hymn–“What Is This Bread?”

Last Supper

This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629).  They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle.  To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century.  Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:

What Is This Bread?

What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.

What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.

So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.

Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.

Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.

There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn.  In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.

As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?”  It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.

There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us.  What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins.  Amen.  Thanks be to God!

Not Observing Lent? Then Why Celebrate Christmas?

Growing up in the Reformed tradition, we did not observe the season of Lent.  As with crucifixes, vestments, and other traditions within the Christian church, Lent was simply ‘too Catholic’ to be observed within our circles.  At first blush, I suppose such an objection may seem valid, but it really won’t hold up to any scrutiny, especially if we, like many, reject Lent but accept Christmas as a valid Christian observance.

Am I overstating my case?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why…

First, considering history.  I am not aware of any scholars or writers who would deny the impossibility of accurately determining the exact date (day/month) of Christ’s birth from Scripture.  The oldest dates for the observance of Jesus’ birth appear to be in the Spring, only changing to December, in the West, under the rule of Constantine during the mid-fourth century.  The first ‘hard evidence’ for the observation of Christmas on December 25th comes from a Roman calendar called the “Chronography of 354,” dated AD 354.  Prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, any celebration of Christmas as a church holiday was at best sporadic (cf. Clement of Alexandria) but, more commonly, not mentioned (cf. Tertullian) or simply rejected outright as a pagan notion (cf. Origen [mid-3rd cent] and Arnobius[early 4th cent]).  In short, the celebration of Christmas was not widely observed until the mid-fourth century.

In contrast, the history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection (i.e., Easter) is much older than the history of Christmas.  In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season, though it was not the 40 day season we observe today.  His mention of what we now call Lent is not a remote example.  Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation.  There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance.  Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.

From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.

Second, considering theology.  Any celebration of Christmas at all as a Church holy day (holiday) comes solely from tradition, as there is no express biblical warrant, command, or example.  I mention this point only in response to those who reject Lent and other Christian traditions because they ‘aren’t in the Bible’ or should not be considered permissible under the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Quite honestly, you cannot have it both ways, rejecting one tradition over another on what I would argue are purely subjective grounds. To reject one and retain another is inconsistent.

So, if you do not observe Lent, why not?  I’m not trying to suggest that Christians must, but I’m also poking a little at those who suggest that Christians may not.  I should think we would all benefit from a deliberate season of preparation for Easter–reflecting upon our own sins/need for a Savior as well as preparing ourselves to be of further service to our merciful God.

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No Crucifix? Then Why a Manger?

Earlier this week, this post got me thinking about crosses and crucifixes…

As one recently come from mainstream Evangelicalism, one of stark contrasts of Lutheranism is the use of a crucifix (i.e. a cross with Jesus on it).  What is a bit of a paradox is that while Evangelicals of all flavors love to sing about the cross, they are amazingly quick to reject crucifixes outright.  What is more, some of the best hymns (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts) and worst hymns (“There is Power in the Blood,” Lewis Jones) sing of Jesus’ crucifixion…but in the same breath, Evangelicals can sing these words and then quip something along the lines of, “My Savior isn’t on the cross anymore!”

Call me crazy, but isn’t this just a bit inconsistent?  How is it perfectly suitable to sing of the cross again and again while so vehemently rejecting its depiction?

Some folks thoughtlessly reject the crucifix as being ‘too Catholic.’  Whatever.  Some argue that it violates God’s commandment against graven images.  Though this objection sounds plausible on the surface, I reject it too–another topic for another day.  What I think is at the root of our objection to crucifixes is the offense of crucifixion and the scandal of the cross itself.  No, we won’t admit to it, but deep down there is a part of us that recoils at the horror of crucifixion and wonders how and why a loving God could subject his own son to such a torturous death for crimes (sins) he did not commit.  The non-believing world rejects the Passion as folly or madness.  Unfortunately, many of us try not to think about it too deeply, lest we be taken aback as well.

The cross is not a thing of beauty, it is an item of torture and capital punishment.  What makes if ‘wonderful,’ to quote Watts, is that there is where Law and Gospel collided for all of time.  There is where the only sacrifice suitable for washing away the sins of the world was made, once for all.  It is scandalous…but it is also completely gracious.  The cross is our salvation.

Unfortunately, the folly of those who reject the use of crucifixes comes to the fore during the other major festival of the church, Christmas.  As pointed out here and here, why are those who reject Jesus’ depiction on a crucifix so quick to depict him in a nativity scene?  He is neither on the cross nor in a manger.  If we’re concerned about commandment breaking, both would equally violate God’s law.  I fall back on my position, stated above.  We reject crucifixes because we recoil from having that unimaginable pain and suffering displayed before our eyes–even that pain and suffering that wrought our very salvation.  A baby in a manger, on the other hand, is cute, sweet, and relatively tame.

May your Good Friday not be Christ-less but Christ-filled as we mediatate on the Passion of our Lord and our gracious salvation from sin and death!

A Good Friday Prayer

O Christ, Lamb of God, slain for the sin of the whole world, with penitent heart I come to Your cross, pleading for mercy and forgiveness.  My sins–and they are many–have added to the burden of Your suffering and have nailed You to the accursed tree.  For me You tasted the agony of the utter darkness that I might not perish, but have everlasting life.  Have mercy upon me.

O Christ, Lamb of God, embrace me with Your love, and forgive me all my sins.  Your death brings healing to my soul, peace to my mind, cleansing to my heart.  If You would mark iniquity, I could not come, for my hands are unclean, my lips are sullied, and my heart is blackened by sin.  But beholding You bleeding, despised, forsaken, dying, pierced, I come to be cleansed and forgiven.

O Christ, Lamb of God, grant that I may hate sin and wickedness more and more as I behold You in Your great agony.  My gateful heart today finds hope in Your words, comfort in Your promises, and salvation in Your finished work on the cross, by which You have overcome sin, Satan, and death.

O Lord, have mercy.  O Christ, have mercy.  O Lord, hear my prayer.  Amen.

(from Lutheran Book of Prayer, Concordia, 2005)

The Cross, Our Focus

The very fact that in my mind it goes without saying is probably reason to say it: as Christians, the Cross of Christ is our focus…our focus for doctrine, praxis, theology, liturgy, life in general, etc.

Over at ‘Glory to God for All Things,’ Fr. Stephen has compiled and reposted a lengthy post on the Cross as the foundation of (Orthodox) ecclesiology. It has taken me several days to read, re-read, and digest it all, but as usual, he makes some wonderful points that we would all do well to ponder. I found the following two points exceptionally helpful:

1. Theology cannot be compartmentalized.

As much as we rationalistic Americans (who are highly influenced by the Enlightenment) like to create nice, discreet ways of packaging, organizing, and presenting just about everything, we must resist this practice with respect to our theology and thinking about our salvation. Unfortunately, the most popular classes and topics of discussion at my seminary were Systematic Theology, which by its very definition compartmentalizes our thoughts of God into nice, tidy, discreet areas. I say unfortunately because, while this approach is well-suited for discussion, Scripture simply does not allow us to break God’s acts (or our thinking about them) into such perfect categories. Much to my discredit, as a young, budding Reformed theologian, I was over zealous to jump right into Systematics, prior to spending enough time on studying Scripture…the right approach would be to study Scripture first, then perhaps Biblical theology, and finally Systematic theology. Many years later, I am still trying to ‘get over it’ and give the testimony of Scripture the precedence it deserves over the proof-texting tendencies of Systematics.

As Fr. Stephen writes:

There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

Rightly, Fr. Stephen reminds us that all our salvation ‘is encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ In other words, the cross must be the very center of our doctrine and practice. Even more, the cross must be the lens by which we understand the whole of Scripture. Because it may cause confusion, I may not use the exact words he does when he says, ‘All of our faith, is one,’ but I think I read him rightly and would agree with his understanding that, ‘Our salvation is one whole…encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ It is difficult for us to think like this, as Fr. Stephen points out, but it is essential if we are to keep our mooring in the right place…the cross.

2. Theology (doctrine and praxis) must necessarily be cruciform (i.e., cross-centered).

Fr. Stephen uses four points to flesh this out more precisely, but we can profitably look only at the first here. (I encourage those who are interested to spend some time reading his entire post). He writes, “The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.”

One could spend an entire life thinking on this one point! At first we may be inclined to simply nod and assent to this first point. “Of course the cross is integral to understanding the work of Christ,” we say, giving our best Sunday School answer. There is so much more, however, that meets the eye here even in something as familiar as the cross. Perhaps our over-familiarity (if I may be so bold) with the cross, especially in Evangelical circles has made us unintentionally blind to the true depths of wonder going on at Calvary. Think with me for just a minute about all of the amazingly difficult tensions and truths of the cross:

  • The cross is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, a ransom (life for life) to pay a penalty and redeem those under a curse…we like to think we have a pretty good handle on this concept, but there is nothing even remotely close in our contemporary world (except perhaps capital punishment) as a blood sacrifice for sin
  • God the Father, in his wrath, requires payment of the infinite penalty of sin…a payment that cannot be waived in his justice
  • God the Son, in his love and mercy, voluntarily becomes the necessary sacrifice as the only one capable (as God and man) of offering an infinite ransom for an infinite penalty
  • At the cross, in a moment in time, an transaction of infinite worth (in its punishment and merit) took place in a finite point in time
  • Do I need to go on? I haven’t even touched the mystery of the incarnation, asked how the Trinity can be one in purpose yet seems to be divided here, etc.

The cross is the intersection of Law and Gospel…perfectly demonstrating both the infinite wrath of God against sin and the infinite mercy of God in providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. At the cross, these two seemingly mutually exclusive realities crash together in the world-changing event of all time! Our rationalistic tendencies are to discount the event altogether (atheism), try to explain away the difficulties for our own placation (liberalism), compartmentalize these events to ease explanation, etc. Alas, we cannot do any of these things! We are forced to stand (or better, to prostrate ourselves) in awe of the wonderful majesty of our Triune God.

In his famous sermon on the merits of meditating on the sufferings of Christ on the cross (a sermon found here), Luther speaks to those comfortable in their sins (at times each of us), reminds us of the terrible wrath of God against sin and sinners that necessitated the crucifixion, and points out that one proper response to thinking on the cross ought to be complete terror. At the same time, to those overwhelmed by their sins and despairing of hope (at times each of us), Luther reminds us of the great love of God in Christ who provided the total sacrifice for sin and points out the other proper response to thinking on the cross, complete comfort.

Surely all of these wonderful thoughts, and more, should guide our every thought, word and deed as we sojourn in this world. It must affect all aspects of:

  • our theology…as we focus not on the latest vapid fad (Left Behind, Prayer of Jabez, etc.) but on Christ alone
  • our ecclesiology, as Fr. Stephen points out…as we strive to imitate Christ (even) in our interactions with one another instead of how we sometimes shamefully treat one another in church
  • our worship…as we focus not on amusement and ‘relevance’ but the centrality of the cross and true gospel
  • our hope…which in all things can be found truly and only in Christ, nowhere else

CoD Part 5, The Cross

My favorite chapter in all of Bonhoeffer’s CoD is chapter 4, entitled “Discipleship and the Cross.” It is my favorite for a multitude of reasons but perhaps, sadly, because it cuts across the grain of so much of the “Christianity” of contemporary America and clings solely to the cross of Christ. It is at once an wonderful and sobering piece…one to be read and re-read numerous times. Throughout this chapter I constantly find myself nodding and saying silently, “Yes…yes.”

Jesus says explicitly on more than one occasion that to follow him is to encounter suffering. Conveniently, we tend to omit those passages in our preaching and teaching, at least in Evangelical circles. Bonhoeffer will not let us off that easy, surprise, surprise. He begins the chapter by discussing the scandal of the suffering Messiah in the eyes of the Jews of Jesus’ day, among the Twelve, and in the early church herself. Again and again, though, Jesus said he must suffer, must be humiliated, and must die. There was no evading the issue for him, and for Bonhoeffer, there is no escaping suffering, humiliation, and death for Jesus’ followers. Continue reading