I’ve been gone a while, but I’m back now, and there are some things on my mind I’d like to “think out loud” about with you.
A couple of years ago now (has it really been two years? Yes, it seems it has…) I decided I needed to reread the New Testament, slowly, savoring. People kept referencing verses or ideas that I’d forgotten about, and I wanted to refresh my memory. Also, I noticed my faith was flagging a little, and I thought that consciously trying to encounter The Word through the words might strengthen me. I was right. But it’s taken me a really long time. I meant to go slowly, but I’m only midway through Acts now. That’s quite a bit slower than I intended.
Here’s why I think it’s taken me so long: the Atonement.
The New Testament as organized now (I use the KJV because Mormons do, and because I’m comfortable with the language, and because it feels like the temple to me) places the life of Christ at the very beginning, which totally makes sense, repeated four times, which is such a blessing. That means there are four accounts of Christ’s birth and ministry, his miracles and parables, and, of course, the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
I don’t know about you, but I find it very difficult to read accounts of Christ’s suffering. Do you remember the movie The Passion of the Christ that came out a while ago now? I watched it a few years ago– long after it came out– in order to use it in some academic work I was doing. It was difficult to watch, and I have no intention of watching it again. As painful (and controversial) as that movie is, I find the accounts of the events leading up to Christ’s Resurrection even more painful to read. Maybe because I internalize text more readily, maybe because the Spirit testifies of truth to me when I read the Bible, maybe a thousand other reasons. Regardless, each time I came to the last few chapters of the Gospels, I found my reading s l o w i n g d o w n u n t i l i t a l m o s t s t o p p e d.
But here’s the thing: if you’re going to read the New Testament, you can’t escape the Crucifixion. Ya gotta go through Golgotha to get to Rome. And if you’re going to practice Christianity, you really shouldn’t want to escape the Atonement. Christianity as a whole makes a fetish out of the broken body of Christ. If you follow a strain that admits the miracle of Christ’s suffering and his Resurrection as fact (and almost all of them do), then you witness the miracle of God literally making desecration into sacredness, turning something horrible into a crown of glory. And then it becomes easier to see how, just as Christ laid down his spent body and took it up again, glorified, He can work in our bruised and broken hearts to make us anew, to make us something more glorious after life has beaten us down.
It’s just so hard to read, though.
When faced with Christ’s suffering, I want to hide. I want to look away. I want to skim, at the very least. But this is the thing we just can’t look away from.
Thomas doubted that his friends had seen the Resurrected Lord until the Lord appeared to him as well, insisting that Thomas feel his scars, insisting that Thomas know thoroughly who He was, and what He had done.
Likewise, if we accept the Bible as truth, then we have to accept this evidence of God’s love for us. And we have to accept our complicity in these wounds even as we express our love and adoration for The Wounded.
So when I hear people talk about submission, this is what I think of– not of allowing some man to boss me around, but of how Christ allowed himself, chose willingly if fearfully, to do the necessary thing to bring salvation to us all. And I think of how He asks us, by virtue of his stripes, to choose to follow him. To read the whole story, including Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19. To accept His love. The hardest part of submission is love, I think. Who on earth could be worthy of that much love? Christ says we are. What does that mean for us, if we accept that love? Oh, it’s a hard Gospel, this turning-the-other-cheek business, this unconditional love, this charity. It’s so hard to say “I was wrong.” It’s so hard to say “Please forgive me.” And as I get older (not that I’m all that old yet), I find it more heart-wrenching to say “I’ve been forgiven.”
But this is the miracle to Easter to me: we hurt Him, yet He loves us. “Woe is me!” says Isaiah, “For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah’s unworthiness overwhelms him, but the Lord has mercy on him and purifies him, and speaks to him. The Lord laments the wickedness of his people, but He doesn’t give up on them: “For notwithstanding I shall lengthen out mine arm unto them from day to day, they will deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them, said the Lord God, if they will repent and come unto me; for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long.”(2 Nephi 2:32) He know we’re going to deny him, to ignore him, to hide from him, but He doesn’t turn away from us. All the day long, He waits.
Today I read about Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” the Lord says to him. But I think it’s less frightening (and therefore easier) for me to kick against the pricks I know, to beat myself up with the old familiar pains, than to submit to the Lord and allow him to heal me. Saul was blind and fasting for three days before the scales fell from his eyes and he became Paul. Similarly, The Book of Mormon tells of Alma the Younger’s three-day conversion. In three days, Man became God. For me, I suspect it will take a whole lifetime to become converted.
How blessed we are to have a God who loves us enough to suffer for us, who loves us enough to let us grow and learn, who loves us enough to wait for us to be ready for Him.