Passion week thrusts us into a realm of uncertainty amidst the certainty of Christ that should unsettle us to our very core. As we sit now before both an empty cross and a tomb now filled with our Savior – is it right to wonder where this is all leading? To ask what is going to happen now? Sure, many Christians know how the story ends (SPOILER ALERT!) and the fact that Jesus raises from the dead is truly something that Rudolph Otto’s notion of the Mysterium Tremendum as the placeholder for the truth of God as an unspeakable intersection of ‘holy awfulness’ (inspiring awe, a sort of profound unease), ‘overpoweringness’ (that which, among other things, inspires a feeling of humility), and ‘profound energy for life’ (creating an impression of immense vigor) doesn’t even come close to capturing.
In Job 23, Job has experience something of the Mysterium Tremendum in all of God’s awfulness and overpoweringness. Yet he is without any sense of what to do in the face of a God who is not responding to his cries nor seeming to be active at all. As he states in verses 8 and 9:
But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
We left in Holy Saturday in the place of Job – no GPS locator to assist us it seems, no forwarding address for the Lord we have followed, no voice returning our cries for help and relationship down the canyons of our lives – just the painful echo of our own diminishing lament. Ultimately Job chooses to seek out God despite his destitution and loss for in the end God is all we shall ever have. Are there with Job in this quest? Are we willing to seek out God even if the result will destroy all our preconceived notions and well spun expectations? Are we prepared for having our lives and practices changed as a result… even if the rupture of Christ’s Passion causes us to have to let go of things we cherish in order to follow Christ more fully?
One of the most difficult tasks in being a Theologian is being a party pooper when it comes things that animate and energize people’s faith. Sometimes this happens in regard to books people are passionate about (“Um… no… I don’t find the “Left Behind” series helpful in regard to Eschatology”) and church worship practice (“Um… no… doing a Christmas pageant with the wise men and shepherds showing up at the same time for Jesus’ birth actually isn’t in Scripture”). But where things get seriously uncomfortable is when I raise questions in regard to contemporary praise music. Whether it is raising the question of Docetism found in “Away in the Manger” (“Little Lord Jesus/ No Crying He Makes” begs the question of whether this is truly a human infant or not) or asking whether amplification of instruments and lead singers over the voices of the congregation is perhaps antithetical to what is considered ‘liturgy’ as ‘the work of the people’ when the so-called congregation are reduced to spectators against the wall of sound generated by the praise band, it is often the case where raising such questions will cause hurt feelings and people becoming passionate about their opinions.
Stuart Townsend “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us”
Take the praise song by Stuart Townsend “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us”. Townsend is a British singer-songwriter who has penned a number of powerful contemporary praise songs used in worship around the world. His song “In Christ Alone” is one of the best-selling gospel recordings in the history of Contemporary Christian Music and the song “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” is a song that will surely be used for worship this weekend in many churches in preparation for Easter whether at Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Holy Saturday services.
The song is moving in its musical score, employing the gravitas of minor and major keys in counterpoint yet offering an ease and simplicity that lays open the story of the Passion readily. It feels at once like an older hymn from a bygone era, a campfire song for the end of church camp, and fresh and contemporary. These factors alone make it understandable why is it so widely loved and used in services of worship as a song that can bring together those who appreciate contemporary praise music and those who want traditional hymnody. The lyrics are as follows:
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocing voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that help Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom
Two things that I continue to challenge in this song’s lyrics and would ask you to consider this weekend as you wait in the stillness of Holy Saturday and wonder anew what this death of Christ means:
1. “How great the pain of searing loss/ the Father turns His face away”
Ever since World War II, evangelicalism has been deeply focused on the physical torture of Christ’s body in the Passion account. With films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the ability to exhibit surreal levels of physical torment with CGI precision coupled with emotive soundtracks and jumpcut editing has riveted the attention of the masses upon the spectacle of the Crucifixion and lifted up Jesus’ torture as the greatest act of torment imaginable. It is not uncommon to hear my student’s reflecting in regard to the trial and torture of Christ prior to the Crucifixion that what Jesus went through was something “no one has ever gone through” and that “no one would be able to endure.” At one level, both these statements are true: no one but Christ went through the events of the Passion since it was a particular event to Jesus’ life and time, and the fact that no one would be able to endure is evidenced by the fact that Jesus dies. Yet what is behind these and other reflections have more to do with Jesus’ supreme ability to endure such savagery and such sickening physical torment that even God the Father couldn’t bear to watch – “the Father turns His face away.” Some have reflected that Townsend’s line in the song has more to do with God the Father being unwilling (or unable) to look upon sin which is a statement that raises its own issues about whether the fact that Jesus (as we are told in the letter to the Hebrews) was ‘made sin for us’ means that as one who is ‘fully human and fully God’ according to the Chalcedon creed of 451 AD could not look upon himself. Yet beyond all this is the testimony of Christ himself while on the Cross, crying out “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” as a citation of Psalm 22 which goes on to say in verse 24: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Is the position we have going into Holy Saturday one of Christ the Son abandoned by God the Father to be tormented on the Cross, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to endure “the shame of searing loss” and retreat to some safe haven until the storms of torture blow over? Is the Trinity torn apart and God the Father is simply unable or unwilling to participate in this? To sing Townsend’s line and affirm with our voices that “The Father turned His face away” is an affirmation of God limits that in some ways is more shocking than the Crucifixion and is perhaps the deep, dark secret many people have: that God didn’t show up for Christ’s darkest moment… and perhaps we fear that in the end God won’t be there for us as well. This begs the question of theodicy or “where is God when evil happens in the world?” It is something we seem to answer in this praise song, but is this really what we believe?
2. “It was my sin that held him there/ until it was accomplished”
Every time I sing this line, I wonder aloud to myself as to how my sins could possibly hold God at all let alone on the Cross. Do we believe that the only reason Christ died was because we forced his proverbial hand and that our sins, akin to the chains that surrounded Marley’s ghost in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, are unbreakable and made of such stuff as to even bind God and His actions? There is certainly a stream of thought that believes that God has no choice in this, no power at all, that sin was so overwhelming that God is forced to endure all of this and that we are the ones forcing the issue. Yet what if Townsend is only giving us a lyric that speaks to our deepest fears – that our sins are stronger than God and unbreakable in the end? What if the true story of what is happening over this Passion week is something more about love than about sin? What if God is truly in control and is not held by us at all? What if the Cross isn’t only about us after all – at least as stars in the drama and center stage on the marquee – but about God’s desire to reconcile all things to Himself regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge it or not? What would it change for us to note that perhaps God chooses to love us and at the same doesn’t have to? That God was never bound by a duty greater than Himself (for, as St. Anselm mused so long ago, what is greater than God?) but is walking to Golgotha as an act of true selflessness, true integrity, true love? There is something to believing that we put Christ on the Cross… but we certainly didn’t hold him there. No, to sing this – let alone belief it – is tantamount to jettisoning many of the Divine aspects of God (all powerful, all knowing, complete and without confusion) that are core to the orthodox Christian faith. Did *I* hold Christ to the Cross? Did *you*? If so, then perhaps the God you are worshiping is pretty small, easily managed, and lacking in any freedom to be and do that which I believe we deeply need and desire but are afraid to acknowledge…
God is free to not love us yet still chooses to.
God is free to ‘be’ God with or without us in the mix.
This is what Hold Saturday is about: the cold, dark reality of waiting with no recourse and no certainty that the love letter you slipped under the door will ever be read or even that we will get a response. No, we can’t force the issue. We can’t force God’s hand nor can we control what God looks at or what God turns His face away from.
But what if this cold, dark season isn’t about the end of hope…
nor the end of faith…
nor the end of love…
What if the freedom of God is to face any and all events, to be at one with Christ at the moment of deepest sorrow on the Cross is real, and that God doesn’t merely turn away when things get messy? What if God chooses such an amazing love that we could never control, never manage, never bind and force that any hint of our control in the matter is blotted out and ripped in two as the curtain in the Temple was on that day?
What if what holds Christ on the Cross isn’t my sin… but the power of God’s love?
Then perhaps it is time to sing a new song… for who knows what tomorrow brings… but Sunday is indeed coming, my friends… and I don’t think it will be like anything we have ever sung before…