Jane Alden Stevens is a professor of fine arts at the University of Cincinnati. During a trip to France several years ago, she noticed a stone obelisk in a small French village that had inscribed on it the names of those who had died during World War I. She later decided to conduct a study of how people in various European countries remembered that war. The result was a book of black and white photos that she entitled Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered.
At Brookwood Military Cemetery in England, Stevens photographed a grave with this epitaph: “Sadly disfigured. ’Twas for the best—Dad.”
“The way I read that,” said Stevens, “the soldier had come home from the war maimed and had not had a happy life. How sad is that, that a father would feel it was best that his son passed away [rather] than live the life of a maimed person?”
At the cross Jesus experienced a degree of suffering that we cannot begin to fathom. The physical abuse and pain was only part of it. The agony of suffering for the sins of humanity is simply beyond our ability to comprehend. The definition of faith according to the writer of Hebrews is worth noting here; it is being “certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1*). Jesus’ physical suffering can be “seen” through the various portrayals of it, such as Mel Gibson’s 2003 production of The Passion of the Christ. But the spiritual suffering—Jesus “who had no sin” becoming “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21—cannot be reproduced in a visual manner.
So let us acknowledge whenever we approach a time of Communion that we must “fix our eyes . . . on what is unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18). The suffering of Jesus was part of a spiritual “world war.” At the cross, the heavenly Father gave his Son to be “maimed”—physically and spiritually. “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness,” wrote Isaiah (Isaiah 52:14). And just a few verses later the prophet added, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isaiah 53:10). Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost was the same: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you [the Jewish people] by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).
Consider the message of the cross as not “sadly disfigured,” but “gladly disfigured. ’Twas for the best—your best—Dad.”
*All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©1984, unless otherwise indicated.
Doug Redford is professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.