March 5, 2014

He Made Him to be Sin Who Knew No Sin (Ash Wednesday)

Passage: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Service Type:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This painting titled The Shadow of Death was painted by the artist Holman Hunt.

You may be familiar with one of his more popular paintings The Light Of the World that now stands both in Keble College Chapel, Oxford and St Paul’s Cathedral, London (the one at St. Paul’s is a second version made later in Hunt’s life).  You may have seen this pictured at Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church in Toronto where a stain glass of this work was commissioned for the chancel in the sanctuary.

As an artist Holman was determined, as he put it, to “do battle with the frivolous art of the day,” its superficial treatment of trite themes.  So he spent 1870 -1873 in the Holy Land, and painted The Shadow of Death in Jerusalem, as he sat on the roof of his house.  It depicts the inside of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.  Jesus stands by a wooden trestle on which he has put down his saw.  He lifts his eyes toward heaven, and the look on his face is one of either pain or ecstasy or both.  As he stands with his hands stretched above his head the evening sunlight streaming through the open door casts a dark shadow of a cross on the wall behind him. The tool-rack looks like a horizontal bar on which his hands have been crucified.  The tools themselves remind us of the fateful hammer and nails.

In the foreground a woman kneels among the wood chippings, her hands resting on the chest in which the rich gifts of the Magi are kept. We cannot see her face, but we know that she is Mary. She looks startled (or so it seems) at her son’s cross-like shadow on the wall. Though this scene is the product of Holman’s historical imagination it remains theologically true. From Jesus’ youth, indeed even from his birth, the cross cast its shadow ahead of him. His death is central to his mission. (Stott, The Cross, p 23)

Indeed, the cross is central in the writings of the Apostle’s. In the gospels, everything leads up to the cross and what follows is because of it—fully one third of everything we are told of Jesus’ life concentrates on the last week culminating at the events of the cross. In this text we read from his second letter to the Corinthians; for the Apostle Paul it is at the cross of Christ that, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The church has always recognized this.

In his book The Cross of Christ John Stott invites us to “imagine a stranger visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Having been brought up in a non-Christian culture, he knows next to nothing about Christianity. Yet he is more than a tourist; he is personally interested.

Walking along Fleet Street, he is impressed by the grandeur of the buildings proportions … As his eyes attempt to take it in, he cannot help noticing the huge golden cross that dominates the dome.

He enters the cathedral and stands at its central point, under the dome. Trying to grasp the size and shape of the building, he becomes aware that its ground plan, consisting of nave and transepts, is cruciform. He walks around and observes that each side of the chapel contains what looks like a table, on which, prominently displayed, stands a cross. He goes downstairs into the crypt to see the tombs of famous men …; a cross is engraved or embossed on each tomb.

Returning upstairs, he decides to remain for the service which is about to begin. The man beside him is wearing a little cross on his lapel, while the lady on his other side has one on her necklace. His eye now rests on the colourful, stained-glass east window. Though he cannot make out the details from where he is sitting, he cannot fail to notice that it contains a cross.

Suddenly, the congregation stands up. The choir and clergy enter, preceded by somebody carrying a processional cross. They are singing a hymn. The visitor looks down at the service paper to read its opening words: “We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross.” … From what follows he comes to realize the he is witnessing a Holy Communion service, and that this focuses on the death of Jesus. For when the people around him go forward to the Communion rail to receive bread and wine, the minister speaks to them of the body and blood of Christ. …

The stranger leaves the cathedral impressed but puzzled. The repeated insistence by word and symbol of the centrality of the cross has been striking.” (Stott, The Cross of Christ, IVP Books, 1986, p 24-5)

1. As I read this account of Stott’s imaginary visitor it struck me that we Christians are so accustomed to the cross in word and symbol it perhaps doesn’t stand out to us in the way it would for an uninitiated visitor. The Cross of Christ is the subject of our 2014 Lenten Bible Study; its centrality, achievement, and meaning for Christian living. The subject of Christ crucified takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.

It is typical of religion and ideology to have a visual symbol; such symbol illustrates a significant feature of its history or beliefs. The lotus flower, for example, has become particularity associated with Buddhism; sometimes the Buddha is portrayed as enthroned in a fully open lotus flower. The lotus flower`s wheel shape is thought to depict either the cycle of birth and death or the emergence of beauty and harmony out of the muddy waters of chaos.

Ancient Judaism avoided visual signs and symbols, for fear of infringing the second commandment, which prohibits the manufacture of images. Modern Judaism has adopted the so-called Shield or Star of David, a hexagon formed by two combining two equilateral triangles. It speaks of God`s covenant with David that his throne would be established forever and that the Messiah would descend from him. Islam is symbolized by a crescent, originally depicting a phase of the moon, it was already the symbol of sovereignty in Byzantium before the Muslim conquest.

Secular ideologies also have their universally recognizable signs. The Marxist hammer and sickle represent industry and agriculture; and they are crossed to signify union of workers and peasants, of factory and field. The swastika, on the other hand, has been traced back some six thousand years. The arms of its cross are bent clockwise to symbolize either the movement of the sun across the sky or the cycle of the four seasons. At the beginning of the last century it was adopted by some German groups as a symbol of the Aryan race. Hitler took it over, and it became the sinister sign of Nazi racial bigotry.

Christianity is no exception in having visual symbol. The cross was not its earliest, however. On the walls and ceilings of the catacombs—underground burial places outside Rome, where persecuted Christians hid—the earliest Christian motifs seem to have been either paintings of a peacock (symbol of immortality), a dove, the athlete`s victory palm, or a fish. Only the initiated would know, and nobody else could guess, that ichthys (“fish”) was an acronym for Iesus Christos Theou Huios Soter (Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour). But it did not remain the Christian sign, doubtless because the association between Jesus and a fish was purely symbolic and you had to know the Greek language to know its significance.

Somewhat later, probably during the second century, the persecuted Christians seem to have preferred to paint biblical themes like Noah’s Ark, Abraham killing the ram instead of Isaac, Daniel in the lions’ den, Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace, a shepherd carrying a lamb, the healing of the paralytic, and the raising of Lazarus. All these symbolic of Christ’s redemption—again only the initiated would know their meaning. In addition, the Chi-Rho monogram (the first two letters of the Greek word Christos) was a popular cryptogram, often in the form of a cross, and sometimes with a lamb standing before it, or with a dove.

It seems certain that, at least from the second century onward, Christians not only drew, painted and engraved the cross as a pictorial symbol of their faith but also made the sign of the cross on themselves or others. (The crucifix—a cross to which a figure of Christ is attached—does not appear to have been used before the sixth century). One of the first witnesses to this practice was Tertullian, The North African lawyer-theologian who flourished around A.D. 200. He wrote: “At every step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at the table, when we light the lamps, on couch , on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign (the cross).”

Hippolytus, the scholar-presbyter of Rome, wrote a famous treatise The Apostolic Tradition around 215 A.D. In it he claims to be recording only the forms and models of rites already traditional and customs already long-established; he wrote his treatise in deliberate protest against innovations. When he describes church observances we may be sure that they were already being practised a generation or more previously. He mentions that the sign of the cross was used by the bishop when anointing the candidate’s forehead at confirmation, and he recommends it in private prayer; “imitate him (Christ) always, by signing thy forehead sincerely; for this is the sign of his passion.”

In the middle of the third century, when another North African, Cyprian, was bishop of Carthage, a terrible persecution was unleashed by the Emperor Decius (A.D. 250-251) during which thousands of Christians died rather than offer sacrifice to the Emperor’s name. Anxious to strengthen the morale of his people, and to encourage them to accept martyrdom rather than compromise their Christian faith, Cyprian reminded then of the ceremony of the cross: “Let us take also for protection of our head the helmet of salvation … that our brow may be fortified, so as to keep safe the sign of God.” As for the faithful who endured prison and risked death, Cyprian praised them in these terms: “Your brows, hallowed by God’s seal … reserved themselves for the crown which the Lord would give.”

It was Constantine, the first Roman emperor to profess to be a Christian, adopted it as his emblem and had it emblazoned on the standards of his army. On the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which brought him supremacy in the West, he saw a cross of light in the sky, along with words “conquer by this sign”. Whatever we think of Constantine and other questionable uses of the symbol of the cross, such uses do not delegitimize its use by the church.

The cross has become Christianity’s central symbol. We mark candidates for baptism with this sign and at death sand is poured out in the sign of a cross with many crosses erected to mark graves. From Christian birth to Christian death, as we might put it, the church seeks to identify with a cross.

2. The Christians’ choice of a cross as the symbol of their faith is more surprising when we remember the horror with which crucifixion was regarded in the ancient world. We can understand why Paul’s “message of the cross” was to many of his listeners “foolishness”, even madness. (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23) Crucifixion was probably the cruelest method of execution ever practised; it deliberately death delayed until maximum torture had been inflicted; reserved for the worst of criminal. How could any sane person worship as a god a dead man who have been justly condemned as a criminal and subjected to the most humiliating form of execution? This combination of death, crime and shame put him beyond the pale of respect, let alone worship.

The early enemies of Christianity lost no opportunity to ridicule the claim that God’s anointed and humanity’s Saviour ended his life on a cross. The idea was crazy. This is well illustrated by a graffito from the second century, discovered in Rome, on the wall of a house considered by some scholars to have been used as a school for imperial pages. A crude drawing depicts, stretched on a cross, a man with the head of a donkey. To the left stands another man, with one arm raised in worship. Unevenly scribbled underneath are the words “Alexamenos worships God.” The cartoon is now in the Kircherian Museum in Rome. The same note of scorn is detected in the work of a second-century satirist Lucian of Samosata; he lampoons Christians as “worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.” (Stott, The Cross, pp 25-31) In modern time one thinks of the work of artist and photographer Andres Serrano and his 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of his urine. Serrano said he was not denouncing religion but the commercialization of Christian icons. Notwithstanding, I think its offensiveness was intentional.

Not all opposition to the cross is ridicule. I recall being in a class taught by a Jewish rabbi with whom I had many delightful conversations. He expressed to me his personal revulsion that a symbol of such cruelty would be treasured by Christians. Indeed many Christians today find the whole thing distasteful and would rather emphasize resurrection and let crucifixion fade into the background as nastiness that is somehow behind us.

The subject of the Lenten study is the cross of Christ so that we might explore why it became so central a symbol of Christian faith. You will note that as we share in the sacrament on this Ash Wednesday—turning now towards our journey to Good Friday—it is toward the cross we journey. When you come to receive the ashes you are signed with them in the form of a cross, when you walk by the baptism font—the sacrament of initiation—and then receive the communion elements—the sacrament of being sustained in faith—all this is done with the cross looming over us. It is because of the cross that these sacraments have their significance.

Indeed it stands at the heart of the message of Jesus as our Saviour: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.