All of us have our own image of Christ ingrained in our imagination. It’s the image that confronts us when we close our eyes in prayer. It’s the one representing He whom we worship when moved by a particular hymn or praise chorus.
I raised this idea in a Bible study on the epistle of John. The epistle, I argued, was basically a commentary on who Christ is: fully human, fully divine–the word, Logos made flesh. It gives us a vision of who Christ is with graphic language, affirming that “water, blood, and spirit” bear witness to Christ’s work on the cross.
Then I asked the class what kind of “Christ” showed up when they pray. Many people, myself included, had trouble answering that question. Not many folks wonder what “image” of Christ their prayers or worship conjures for them in the midst of a spiritual experience.
As a Protestant since childhood, I always had as my image of faith that of an empty cross. I had a glow-in-the-dark cross on my bedstand to help me sleep at night. Later, in middle school, Mom and Dad bought me a gold cross to wear around my neck.
There weren’t any crucifixes in my household, no icons either. “We have an empty cross,” my parents told me, “Because Jesus had been raised from the dead and is alive in our hearts today.” Perhaps they told me that to make sure that I didn’t turn Catholic (I had been baptized Catholic, and my parents went to a Protestant church only a year after I was born); I don’t know, but it stuck with me.
In high school and especially college, however, when art became important in my life and faith, crucifixes did start to make an impression. There was something about seeing Jesus on the cross that made an impact on my heart and enriched my prayer and worship.
It’s been years now and I have traveled a little longer down my spiritual path, and I no longer see those two images–the empty cross and the crucifix–as conflicting or contrasting symbols.
I think there are times when we need the victory of the empty cross. It’s the image that communicates the end of the story, the triumphal finish in which all death will be defeated. All of us will be raised with Christ.
We also need the Christ who died on the cross and is beholden to it. We need that reminder that God chose to feel pain, to suffer on our behalf. We need a Christ who knows how we feel when tears are our only companion, when we are left alone with sorrow because our friends fall asleep in our Garden of Gethsemane.
After the loss of his son to a tragic hiking expedition, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that it was the crucified Christ, not necessarily the Risen Christ, who brought hope. He needed Jesus on that cross to show up because it was that Christ who related to Woterstorff’s own grief.
He reflected on the crucifix, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God…Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it” (Lament for a Son, p. 81).
Facing tragedy in my own life, I admit that I know what Wolterstorff is writing about here. I too am not ready for the “victory in Jesus” hymn but insist on the Christ who we sing about in “Man of Sorrows, What a Name.” That man came back this past Monday, in fact, when 13 more victims succumbed to gun violence in our nation’s capital.
It is the crucified Christ indeed who comes to us as one in silence, humble head bowed, eyes and mouth closed. There are no answers there, but a very real sense of solidarity.
The cross will surely be empty later, but for now I see myself there with Jesus. He and I, broken and battered, with something profound and meaningful held in common. And there, through that darkest valley, I shan’t fear no evil, for God is with me.