For several months now I’ve been doing the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. Honestly, I’ve gotten a little tired of that, so I’m going to start mixing it up with some weekly “photo sermons”, taking the weekly theme, picking an appropriate photo, and writing up a short meditation on the theme. We’ll see how it goes. This week’s theme is “Lost in the Details“.
One of my best (and oldest) friends is named David Schrott. He’s an incredible photographer, and an even more incredible man of God. He’s currently been spending an extended period of time back in his hometown of Lancaster, PA, recovering from surgery.
In this time of recovery, he’s only grown in his intimacy with God, his love as a friend, and the depth of his experience of spirituality. Recently, when I asked how he’s seemingly unlocked this door to the depths of the spirit and, as he puts it “longing for the resurrection in ways I never have”, he simply said this:
“Suffering! Without it, it is hard to long for anything but immediate pleasure.”
I love that guy.
I’ve learned much from him over the years which I’ve been close to him (he’s certainly left his mark on this site). When looking for a picture appropriate for the theme, I ran across the picture above. I took it last year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of my continuous attempts at comforting my doubts through art.
I had seen this piece of Medieval art many times before; it’s one of the central pieces of the section. It’s a giant crucifix, stretching more than fifteen feet above one’s head, with Jesus flanked by angels, Mary, and John.
Years after I first saw this this piece, David got a new tattoo–a crucifix on his forearm. At the bottom of the cross was a skull. When he showed it to me for the first time, I looked at him, puzzled. He explained to me that the early church often painted and sculpted skulls at the bottom of crosses to represent Jesus’ victory over death at the cross.
I thought this was beautiful.
The next time I went to the museum, I noticed that this crucifix that had so struck me before had one if those skulls at it’s foot. That skull is the focus of my picture above–a little, yet significant, detail that could easily be lost in the largesse of the complex sculpture. Every time I see it I think of David (or, more specifically, his forearm).
When posting this picture on the blog, I also remembered another “David moment” from years ago. And this will lead me to my main point today.
Back in Richmond, when I was college and had just met David, he began reading Scot McKinght’s A Community Called Atonement. This book went through various aspects and metaphors of the cross and talked about different views different theologians have had on this seminal event in history.
Some see the cross as primarily about an example of self-sacrificial love. Others focus on how Jesus was our “substitute” under God’s wrath. Some see it through the filter of God’s victory over sin and death. Others focus on how he underwent injustice. Some say it was about Jesus undergoing what we would not have to, and still others stress how it was a foretaste of what all Christians should expect to endure.
The book, as David told me, stressed how the cross is like a beautiful diamond, and each of these perspectives don’t represent different views, per se, but rather different facets of that one diamond.
As I went on to seminary, dropped out, and started re-evaluating things, I realized I had not taken this to heart. I have spent so much of my theological thought on little doctrinal and abstract details of the cross, that there have been moments I’ve lost sight of Jesus in the process.
These cruciform thoughts and details are surely helpful in a myriad of ways, but not before we’ve taken in the whole. No matter the details one can get lost in when thinking about the cross, there is but one truth to which we must anchor ourselves before continuing:
The God-Man came. The God-Man died.
In Jesus, God collided with full force with Death. Before we marvel in that, we can not rightly appropriate the rest of the cross in our thought. We can not ask how this is our Justification, Victory, Example, Fore-taste, and Deliverance until we sit in the truth that a man died. Real flesh was torn and real breath was expired.
Just as in the sculpture above, Death was the ground out of which the tree of Life grew and the Son of God hung. Without Death, there would be no cross; without the cross, there would be no Life.
And so can I encourage us to simply take some time this week to marvel at the cross? Without immediately jumping to logistics and questions, can we just sit with it? Can we just stare at its whole and not lose Jesus in all the other details?
How do we do this? (Because no sermon is complete without application, right?)
We often forget that Christianity is, originally, an eastern religion–not a western one. It was not first and foremost offered to give us answers to systematic questions. Instead, it’s offered to reveal so we can revel. Christianity is not primarily a set of propositions to understand, but news to be declared and lived in light of.
Western spirituality is not good at “marveling”. It is good at getting lost in the details. And so, in my opinion, one of the best ways to combat these shortcomings is to try (at least for a few moments) to deconstruct and suspend our Western way of thinking.
This means we need silence, active meditation, imagination, and a focus on prayer, instead of more books, sermons, podcasts, discussions, and blog posts.
We put our books down (just for a moment), and set aside time in which we just sit–probably in darkness. We hold the image of Jesus’ cross in our heads. We use our imaginations to paint the picture–the smells, sights, and sounds; what we imagine was happening in heaven, in Jesus, among the crowd. We actively meditate (not passively “empty” ourselves). The Hebrew word for meditate is the same word used to describe a cow chewing its cud.
We chew on the image. We hold Jesus on the cross in our minds, and then we let him die. We heighten our alert to our emotions in that moment and increase our sensitivity. We pray to this God, not asking him for things, but instead just praising him and repenting for all that sent him to the cross.
And then we open our eyes.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
[See my past Weekly Photo Challenges here.]
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8 thoughts on “Marveling in the Cross: Lost in the Details [photo sermon]”
too many references to me! eeeeeesh. i’m glad to have helped in some way though.
yes prayer. yes sitting. yes silence!
i don’t think taking in a lot of information is bad as long as it ends up transforming us. so in a certain way, the kinds of books we read or sermons we listen to will have an effect of transformation. i read james ka smith and i long for prayer. i read bonhoeffer and i long for a life of justice. i read books on the book of revelation and i long for hope (yes you can do that!) and i long to put down my propensities toward pittsburghism (tribalism) and violence.
systematically understanding something doesn’t really get me longing for anything else other than more information. if you understand how X piece of technology works (let’s say an iphone), will you desire it? no. but if your heart longs for the experience of it, you will need it. the aim is longing for the kingdom of god rather than understanding it.
we will never ever understand.
I keep coming back to this quote in the moments that I have had time to reflect this Lent. It speaks to exactly what you talk about in seeing the reality of: “The God-Man came. The God-Man died.” Thanks for keeping it real.
“We think it is really very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.”
— Hauerwas, Stanley (2005-01-01). Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (pp. 27-28). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
this is an excellent reminder!
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Yes, God (as man) faced death. But more significantly God faced off with Sin. The cross means many things to many people but if there is no atonement for sin in the cross it really does not matter what the cross symbolizes
A very thoughtful and pertinent reflection as Easter is on the horizon
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