Cross and Wilderness by Maylanne Maybee
Spirited Reflection — Sunday, March 15, 2015
Rev. Maylanne Maybee is the Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg.
Recently at a particularly heated moment in one of our weekly staff meetings, a colleague changed the energy by telling a story out of the blue – about an upright piano in his household. They had been making renovations, the piano was taking up valuable space and had sat unplayed for years, so they decided it was time for it to go. But after much research and effort, not only could they not find a buyer, they couldn’t even find someone who would take it for free. They weighed the cost of having it professionally removed, and finally decided to demolish it and put it out for collection.
My colleague and his family used hammers and axes, crowbars and other tools, and actually found the task both demanding and disturbing. The once beautifully crafted instrument, they found, could only be taken apart with much effort and chagrin. It didn’t feel right to be chopping up polished wood and loosening carefully tightened piano wire. It was difficult and perhaps morally reprehensible to be dismantling something of great value that nevertheless had no value to them.
I wonder whether the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion is something like that unwanted piano — something that has great importance and value, yet that also disturbs and offends. It occupies our religious landscape, but we don’t know what to do with it, we’d like to chop it up and put it out for re-cycling.
In our age, there’s a sense in which we have either domesticated the cross, or developed such an aversion to it that we prefer to blank it out. For some, it has acquired an aesthetic place in our lives, embroidered with gold thread or encrusted with jewels, well removed from the raw horror of Golgotha, much like the piano that stands in the corner. For others, it has taken a back seat to the rabbinic Jesus who teaches and heals. Notions of blood and sacrifice don’t fit into our modern lives and are better forgotten or ignored, again, much like the piano left in the corner.
John 3:14 makes reference not to the cross but to the lifting up of the Son of Man, “… that whoever believes may have life.” The very image of being “lifted up” brings to mind lifting up a baby or an elderly person, or a person crouched in fear into a community of support. It’s about strength and restoration. God’s purpose in Christ is to lift him up so that those who “believe” or gaze upon him can be healed and in turn mend and bring wholeness to the world.
The lectionary compilers saw fit to juxtapose the Johannine passage with its antecedent in Numbers 21 – a passage about the Israelites, lost in the wilderness, angry at God, griping among themselves. “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (v. 6). The cure was to create a bronze image of the snakes mounted on a pole and lifted up for all to look upon.
The struggle for freedom and justice is costly. Seeking peace and striving to protect the created order can be exhausting, discouraging work. We can lose our jobs, our friends, our direction in life. We can burn out or get dragged down by the very evil we oppose. We seek to mend and make right, only to find that we are the ones who need forgiveness. The sign of the cross lifted up may bring healing and life. Or maybe it won’t be the cross at all. Rather, it will be through words or touches of comfort, courageous examples of resistance, or moments of silence and prayer in the wilderness, with others, that we will find healing and life.
The cross and the wilderness are both places of transformation that involve disorientation, rending apart, and deep loss – a necessary part of our individual and corporate life as Christians and citizens of the world. But the end is not condemnation but release, not death but wholeness, made possible by the God of love and justice made known to us in Christ, and in those who follow him.