By Neal Windham
Garrison Keiller tells the story of how Clarence Bunson (at least, I think it was Clarence), a mainstay in Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon, lay cruciform, frozen to the roof of his Minnesota home in the thick of winter.
Neighbors asked whether anything was wrong, and with characteristic Norwegian restraint he responded again and again, “No, I’m fine.” We know his character well, don’t we? We’re all just fine, thank you.
But the cross tells quite another story. Its cruciform victim had taken the cold, hard blows of iron on iron, piercing flesh, severing tendons, cutting into veins and nerves, into spirit and soul, into life itself. Impaled on a tree of his own making, Jesus struggled both for breath and voice. For breath, because the urge to live is a strong one, summoning every last physical reserve available. And for voice, because he had important things to say, among them, “Today you will be with me in paradise” and “Father, forgive them; they don’t have a clue.”
At the heart of Jesus’ work lay a settled commitment to endure the horrors of the cross until all was accomplished. The one who had healed so many with words of mercy and miracles of love would himself now provide ultimate healing for humanity, not by acts of brute force, but by a determined will born of courage and resolve to take what was given him, painful and unfair as it was.
Jesus could well have demonstrated to Pilate that he was no real threat to society, that he was not bent on destruction or murder or an imperial coup. In fact, church history tells us the grandchildren of Jude, Jesus’ own brother, when summoned by Emperor Domitian because they were descended from David, did just this. They testified to the simplicity of their lives, to their hard work, and to the loving nature of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. On the basis of their defense, the emperor ended a season of persecution.1
But Jesus himself had to die. “On all counts,” says Tom Wright, “he had to die.” And this is why we remember him today, not because we have ambitious plans for our churches or because we have established untold programs, not because we have baptized hundreds or built buildings costing millions, not because we have done anything, but because he, arms stretched out and hands held tight, has accomplished everything God ever deemed necessary for our deliverance.
1Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.19, 20.
Neal Windham is professor of spiritual formation with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.