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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
How should we contemplate the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ on His cross? What a question. Every year we make this Lenten journey to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every year we stand there at its foot with Mary and the other women, with John, and with the Centurion and his soldiers.
Upon the cross extended
See, world, your Lord suspended,
Your Savior yields His breath.
The Prince of Life from heaven
Himself hath freely given
To shame and blows and bitter death.
Come, see these things and ponder,
Your soul will fill with wonder
As blood streams from each pore.
As strange as it might sound to us, with a crucifix on the altar and another as a processional cross, there are Christians who say the crucifix has no place in our sanctuaries. After all, not only is Jesus no longer on the cross; He’s not even dead anymore. And in any case, they say, it is not appropriate to view an image of our Lord hanging on an ancient torture device. The cross is an offense, a scandal in the eyes of the worldly, and certainly we don’t want to offend the world—especially since it is our sin that brought Him to the cross, and certainly we don’t want anyone to be made to feel guilty. More than that, we don’t want to feel guilty ourselves.
Who is it, Lord, that bruised You?
Who has so sore abused You
And caused You all Your woe?
We all must make confession
Of sin and dire transgression
While You no ways of evil know.
I caused Your grief and sighing
By evils multiplying
As countless as the sands.
I caused the woes unnumbered
With which You soul is cumbered,
Your sorrows raised by wicked hands.
Sinners that we are, we cannot hide in a crowd, as if we can minimize our own guilt because everyone played their part. We are all, each of us, individually responsible for our sin; we cannot hide or minimize our role in the death of our Lord.
What do you see when you look at the cross? What do you see when you consider the death of Jesus? What do these things represent to you? When Paul Gerhardt wrote this hymn, it was near the end of thirty years of war. The people knew pain and suffering and ugliness of death. They knew the hardships of the plague. Why would their pastor write such a hymn? Hadn’t they seen enough death? As for us, we’ve had a year and more of COVID, and that hasn’t put a stop to cancer or dementia or the flu or car accidents or any of the other suffering we’ve had to deal with throughout our lives. Why would your pastor want you to think about death and the cross in the midst of all this?
But the death of Jesus is different from the death we see in our own lives. Whether it’s in Gerhardt’s day or our own, the people of God are sorely tried—not only by the searing weight of conscience, but also by the grief of warfare and disaster, plague and persecution. As we consider these things, the cross becomes a sign, proof of a God who loves us unconditionally; proof of a God who does not stay in heaven, observing from a distance, who chooses instead to join in the suffering of His people, defeat it, and bring them out of it.
Your cords of love, my Savior,
Bind me to You forever,
I am no longer mine.
To You I gladly tender
All that my life can render
And all I have to You resign.
As we look at our Lord’s cross and death, it will change not only how we look at our own death, but how we look at every day of our life, as well. Knowing that Christ has taken away the most fearful part of death—the prospect of eternal death—we can face death with confidence. And we can share that confidence with as many people as possible. Some people spend their entire lives worrying about how death might come. They fret over what might happen after that. But we know what is coming. We know that Jesus has changed what death means. We know that death is now the gate to eternal life. What an amazing gift this is: a gift of life from death. In thanksgiving we worship our Savior and say:
Your cross I place before me;
Its saving pow'r restore me,
Sustain me in the test.
It will, when life is ending,
Be guiding and attending
My way to Your eternal rest.
In the name of the Father and of the (†) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.