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03 March 2017

The comfort of the cross?

The comfort of the cross?

Wale Hudson-Roberts is the justice enabler for the Baptist Union of Great Britain 

This week's inquest into the deaths of the 30 individuals on a Tunisian beach in June 2015 has powerfully depicted the pain of the families at the hands of terrorists in our time. The threat to Brits is not unique, with Islamic State militants causing global concern. Since the end of 2016 there have been 164 terrorist incidences, including a gunman killing 39 individuals in a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year's Eve; in Baghdad, a series of car bombings killed at least 56 people and injured more than 120 others; and at least four people were killed and 17 others injured when a truck rammed into a group of Israeli soldiers in January. The list of atrocities goes on. 

The custom of making sacrifices that we call Lent will not remove the pain and scars from those who have suffered loss because of this or other similar brutal terrorist attacks, but it can move us to bring some comfort by helping the bereft begin to appreciate the response - indeed responses – of God to human suffering. Some of the early Greek fathers of the Church believed that God was incapable of feeling the pain of others, seeing Him rather as a distant God devoid of emotion and detached from the pain of those who suffer. But that is not our God. 

The story of the crucifixion reminds us that the pain of the bereft matters to God. The cross smashes the caricature of a God resting in some 'celestial deck chair' while millions are aborted, persecuted or starve to death. If God's full and final self-revelation was given in Jesus, then Jesus' feelings and suffering are an authentic reflection of God's responses to suffering. That Jesus wept with grief and "snorted with indignation"[1] and wept again for Jerusalem, points us to a God who weeps with the weeping and laments with those who lament. 

Christ more than embraces the internal suffering of those who suffer – he inhabits the world of their fears and longings, living in complete solidarity with those who suffer. The God who is capable of suffering is the same God who is capable of love and opens Himself up to the suffering that is involved in love. This is surely the reason why Bonhoeffer wrote, some nine months before his execution, that "only the suffering God can help". 

It is no wonder that increased numbers of theologians, such as Professor Anthony Reddie and Professor Robert Beckford, continue to develop helpful protests against a European theology that maintains a traditional, mournful mystique of the cross, which is passive and individualistic. Instead, in seeking to relate the cross to the contemporary world and its social injustice, they have contemplated whether God Himself was untouched by the historical cross because He is untouchable. Both professors resolutely conclude this not to be the case, that God is wholly active in the saving work of the cross. 

So, what comfort do we take from the cross of Christ this Easter? Surely it's the fundamental Christian assertion that God is love. As difficult as this might be for the likes of a homeless, unemployed or bereaved person to grasp, the cross of Christ tells us that the love of God is a constant, originating from the heart of the divine. It is a love never to be fully understood by the human, but often felt by Christ's servants. The fact remains that God is ever present in our moments of joy and our moments of pain; an omnipresent presence not least to families that have experienced loss before the advent of Lent.

[1] John 11:33: A more literal translation of the Greek 'embrimaomai' than the usual 'deeply moved in spirit and troubled'

Image: CC0 Public Domain