The Cross of Christ Sanctuaries of Shared Suffering
by Jay McDaniel
For Christians the cross of Christ is a sanctuary of suffering: not justified suffering or divinely intended suffering or purposeful suffering, but human suffering. Jesus was "fully human" according to the Christian tradition; and, along with two other fully human people on that day thousands of years ago, he was nailed to a cross, undergoing great pain. He was not the first or last to experience severe pain, and some have undergone pain more severe than his. But his was pain as well.
Christians believe that Jesus was fully God even as he was fully human. This need not mean that Jesus was literally born of a virgin or that his body chemistry was different from other people's bodily chemistry. If we take a living cell out of his body we may well find two sets of chromosomes from two different human parents.
To say that he was -- and is -- fully God is to say that his life and death and resurrection are special windows into the very life of God. Jesus' pain is a window into something deep and mysterious, namely the suffering of God.
For Christians God is not distant and aloof, but "here" in the very intimacies and complexities of life, including the suffering. The cross of Christ is a window into this truth. The poet William Blake says that we can see heaven in a wildflower and the universe in a grain of sand. Christians add that we can also see heaven in a fully human Jewish carpenter who was on a cross. When we see heaven in this way, we realize that heaven is not limited to this single man in this location, but is found wherever there is suffering. Heaven is empathy, human and divine, that helps build sanctuaries of suffering.
Typically we think of a sanctuary as a place where we find God. But a sanctuary of suffering is not so much a place in space as it is a place in the heart. It is a moment in time when we share in the suffering in loving ways, or when they share in our suffering in loving ways. The holiness is not in the suffering but in the sharing. Some sanctuaries of suffering last only for a moment and some last for many years. Often they are like life itself, evolving through time, waxing and waning. They are part of the stuff that love is made of. But these moments -- these sanctuaries -- are not the whole story. There are sanctuaries of joy as well. Christ is nailed to the cross, says Alfred North Whitehead, but the fairies dance, too. We cannot live in sorrow alone; we need laughter as well. If we focus only on the sorrow, we miss the fullness of life; we fall into self-preoccupied melancholy, which is sinful in its own way, because it misses the mark of awakened living. Life includes ecstasies as well as agonies, joys as well as sorrows, flowering as well as finality.
The joys are not less real, or more real, than the suffering; the suffering is not less real, or more real, than the joys. All are held in the more spacious arms of heaven, which is a living reservoir of empathy: a companion to all the world's sufferings and joys. Such is the wisdom of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For Christians, then, Good Friday is an invitation to sit in the sorrowful sanctuaries and remember their importance. It is to know them deeply and intimately, without hiding. Easter Sunday, then, is an invitation to sit in the joyful ones. It is to know that even the most painful of crosses - disease, old age, and death, says the Buddha -- can be occasions for new life, whether in this phase of the life journey or the next.
Awakening living lies in being awake to both sides of life for love. There is no other purpose in life but to love and be loved. This is the will of God as done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven on earth includes sanctuaries of shared suffering, as does heaven in Heaven.
-- Jay McDaniel
A Syrian refugee looks behind the fences of Boynuyogun Refugee Camp in Reyhanli, Turkey on 13 March 2012. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)
Dare to Sit With Suffering A Meditation on Genesis 12:1-4a
by Melissa Browning *
Abram left his homeland on a promise and a prayer. God called. Abram went. The Biblical text makes it seem so simple. There are no signs of struggle or doubt. There is no grief over what is left behind, only the forward look toward a new land and a new future. Leaving home for Abram seems so easy.
As I reflect on this week’s scripture, I’m in Lebanon listening to stories of Syrian refugees who left their country and their kindred to find a place of refuge. Unlike Abram, they did not leave on the promise that they would become a great nation. They left because bombs fell on their houses. They left because food became scarce. They left because they watched their loved ones die in the rubble as buildings fell to the ground.
As we enter into this season of Lent, it is fitting for us to pause and listen to their stories. Remembering Christ’s suffering is more than an exercise in gratitude. It is a chance for us to stand in solidarity with those around the world who suffer each day. It is a challenge for us to take our own suffering (be it large or small) and connect it to the suffering of others and to the suffering of Christ on the cross.
As we seek out this space of solidarity, the cross of Christ can be a powerful connector across time and space. When we look back to Christ’s cross, we see echoes of the same injustices in our modern lives. People are still poor and oppressed. People are still sacrificed for the sake of political ideologies – be it via bombs in Syria or the war over minimum wage in the US. The same violent power that nailed Christ to his cross still forces people to bear their own crosses each day.
One empowering narrative of Christ’s story is that the cross of Christ offers a place where the suffering of the whole world is connected. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son…”
After the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I was struck by a photo of Syrians holding a banner showing their solidarity with the US in the wake of this tragedy. The banner read, “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” To me this represented a powerful reminder of the connectedness of all suffering.
Too often, we play the game of “oppression Olympics” where we ask whose suffering is the greatest. This game of comparisons hurts us all in the end, because it masks the structural violence that causes many manifestations of suffering. As we learn to recognize the connectedness of suffering, we can be empowered to work to dismantle its structural roots. This digging up the roots of injustice is the hard work required to prepare a place for the in-breaking of the kingdom (or rather kin-dom) of God.
The Cross and the Kin-dom
Like Nicodemus, we’re offered a chance to be born anew, to take on the imagination of a child and dream God’s dream for a just world. And with Nicodemus we admit that this imagining is an impossible, wonderful task.
The kin-dom of God is not a great nation bound by borders. Rather, it is a space and a place where we can imagine human flourishing. The kin-dom of God is where we learn to remember that because “God so loves the world” God offers “eternal life” in the place of suffering and death.
Digging up the roots of injustice requires us to simultaneously cast a vision of justice. We cannot dismantle unjust structures without knowing what we will rebuild in its place. It is this vision of justice that acts as a wrecking ball, tearing away what should not be, creating a place for human flourishing and abundant life.
During Lent, we remember that the destruction of the cross is incomplete without the vision of the resurrection. As we connect the suffering of our world to Christ’s cross, we are invited to become the hands and feet of Christ as we construct the kin-dom of God. Yet even as we live into this task we remember that the hands and feet of Christ bore the suffering of the cross. These are wounded hands, wounded feet, with which we love this world.
God with Us
During my time in Lebanon, I’ve learned a great deal from our hosts, Chaouki and Maha Boulos who serve as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One way Maha and Chaouki are responding to the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is through providing food packets to help refugees meet their basic needs. In Lebanon, rent on a small apartment usually exceeds a worker’s minimum wage. Even if a refugee finds work, they are often unable to afford food or other basic necessities. In one project in Beirut, Maha works with 350 women who receive monthly food packets. Some of these refugee women have volunteered to help each month in preparing the food packets for others in their community. In taking on this task, these women have become leaders in helping others from Syria navigate life as a refugee.
As I was talking to Chaouki about the way these women volunteer their time to help others in their community, he said that in times of crisis, he believes that God calls out leaders to help their people navigate the suffering they are experiencing.
This does not mean that God ordains suffering. What it means is that when people suffer, God is in their midst. This is the story of the cross – God is with us in the rubble of our lives, God is present in the debris after the bombs have fallen. But God is not content to leave us there or even merely to bring us out. The call of the kin-dom of God is a call to rebuild in the midst of all that is lost, to bring peace where there is war, justice where there is oppression.
The season of Lent calls us to give up something as a way of making room for Christ to enter our lives. As we look to the cross, we are asked to remember suffering, to sit with it, to experience it, to not ignore it, as we are so prone to do. This year as you remember the suffering of Christ, remember also the suffering of creation. As you draw near to the cross, sit with stories from Syria, or from the Ukraine. Listen to stories of economic refugees in the US who have lost their houses due to foreclosure or who work minimum wage jobs but still cannot afford to feed their families.
Whatever you do, don’t turn away. Dare yourself to sit with suffering. Look for God there. God is always close to broken bodies and bruised dreams. And as you sit with this suffering, ask yourself what you might do to dig up the roots of injustice and rebuild the kin-dom of God in our midst. For this is the call of the cross. This is the gift of God with us.
* This article is reposted from Odyssey Networks: Stories of Faith in Action. Stories that Change the World. We in the JJB community extend special thanks to the author, Melissa Browning, who is the Graduate Program Director for the MA in Social Justice and Community Development at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies. Melissa is also an ordained Baptist minister through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Additional information about Melissa’s work can be found at her website: www.melissabrowning.com. To read Genesis 12: 1-4, click here.