THE SHADOW OF DEATH
Isaiah 53:1-9 Hymns: *116
Mark 15:21-39 80
Responsive Reading #7, pp. 136f. *115
The Book of Revelation Unveiled 639
For some three hundred years after the resurrection, the symbol of the cross is conspicuously absent from Christian iconography. On the walls of the catacombs, we find images of palm branches, doves, birds of paradise, and fish, but not crosses. Paradoxically, it would seem, only with the conversion of the emperor Constantine did the cross begin to take center stage--paradoxically, because it was only with the conversion of Constantine that Christianity began to be the religion of the Roman empire and that systematic persecution of Christians ceased.
Our own churches, then, are in a sense returning to the practice of the apostolic era in focusing not on the crucified Christ but on the risen and glorified Christ. When the eleven apostles set about to choose a replacement for Judas, they insisted that this individual had to be "one of those who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). There is no word here about the crucifixion. It was Paul who started to shift the emphasis.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:5-8)
This is not saying that "Christ died for our sins" in the sense of becoming a substitute sacrifice to a wrathful Father. It is actually not all that different from the image we are given in #639 of The Book of Revelation Unveiled:
The reason "the dead" means people who have afflicted their souls, crucified their flesh, and suffered temptations is that in this way they have put their former life to death and have become dead in regard to this world, so to speak.
In Gospel language, the message is equally clear: "If a grain of wheat does not fall into the ground and die, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it brings forth fruit in abundance" (John 12:24).
If we ignore this principle, we fall into what may be the primary Swedenborgian heresy, believing that because victories in temptation combats are essential to the process of regeneration, that process proceeds from victory to victory to victory. But our theology makes a clear distinction between different levels of temptation, and the ones with which we are probably most familiar, the ones that involve "pangs of conscience," are classified as "natural temptations" (Secrets of Heaven 847:2). We are tempted on the spiritual level when our love of the neighbor seems to die, and on the heavenly level when our love for the Lord seems to die. These are times when all the joy goes out of life--times when all the life goes out of life.
I have not yet met anyone in any of our churches whose life seems to have gone from victory to victory to victory. Far from it, I hear time after time of people who are troubled by their failures, troubled by a feeling that their lives do not have the meaning that they should, troubled by a pervasive sense of inadequacy.
These are states that need the message of Maundy Thursday. In its simplest form, that message is that this is what life would be like all the time if it were not for the Lord's loving presence. We hear the assurance that we will not be tempted beyond our ability to resist and interpret this to mean that we are supposed to be strong enough to conquer anything that comes at us. Holy Week prompts us to think again, telling us that the most significant victories come when we recognize that we have come to the absolute limit of our strength.
We cannot escape the fact that in the story of Holy Week, the crucifixion comes before the resurrection. Maundy Thursday reminds us, though, that the Last Supper comes before the crucifixion. If we are to discover the limit of our own strength, that is, we need the assurance of the Lord's constant will to nourish and strengthen us. The Holy Supper "tells it like it is," tells us that whatever we feel of love and whatever we see of truth is not our own creation, not the product of our own hearts and minds. It is being given to us so that we can assimilate it, so that it can become part of us.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst," it says in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). Perhaps one of our problems is that we come to the Lord's table physically well-fed. We might do better to come at the end of a hard day, hot and tired, hungry and thirsty, and instead of taking tiny tokens to eat and drink, truly satisfy our hunger and slake our thirst.
As it is, though, we may be able to do this in our minds. That is, we may be able to come to the sacrament bearing in mind our own experiences of having reached the limits of our strength, our own closest encounters with the depth of our need. There have been times when the love has gone out of our lives, and we have not been able to call it back. There have been times of deep discouragement.
At such times, there are two things that we can do. The first is simply to endure, and our presence here tonight says that we have done this. The second is to learn with our hearts the message that our theology has told our minds, the message that everything good and true comes not from us but from the Lord, and that life without the presence of our Lord and Savior, presence both within and around us, life is not worth living.