Of Strangled Cries and Table Manners

On this Good Friday, I recall some comments made by Aidan Kavanaugh (as cited here by Fr. Jim) about our tendency to tidy up the things of God. He’s talking about Catholic sacramental theology, but I think there are lessons here for Protestants, even of the evangelical variety.

[To know Christ sacramentally only in terms of bread and wine is to know him only partially, in the dining room as host and guest.] … Two main forces among others have traditionally balanced this tendency and checked its spread. The first has been the attempt at keeping the notion of ‘eucharist-as-meal’ in tension with a notion of ‘eucharist-as-sacrifice.’ The tension calls one to remember that however elegant the knowledge of the dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, in the slaughterhouse; amid the quiet violence of the garden, strangled cries, and fat spitting in the pan. Table manners depend on something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge that ignores these dark and murderous gestes is losing its grip on the human condition.

The second force that has traditionally balanced and checked the spread of an attenuated eucharistic knowledge of Christ has been baptismal. Baptism’s knowledge of Christ is not that of the dining room but of the bath house. It is not a mannered knowledge, for manners, etiquette, and artifice fall away with one’s clothes. It is a knowledge of appalling candor, hearty and intimate, less intellectual than physical — as when lovers are said to ‘know’ one another. It is more the inspired wisdom of Solomon’s Song than of Paul’s letter to the Romans. God speaks not only in logic but in the aroma and feel of oil and warm water on the skin, and these too possess their own sort of rigorous logic….

Conventional Christianity likes the Jesus of Easter, surrounded by flowers; a Lord’s Supper with nicely divided pieces of bread; a baptism using the minimal amount of water of the right temperature.

Good Friday shocks the senses. It is a day of darkness, of thunder and lightning and earthquakes, of human violence and despair. It is coldness and numbness and ripping pain. It is a day of blood and sacrifice, against which we recoil.

But Scripture reminds us that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22), and that this blood was necessary even for the purification of heavenly things. This blood, poured out through violence on Calvary, is taken by our High Priest within the veil of heaven itself. This sacrifice has made our salvation possible. This sacrifice has opened the way from earth to heaven. This sacrifice has made it possible for him to appear before the Father on our behalf.

We don’t get it, Kavanaugh says. This is what must be assumed when we take bread over which Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you.”

We want the meal, but without the mess.

And so we come up with other ideas of God. We surround the cross with roses, to minimize its offense. We preach what Bonhoeffer called, “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God.

This is the grace offered by New Age philosophers like Deepak Chopra, who offers Jesus as guru,

the spiritual guide whose teaching embraces all humanity, not just the church built in his name. He speaks to the individual who wants to find God as a personal experience, to attain what some might call grace, or God-consciousness, or enlightenment.

“But we peach Christ crucified.” This bloody spectacle is at the heart of our faith. Take away the cross and you are left with Jesus as guru, as hapless lover, as moral influence. Grapple with the cross and its severity, and you see the mystery of God revealed.

Reflect on the words of this old Lutheran hymn (tune):

O darkest woe!
Ye tears, forth flow!
Has earth so sad a wonder?
God the Father’s only Son
Now is buried yonder.

O sorrow dread!
Our God is dead,
Upon the cross extended.
There His love enlivened us
As His life was ended.

O child of woe:
Who struck the blow
That killed our gracious Master?
‘It was I,’ thy conscience cried,
‘I have wrought disaster.’

Thy Bridegroom dead!
God’s Lamb has bled
Upon Thy sin forever,
Pouring out His sinless self
In this vast endeavor.

Such innocence!
His countenance
A fount of faith undying!
Worlds on worlds can not contain
Grief at Him here lying.

O Virgin’s Son,
What Thou hast won
Is far beyond all telling:
How our God, detested, died,
Hell and devil felling.

O Jesus Christ,
Who sacrificed
Thy life for lifeless mortals:
Be my life in death and bring
Me to heaven’s portals!