I grew up in a small town in New England, a suburban area just outside of New York City. Most of my peers attended the large Catholic parish in town, and to me, it seemed our family of non-denominational evangelical Protestant Christians was in the minority. Every spring, I would overhear my friends talking about what they were going to give up for Lent, saw the smudge of ashes on their foreheads, and wondered what all of the fuss was about. To me, the idea of Lent was as foreign as a service conducted in Latin, or the idea of “ritual” taking the place of “relationship.”
In my home church, the cross hanging over the altar was empty, a reminder of Christ’s resurrection, the victory over sin forever and His securing of eternal life through His sacrificial death. To my mind a crucifix with Christ still hanging on it placed emphasis on the wrong side of the deal. His work was finished, and we were called to hang our faith on His victory, not His struggle. Easter was more about Resurrection Sunday than Good Friday. What, really, was so “good” about it, anyway?
It was not until my early thirties that I started paying attention to Lent. The film “The Passion of Christ” had been released, and my husband and I watched it with another couple, who happened to be Catholic. I was not prepared for the deep emotional impact the film had on me, responses which disturbingly did not peak at the resurrection, but at the grueling scenes of Christ’s slow journey to the cross. I found myself turning the phrase “by His wounds, we are healed,” over and over in my mind as we watched, and I experienced an unparalleled, overwhelming sense of gratitude. I could not remember a time when I felt quite that humbled and grateful for the gift of life I had been offered in Christ.
Since then, I have taken baby steps into the practice of Lent. That experience of gratitude–along with the understanding that as followers of Christ, we share not only in His glory, but also in His suffering–has lead me to the conviction that I also need to let my heart and spirit intentionally meditate on this suffering. For without the suffering, there would be no victory. Without the cross, there is no resurrection. Without pain, there is often no growth or new life.
The cross is indeed a kind of crossroads, the joining of seeming opposites. At the cross, love was made complete in the utter and seeming rejection of the Son, the one-time, devastating break in the communion within the Trinity. The author of Hebrews presents the cross as yet another intersection, one of suffering and joy: “Because of the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:12). The second pair of intersecting opposites is shame and glory.
The victory of the gospel is not merely represented by the empty tomb, clean linen garments and the sun rising on a new day, but also in the temple’s torn veil, the earth’s quaking, and the day turning to night. And in the darkness, God the Father knew “what lies in darkness,” (Daniel 2:22), He himself being in eternal light.
As Henri Nouwen aptly explains, the finished work of Christ was not accomplished solely in His active work, but also in the more “passive” work, the agony of waiting. This is the true “passion” of Christ: His receiving and embracing of all that was done to Him–for the joy set before Him.
Just before the start of the Lenten season this year, I received results from a blood test that I am teetering on the edge of gestational diabetes. I have had to give up, for the sake of my health and my unborn baby, virtually all sweets, simple carbohydrates and those things for which I would instinctively reach to give me a boost of energy during the slow days. This says very little of my spiritual vigor, and I have come to see this new discipline as a grace. These dietary changes have reduced my dependence on these foods, as well as leveled the peaks and dips in energy levels.
This year, as my family is preparing for yet another international move, along with some other major life changes, I am embracing Lent as a time of preparation. If our vocation is expressed both in active work and in the passion of waiting, I am choosing to embrace both. In the emotional preparation towards the birth of a child and in the acceptance of changes that our family did not choose but were rather chosen for us, I know that I have a “high priest” who can empathize with my weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Since I am called to “consider it pure joy . . . to face trials of various kinds” (James 1:2), I am also called to enter into the paradoxes of my own life. In my flesh, the circumstances of our next move seem a bitter pill I am being asked to take. Yet I am called as a follower of Jesus, to consider it pure joy.
I meditate on the cross and on Christ’s suffering because without them, I could not truthfully reconcile the messy realities of life, the seeming contradictions that crash into the thin surfaces of our lives. These are the situations that often lead well-meaning seekers to hastily determine that God is not just or that He is not really loving after all. Yet the cross is where my questions are laid to rest and the seeming contradictions are harmonized. God’s goal for me is maturity and completeness, and He knows the route by which He can birth these in me. Our example in Christ of love made complete is in His utter sacrifice on the cross.
You cannot extricate the cross from the victory, the pain of suffering from the joy and the glory that awaits, the sacrificial death from eternal life. This, indeed, is the true harmony of the gospel. By His wounds, we are healed.
Adrienne Shore currently lives in Amman, Jordan, with her husband and soon-to-be five children. She is actively involved in both the homeschooling and international community there. In addition to globetrotting, her interests include writing, painting, and music.