In Holy Week, the days leading toward the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, it is fitting that Christians attempt, in some sense, to be theologians of the cross. The task is sharpened by one of the most difficult, comprehensive global crises of the last century—a combination of a public health emergency and an economic crash.
The cross is a site of suffering. In this year of COVID-19, it might be easier for some Christians to imagine the human conditions of fear and suffering than it was just a year ago. Many other Christians, of course, including those in Palestine today, did not need a pandemic imposition to more sharply comprehend unjust suffering.
In Martin Luther’s theses for the Heidelberg Disputation (from 1518, the year after he posted the 95 Theses on Indulgences), he offered this point for argument: “The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.”
For Christians who call themselves Lutheran, these powerful sentences aren’t the worst way to begin Holy Week reflection. I won’t try to fully elucidate all that Luther intends to argue here. Entire books have been written on the subject. Instead, I’ll boil it down to three points: 1) tell the truth; 2) tell the truth about God; and 3) tell the truth about yourself. I’ll say a word about these three points and how they relate to our current moment.
Tell the Truth
Evidently, telling the truth is difficult for a lot of people to do these days. Even in the midst of a global pandemic producing horrific results in some countries (Italy and Spain) and more controlled results in others (South Korea and Japan), providing a wealth of practical scientific information, some of our leaders can’t bring themselves to call this thing what it is.
Luther’s central demand for anyone who seeks to respond to the cross of Christ is that they tell the truth. Call a thing what it is, and let the chips fall where they may. Humans, though, tend to prefer to not tell the entire truth, which can be terrifying.
But what if we are in a time when the truth is not clear, a time when some people seem invested in obscuring the truth? This Friday, we will hear again John’s story of Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is, in fact, claiming to be a king, Jesus says “I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate, unable to comprehend these words, asks, “What is truth?”
Sometimes, it seems that our leaders would rather shape the truth or debate the nature of truth than endeavor to tell the truth to their best of their abilities. Not that truth is a simple thing—far from it! The human inability to fully comprehend truth in all facets does not, however, excuse active efforts to manipulate truth for economic or political gain. In the midst of crisis—whether it is the climate crisis or the present global health crisis—the willful manipulation of truth is a sin against God and humanity.
God and Ourselves
Telling the truth in light of the cross of Christ means telling the truth about God … and ourselves. Luther acknowledges forthrightly that this truth is terrifying: no more false illusions, no more secrets, no more putting lipstick on a pig.
Christians believe that the truth about God is revealed nowhere else but the cross. All of the ways we imagine God—high and mighty, ruling from heaven—are crushed beneath the broken bodily earthly realities of unjust suffering. As much as Christians have made this image a commonplace, it is, in fact, scandalous and incomprehensible.
We Christian humans make the cross an easy thing by jumping ahead a couple days to the resurrection. But that is precisely what Luther warns against. Don’t try to peek behind the cross, he says, trying to find an explanation for it all. Don’t jump ahead to comfort. Tell the truth about God … on the cross.
Instead of telling the truth about God and about ourselves, we humans invest energy in cosmic conspiracy theories that the present plague is somehow an expression of God’s wrath we’ve brought on ourselves. Or better yet, we invest energy in imagining that our present sufferings are the fault of some other group, whether that is transgender folks, Fox News viewers, or the descendants of Chinese immigrants. In our quest for cold comfort, we sacrifice the truth.
It’s difficult for us to tell the truth about God, but it’s even more difficult to tell the truth about ourselves. We are imperfect beings. We know that … but that truth isn’t easy to say. A global pandemic is the perfect time to remind ourselves that we are NOT in perfect control … of ourselves or of our world. That’s not ideal. But it is reality.
Staring Death in the Face
The Triduum brings us face to face with death and our faltering efforts to avoid death. On Maundy Thursday, we see the disciples failing to comprehend the gravity of the situation. And we see Judas seeking to push the timeline toward redemption, seeking God’s glory in worldly terms. Good Friday brings us to the cross. Saturday brings the silence of the grave.
The Gospels tells us that these events occur in the context of Pesach, the Jewish remembrance of the Exodus and, specifically, when God struck down all Egyptian first-borns but did not “allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down” (Exodus 12.23). Throughout the world, a silent destroyer is entering houses. We are, as a planet, facing a novel form of death.
Christians have a word to speak in a moment like this, a word of hope and truth. We neither avoid death nor seek to explain it away. Instead, like Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” we stand firm, staring death in the face: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50.7).
We stand firm not in spite of the cross, but because of the cross. In the cross, we have the assurance of God’s solidarity, the reality of God’s choice to be in the world rather than floating above the world, eternally detached from the world. In the cross, as in the manger, we have the promise of Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1.23).
Beyond abstract principles, Christianity proclaims another message: that the Incarnation is not just a cosmic reality, but that it is “for you”—for each and every one of God’s beloved creatures. In the freely given gift of Christ’s body and blood—received in the sacrament of Holy Communion—each of us receives the gift of God’s presence for the forgiveness of sins. The truth about ourselves—that we fall short and need forgiveness and reconciliation—is on full display.
But wait, there’s more! In Baptism, Christians are “united with Jesus in a death like his” and therefore “will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.5). All who have been baptized (as Game of Thrones fans will recognize) have no fear of death. They are, instead, freed to offer their lives for the sake of others.
The Christian message of truth about God and about ourselves (a message not everyone will accept) is the message of the cross. This world is difficult and hard, full of suffering and death. We meet forgiveness with suspicion. We suspect that no gift is truly free, that there is always a catch. And so, we prepare a cross for the One who would be our savior. God’s truth for us is not in the resurrection, but in the broken body lynched on the cross. This is the Word that frees us not for a world to come, but for action in the here and now.
In the face of death we act, sacrificing ourselves and our well-being for the sake of our neighbor. For most of us in our COVID-19 context, that means staying home, flattening the pandemic curve, and reducing the possibility that health resources will be overwhelmed. For others—including law enforcement, first responders of all sorts, and medical personnel—that means living fully into their vocations of serving their neighbors, knowing that they will be exposed to the virus, that they will likely be infected, and that many of them will suffering serious illness and death.
In our COVID-19 context, “calling a thing what it is” means refusing to sugar-coat news of fear, anxiety, suffering, or death. Instead, we set our faces like flint, staring down its terror in compassionate love for our suffering neighbors. While this virus might sicken and destroy our bodies, this is not our fear. Our fear is that suffering would be unjust, that access to lifesaving resources would be inequitable, that our leaders might choose to provide false hope by refusing to tell the truth.
Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD