23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.
We have worked through the three panels of the second view of the Isenhiem Altarpiece. So we return to the main panel for our final reflection.
This is obviously the crucifixion scene with John pointing his long bony finger at the agonized figure of the dying Jesus. Again we seem to be at the wrong end of the story. Where’s the manger? The holy couple? The infant? They’re all in Matthew’s story (well, not the manger but let’s not quibble). Why are we looking at Jesus’ crucifixion?
Because Jesus’ cross tells us everything we need to know about the God who has promised to come and “save his people from their sins.” This child, born to die, dies to save his father’s people and restore them to his good purposes for them. This is the point, the purpose, for which he came (reflect on the picture below). Forgiven and restored to our original vocation as God’s image-bearers bearing the cross becomes for us to all that it was for Jesus. Below, behind, and beyond the cuteness and sentimentality of the season stands the hard and gritty reality in our picture. I offer the brief reflection on the theology of cross below as a final Advent reflection for us.
A Theology of the Cross or Why You Gotta Look Good on Wood
This is a scary picture! Not because Jesus is hanging on a cross; we’re used to that. What’s scary are the definitions of Jesus hanging on a cross as victorious, obedient, blessed, lifted up, glorified, and miraculous! And it’s not that all this is said of Jesus that scares us either. What scares us is that Jesus (and Paul) seem to expect we will live this way too.
Nietzsche called this an anti-human slave morality. Screwtape claims it is only the underworld’s “ceaseless labor” that has prevented this “theology of the cross” from taking root in the Church of England (C. S. Lewis’ church). Here’s his full account.
We have quite removed from men's minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the applic- ation. You would expect to find the ‘low’ church-man genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have be- come a positive hotbed of charity and humility.” (Screwtape Letters, letter XVI)
But most of us do not want to live this way! Some piece of all of us agrees with Nietzsche that a theology of the cross is not a promising, fulfilling, self-realizing way to live.
Wasn’t this just Jesus’ thing to do? And after he did it, didn’t he go back to all his glory and regal splendor, and angels serving him, and all that stuff?
I think the clue to our confusion is found in the first panel. “This is what a life with purpose looks like.” Maybe we just don’t get the purpose of life, Jesus, Christian faith. What’s it all about?
Let me put it as simply as I can. The life God intended humanity to live from all eternity is his own life (remember the “Tree of Life” in the Garden of Eden). We funked out on this, but God never gave up on his plan to fill his creation with “loathsome little replicas of himself” (as Screwtape puts it). Jesus came as he always intended to but now he had to resolve the sin problem we had created as well as embody and model the life we were supposed to live (remember, he’s the “second” or “last” Adam). Coming into a world of sin and hostile opposition to God and his purposes meant that the life God intended us to live as incarnate in Jesus would be a contested, resisted, opposed, and hated one. It was the life of God from all eternity lived under the conditions of fallen humanity and a fallen world (1 Pet.1:19-21).
That’s what the picture is all about! It shows the life God intends for us lived out: victorious, obedient, blessed, lifted up, glorified, miraculous – saving. That’s why it’s got to be the same for us too. This life is the life we are saved for, the only life God has to give us. When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, we will live just the same way – only without the conflict and resistance (check out Luke 12:35-40, esp. v.37, if you don’t believe me).
So Jesus is not asking us to do anything heroic, over and above what we would normally do. It is the normal thing we ought to as followers of Jesus. Basic Humanity 101. Nietzsche might not like it. The underworld certainly doesn’t. But the reality is it is who we truly are and what we are called to be even amid the continuing falleness and resistance of the world. To live this way in that world is not a natural possibility. Only Jesus’ own life in us through the Spirit enables such a thing.
This theology of the cross, which I summarize as “You gotta look good on wood,” is God’s life lived out in a fallen world. Victorious, obedient, blessed, lifted up, glorified, and miraculous. It’s what Paul says that if we suffer with Christ, we will also be glorified with him (Rom.8:17). It is salvation! It is living for the purpose for which we were created. It is living the life of the age to come in the here and now (what Jesus in John calls “eternal life”). It scares us and we resist it at points. But God will not give up on us. “You gotta look good on wood”! Yeah, baby!