From The Healing Cross: Interpretation of Life by Herbert H. Farmer (London: Nisbet and Co. LTD, 1938).
"Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God"
THE PASSION NOT PASSIVE
"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it."—Colossians 2:14-15
THIS is an aspect of the Cross which is often overlooked, namely, that whatever else it was, it was victory, a manifestation of power. In the Cross Christ is, according to the Apostle, blotting things out, nailing things down into impotence and ineffectiveness, spoiling, making a show of and triumphing over, principalities and powers.
That this aspect of the Cross can easily be overlooked will be evident if we observe our own minds. When we contemplate the crucifixion of the Master our tendency is to think of Him primarily as passive, as bowing His head in meek submission to this storm which the wickedness of man and the inscrutable permissions of God had let loose upon Him. Yet clearly the Apostle's words do not fit such a picture at all. They imply that He was active, resistant, on the offensive, not receiving blows but giving them, not having the floods go over Him but breasting them like a strong swimmer. We think of Him as being nailed to the Cross by cunning injustice and brutal force. No, says the Apostle in effect, that is not so, or rather it is only the outward appearance of things; get down to the underlying reality and behold it is Jesus who is doing the nailing all the time.
This New Testament apprehension of the note of vigorous activity and victory in the passion of Christ was apparently only gradually lost from the thought of the Church. Early pictorial representations of the Cross, we are told, all endeavoured to convey the impression of kingly triumph. The figure was usually crowned and anything which might suggest a drooping and pathetic passivity was absent. The Lord of life reigned even in the midst of death. Doctrines of the atonement usually circled around the idea of a splendid victory won over the evil one. It was in medieval times that the crucifix as we know it, giving unconsciously a wrong trend to our thoughts, became common —the crucifix which shows a limp, pain-drenched, pathetic figure.
Nor can there be any question which of the two representations is the more true to the facts. If we look at the Gospel story of the Passion as a whole and do not isolate the Cross from its context, one of the most impressive and revealing things in it is the air of strong deliberation and mastery which characterizes Jesus throughout those last days. He is so manifestly not in the least a straw on the stream of events; He is controlling the stream of events. His enemies are not manipulating Him so much as He is manipulating them, not in any wrong way, but in the way in which God does lay hold of the wrath and sin of man and make them subserve His infinite purpose of love. To the end He could have escaped the Cross by the simple expedient of going somewhere else; but He did not do so. He deliberately directs His steps to it. There is an atmosphere of mastery all about Him as He steadfastly sets His face towards Jerusalem. Standing before the council, or before Pilate, there is no suggestion of fumbling or hesitancy. Nor on the other hand is there any suggestion of a merely excited and fanatical confidence. It is the other people who are excited, not He. And it is always the excited people who are the weak people. He says almost regally, "No man taketh my life from me; I lay it down of myself." He says—very plainly, quietly, with the direct steadiness of clear-sighted conviction—"Hereafter ye shall see the Son of man seated at the right hand of power." The hereafter refers to their seeing. He Himself sees now. He is conscious of being in a very real sense at the right hand of power now, He is with God now, the victory is His now.
The same masterful attitude of mind is revealed in His refusal to take the drug which was offered to Him. That surely gives us a glimpse of the innermost places of His mind. He has no intention of being carried through this thing on an anaesthetic. He will not swoon through it. He will not have His "eyes bandaged" and "creep past." So when they offer Him wine mingled with myrrh He receives it not. There is again something almost regal in the refusal. And we may be thankful that He did refuse. Had we to believe that His spirit was clouded by a drug, the Cross would lose something of its power to reveal the very heart of God, for there is no drug, no anodyne, for God in respect of the burden sin lays upon Him. And yet we may be thankful that the drug was offered even if it was refused. The refusal shows that we are not reading significances into the Cross, but that Christ was deliberately and consciously intending significances to be read. The Passion is not passive; there is in it an active purpose which has no intention of losing at any point its grip of the situation.
What then of the cry of dereliction?—"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Where is the note of victory in that? One hesitates to speak of this so solemn and tragic moment, yet the more one ponders it, the more one feels that that cry, so far from minimizing the impression of active power and victory, contributes to it. For it gives us a measure of the frightful force of the challenge which met Him and therefore also of the spiritual power in Him which overcame it. For surely those are right who see infinite significance in the fact that the cry was still to "My God." God was still the great overshadowing Reality, the great Reality moreover from whom He would permit no other reality, however momentarily overwhelming, to separate Him. This cry was surely not one of defeat, but was rather the deepest activity of faith thrusting through the final darkness to God.
Has this anything to say to us? Much in every way, for whatever is shown to us in the Cross must lie at the very centre of the life of faith. We choose two things.
First, it makes a very great difference indeed to the whole temper and tone of the spiritual life to have at the heart of it the awareness, continually renewed, of God as active Holy Will dealing with us. Far more than we realize our minds are controlled, indeed blinded, by another kind of thought concerning God, the thought of Him, that is, as a sort of reservoir of spiritual force, a repository of what we vaguely call values or ideals, a more or less quiescent overworld, which we have to seek out, and explore, and draw strength from, in the cultivation of ourselves as Christian people. The thought of Him as an active insistency of will, of love, of holy purpose seeking us before ever we seek Him, knocking at our door, searching our being, challenging the will with His will, is absent, with the result that the whole religious life, which theoretically is concerned with the most important things in the world, wears a most curious air of unconcern and tranquillity. Few would get the impression that it is in any sense whatever a critical thing, still less a fearful thing, to fall into the hands of the living God. Yet a moment's quiet experimental meditation is enough to show that it is one thing thus to direct the mind to God with a predominant sense of your own activity, you doing a bit of spiritual self-culture, and another thing to direct it to God with a predominant sense of His activity, as of one who is on the highway coming to meet you and to speak with you.
And the matter can be best tested and verified precisely in relation to the Cross. How great the difference between contemplating the Cross of our Lord, being a spectator of it, even though it be a very earnest spectator anxious to learn from it, and apprehending in it the activity of His mighty spirit of holiness and love towards mankind and therefore towards you. Apprehending that, you cease to be a spectator and become involved in a tremendous and most critical personal relationship. From being a merely solemnizing and subduing spectacle it becomes a crisis, an inescapable challenge from the Christ to you. In the one case you see only the limp pain-drenched victim of the traditional crucifix; you may even begin to sentimentalize about it, to speak of the pity and pathos of it, as some of our hymns and cantatas do. In the other case you see, as the New Testament sees, not a victim but One who in the midst of crucifixion is King, the Wisdom and the Power of God. In like manner there is great difference between coming to that central rite of the Church which celebrates the death of the Lord with the thought that thus we symbolically express certain noble and final truths concerning God and the real values of life, and coming to it with the thought that in some real sense we are to be present, as in the body itself, at that first supper-table and to hear as though it were directly said to our own ears, as though also He were looking into our eyes as He did into the eyes of Peter and James and John, "Take eat, this is my Body which is broken for you."
The second thing is this. We are to think, not only of the activity of the Crucified towards us, but also of His activity through us towards all mankind. We are to think, that is to say, of His Church, the Fellowship of His people, for all its weakness and imperfection, as part of His masterful and victorious assault, culminating in Calvary, upon the evil of the world. This is certainly the New Testament thought of the Church, daring as it is. According to the New Testament, the Kingdom of God, by which is meant the victorious rule of God, broke into human history in an entirely new and decisive way in the advent of Christ; it established itself, we might even use the modern jargon and say it "dug itself in," through His life and supremely through His Cross; and it is still working undefeated and undefeatable in the midst of all the chaos of human life, towards some final and as yet unimaginable consummation. Part of this realized, though in another sense not yet fully realized, this already victorious yet still conquering, saving purpose of God in history through Christ is the existence of the Church.
No doubt this is a very high view of the Church. No doubt it strikes us at first as almost wildly discordant with the facts of the Church's life as we know it. Yet there is no denying that it is the New Testament view of the Church, and that any other view is incompatible with the faith that its Crucified Lord was and is the Power and Wisdom of God. Nor is there any denying that in these days any other view of the Church, any other faith than one which is thus able to rest quietly on the confidence that the victory is with the Crucified—because in Him God Himself began masterfully to take the whole situation in hand—is not adequate to the facts. In this modern world of vast and uncontrollable forces sweeping like a great tide through the seas of human history we must above all else recover the sense of the Church's cosmic significance and dimension, and, on the same cosmic scale, of the certain victory of the Christ who called it into being. We are compelled in these days to think in world terms, whether we like or not. It does not suffice any longer, if it ever sufficed, merely to think of Christ as winning the victory in my life, as having loved me, though it is always quite indispensable to be able so to think; it is indispensable, but not sufficient. We must think also of His overcoming of the world and of His love to the world. "God so loved the world."
To think thus of the Church which we know is to make upon it a judgement of faith. Yet faith is not merely a polite name for believing what we want to believe, for refusing to face plain facts. Faith is the power to see through the appearances to the deeper underlying realities, the realities which nothing can finally shake or defeat. Yet the power so to see is not one which we with our confused and evil natures, in this most confused and evil world, can command at will. The deeper vision is given us, and continually renewed in us, I know not how, by Christ and above all by those tremendous last days of His life. In the presence of Calvary we are confronted by an inescapable alternative: either this was defeat, defeat final and absolute, or it was victory. And the answer rises unbidden from the depths of the soul, given by that Spirit which it was promised should take of the things of Christ and show them unto us, this was, this is, this will be victory. This Man is Master.
I have on my wall a picture of what has always seemed to me to be the right sort of crucifix. The head has not fallen forward; it is regally upright and strong. The eyes are not closed, but look down with an almost terrible steadiness and penetration as though piercing through, and challenging, every sham. Physically the figure is passive—Christ crucified; but in the face and above all in the eyes there is concentrated the inner spirit of the Son of God. It is the spirit of active, searching, victorious purpose. He reigns even on the Cross.