The Christmas holiday gives us opportunity to approach theology one of two ways. Ignore it and accept that the season is commercially and culturally driven, or keep theology at the core and indulge in the rest of the holiday (i.e. materialism) with moderation.
Around town, it’s not uncommon to see electronic marquis scrolling messages like, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” or “Christ was born this day!” It seems strange to find these sprawled on businesses where profit dominates the day-to-day, but it is comforting to know that even in capitalistic America, religion hasn’t waned.
As far as I’m concerned, the Christmas holiday calls for a re-examination of faith. As far as Christianity is concerned, we tend to prize two times of year as the most central to our belief—Christmas and Easter. Strangely, I have focused less on the birth of Jesus this year and more on the passion of Christ.
I was asked yesterday what exactly the Lutheran theology is surrounding the crucifixion. I can speak easily to Luther’s conclusions regarding indulgences and the medieval church, but when it comes to the crucifixion, I flounder. It should be simple: Christ came down and died for our sins. The end. But it isn’t.
Since I have made the leap from a Catholic upbringing to a Lutheran adulthood, I have found that my view of the crucifixion has become more complex. What was once an easily accepted theological truth (Christ died for our sins) has become a new articulation of a more intentional personal theology. What of the crucifixion was really necessary to establish forgiveness of sins? Weren’t they already forgiven? In which case, what was the crucifixion all about? Such an evidently dramatic and impactful event can’t be said to show something only slightly important to our faith. What was it about then?
It has been suggested that the crucifixion was less about establishing forgiveness of sin, and more about realigning human beings with their humanity. In other words, it was a re-establishment of the divine and human imperative: humans were made to attend to the creation around them in faith, and God, by definition, tends to human beings. Ascending to God, pleasing God, and appropriating God are not in our job description; Jesus’ life and crucifixion (often foolishly separated) show us two things distinctly: how to be the kind of human being God expects and how to divorce ourselves from pleasing God. In short: Jesus came to show us how to be what we were made to be. What we had become was contrived and false.
The question is: Did we need something as horrible (and wonderful) as death and resurrection of the Son of God to show us that? The answer is: It doesn’t matter. The simple fact is, God chose to bring Jesus into the world in human form, and Jesus walked the path of both divinity and humanity in life and death. Our is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.
Let me be clear, though. This does not mean God asks us to be automatons, devoid of thought and discernment. Quite to the contrary. As Christology sometimes suggests Jesus himself had to discover his own divinity and how it was to play out in his life, so we, too, must discover how God manifests in and through us. This is not to say that we “create” divinity in us, or “earn” it in any way; it is a discovery of what always is, was, and is to come. Jesus was not joking when he said he would always be with us; it is our foolish demand for physicality that narrows our sight and cuts us off from fullness in God.
I think I have long accepted the crucifixion as something to attain to because of how I perceived the Catholic injunction. Seek out God, I was told, and do what He asks of you. But this command, though indeed true, was framed in a picture of earned salvation. Doing away with that presents a freedom—to be as we are inclined to be naturally in our spiritual selves. It is only when we endeavor to decide for God what we should be that we become mucked up in contrived piety and our own version of devout acts in faith.
The clinging to the cross as symbolic of the forgiveness of sins is handed down from religion—very different from faith. I remember a Christmas several years ago that brought home the division between the two:
Before service had started on Christmas morning, a little girl and her family walked in the doors of the church dressed to the nines for the early morning service. The pastor of the congregation saw them coming and greeted them with a smile and open arms. They were well-known in the church, a family very active and devout.
With a wavering voice, the little girl asked to talk to the pastor alone. The two went off to the side of the church and he knelt down to listen to her.
“Father,” she began weakly, “you probably noticed we weren’t at church last Sunday.”
“I did,” he replied gently, “but I figured you were out of town on vacation, or else were busy doing something else.” He was not the least bit upset, and the girl took some comfort in this.
But not complete comfort. “Father,” she continued, almost apologetically, “we weren’t here because it was my birthday on Sunday and we stayed home to celebrate. Does that mean I’m going to hell?”
The pastor smiled and put his arm around her. “Did you enjoy your birthday with your family?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said after a hesitant pause.
“Well,” he continued with a warm sigh, “then I would say you shouldn’t worry about going to hell.”
The little girl sighed in turn, showing deep relief. Then, she swallowed and looked back at the pastor.
“So just purgatory then?”
This story is, of course, lined with humor, but it paints the picture of a conflation of religion and faith. It is incredibly dangerous to think that the two are one, and that rituals and catechetical teachings are the sum and substance of what one believes. The cross—that cornerstone of the Christian faith—can easily become assumed into one’s faith as everything a Christian believes. The crucifixion brought about forgiveness of sins, and that is what every Christian must believe.
But as I grow older and question the church’s teachings, I look with more insight into Christian theology—both Lutheran and Catholic. What have I adopted that is simply religion’s enduring symbology eking its way into my spiritual consciousness? And what of my faith have I discerned honestly through heart, mind, and soul? What is my understanding of the crucifixion, and how does it challenge what I have been taught? Is it possible the church is wrong on some fronts—even those as fundamental as Christ’s death and resurrection?
I’m certainly not throwing Lutheran and Catholic theology out the window, but I am empowered to question in earnest, and unapologetically. I trust that I do not have all the answers, but am free to question. And, by its very nature, faith will attend to those questions that will never have satisfying answers. It will ultimately give the truth over to God and divest me of control.
My deeply physical, modern, American self hates that prospect. The sadly physical, superficial, empty self loves it more than life itself. And of that, I am convinced God is already aware, loving me nonetheless.