Tribalism. Revenge. Egotism. Oppression. These are a few things that Jesus’s life and death stands against.
Jesus came with all the potential power that He wanted. He used it to heal the sick, raise the dead, touch the untouchable and heal the souls of the broken. In fact, it’s not even the miracles that are amazing … what’s amazing is who he performed the miracles for. The outcast. The hated. The enemy.
Yet, He was outcast, beaten, spit on, possibly raped (if was acceptable for soldiers to rape criminals) and eventually killed at the request of those he loved. He could of … maybe even should have … destroyed His enemies … He had the power to, but He didn’t.
Sin, revenge, egotism is cyclic … but so is love. With one act of grace (“Father, forgive them”), a new narrative has been born … again and again.
That narrative was reborn at the Mt. Carmel Burying Ground.
The deceased Boston Bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was accepted by Peter Stefan, owner of the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors. Stefan, who is seemingly putting his respect for the dead over and above his business’ prosperity, has been quoted as saying that everyone deserves a dignified burial, no matter the circumstances of their death.
As one may expect, Stefan’s funeral home has received numerous protests; and rightfully so. The body his funeral home is housing is the deceased remains of a terrorist. A terrorist whose actions injured 264 people and killed four; one of whom was a police officer, and the other a young child. Not only did he accomplish this bombing, but he planned much more violence and destruction that one can only speculate he would have accomplish had he the chance to do so.
He was our enemy. He killed an American child. A beautiful son of our country.
An enemy whose body has been rejected by all the local cemeteries. A body that has no place to rest. And for good reason. Could you imagine the grave desecration that would occur? Could you imagine the curse that will reside over the cemetery that accepts a terrorist?
From a capital standpoint, it wouldn’t make sense for the cemetery to accept his body and lose future customers. Who wants to be buried near a terrorist?
From a safety standpoint, it doesn’t make sense. Cemeteries are already subject to vandalism and desecration, what more could happen if a terrorists body was interred in a place accustom to abuses? Would the cemetery need to install security cameras? People would vandalize his grave in the name of America.
Out of respect for those already buried and the families that buried them, a cemetery has reason to reject one Tamerlan Tsarnaev. How can families feel good about the cemetery where their relatives reside when they are residing near a terrorist?
He was our enemy and must remain our outsider. “Ship him back to where he came from!!!”, said some. “Cremate his ass!” said others. Perhaps the request to bury him in an unmarked grave was the most levelheaded suggestion; but, so far, no cemeteries have offered an unmarked grave for the terrorist.
And then on Tuesday morning, this piece of news comes out. Paul Keane, the owner of a plot in the Mt. Carmel Burying Ground (and Yale Divinity graduate) wrote this on his blog:
I am willing to donate a burial plot next to my mother in Mt. Carmel Burying Ground to the Tsarnaev family if they cannot obtain a plot. The only condition is that I do it in memory of my mother who taught Sunday School at the Mt. Carmel Congregational Church for twenty years and taught me to “love thine enemy.”
I own the plot. No one can refuse me access.
So far, the response to Paul has varied between praise and protest. And so it was 2,000 years ago. Grace is always scandalous; but it’s also cyclic.
(NOTE: As of Wednesday morning, it’s still unclear whether or not the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors has accepted Paul Keane’s offer. There is, however, an updated offer on Keane’s blog. )
Sometimes our weak attempts of denial break apart. Our necessary lies that we tell ourselves to keep the evil at bay are hit by the truth. The comforting catch phrases we were told crumble under the weight of reality. And those lies, those attempts at denial, those catch phrases are usually religious in nature.
God is in control.
God means everything for good.
God is punishing us.
God has a plan.
God had a higher purpose.
And then Newtown happens. Crash. Bang. The God of our creation – created for our comfort, for our solace in troubled times – begins to break apart. This perfect God who exists upon a pedestal comes crashing down.
Our God of all-power, of all-knowledge, of omnipresence, of all-love is no longer sustainable. The iconoclasm of evil has struck again. And we pause for a moment and question, “Is there something wrong with my God?” We scramble for justifications, and we slowly piece God back together with glue and duct tape, only to have him rendered weaker, uglier and more susceptible than before. We become fearful of doubts, fearful that this one or the next will be the final break that renders our perfect God unfixable, and thus our ability to cope with the world impossible.
Before you rush off to grab your glue, let the perfect God lay. Maybe some of those pieces don’t belong.
Like omnipotence. If there’s ever a time to reconsider the power of God it’s right now, after Newtown and during the Advent.
This from Greg Boyd via Twitter: God becomes a baby, demonstrating that his way of conquering evil is not through force, but through the power of humble, innocent love.
The power of the advent story is the utter weakness of God.
The power of the advent story is that God isn’t who we thought he was.
The power of the advent story is that God is susceptible to mankind.
God as child.
God as weak.
God as suffering.
God experiencing death. Awful death.
Let the perfect God break to pieces today. Let it shatter. God in a manger has replaced God omnipotent.
Here’s some psychological, biblical and historical evidence to provide some support that Jesus died from the “broken heart syndrome” (technically a psychosomatic phenomena called ”stress-induced cardiomyopathy“).
Older couples that have been married for many years suffer intense grief when their spouse suddenly dies. Some times the husband and wife are so close that when the one dies, the other will end up dying soon after because of pain of being separated from their loved one.
People have studied the psychosomatic effects of rejection and separation. Dr. James Lynch wrote a book called, The Broken Heart, in which he states:
“stress, pain, anxiety, fear and rage sometimes appear in indexes of textbooks on the heart but never love. In surprising number of cases of premature coronary heart disease and premature death, interpersonal unhappiness, the lack of love and human loneliness, seem to appear as root causes of the physical problems.
We have learned that human beings have varied and at times profound effects on the cardiac systems of other human beings. Loneliness and grief often overwhelm bereaved individuals and the toll taken on the heart can be clearly seen. As the mortality statistics indicate this is not myth or romantic fairy tale. All available evidence suggests that people do indeed die of broken hearts”
Dr. Arthur Brown has been acknowledged by over sixty medical journals and publications for his findings. His findings also suggest a major relationship between heart disease and emotional stress.
Dr. David Jenkins states in the New England Journal of Medicine, “that a broad array of recent studies point with ever increasing certainty to the position that certain psychological, social and behavioral conditions do put persons at a higher risk of clinically manifest coronary disease”.
Dr. George Ingle from Rochester University Medical School, did a careful study for six years that explored the backgrounds of 170 sudden heart attack deaths. His studies showed that a great majority of sudden death cases had a close personal lose precede their death.
Grief is proportional to intimacy.
The more you love somebody, the more you are hurt when that person dies or rejects you. Can you be so close to somebody that their rejection can literally break your heart?
The Biblical Evidence
Jesus had a great amount of rejection and grief. Let’s look first at what the Bible says about Jesus’ rejection.
“He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hid their face, he was despised, and we did not esteem Him” Isaiah 53:3.
“Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone (the stone refers to Jesus) which the builders (teachers of Israel) rejected, this became the chief corner stone;” Matthew 21:42.
“But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.’ And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” Matthew 22:38-39.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” Matthew 23:37.
“But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” Luke 17:25.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and world did not know Him. He came to His own and those who were his own did not receive Him” John 1:10-11.
“And you are unwilling to come to me that you might have life” John 5:40.
“’They hated Me without cause’” John 15:25b.
These are a few passages that talk about Jesus’ rejection. There are others that state or imply His rejection by the world that He “so loved.” Several of the parables are about how the multitudes rejected Jesus. The parable of the landowner (Matt. 21:33-42), and the parable of the wedding feast (Matt.22:2-10) both depict the rejection of Jesus.
The scripture makes it clear that our Lord and Savior was rejected by the majority of those He loved.
Since love suffers when it cannot give
and intimacy is proportional to grief
we would assume that Jesus must have had an overwhelming grief.
The Bible states clearly that Jesus did indeed have great amounts of grief.
In Matthew chapter 26 verses 37 through 38, Matthew writes,
“And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death (italics added); remain here and keep watch with Me.’”
The entire chapter of Isaiah 53 describes Jesus’ grief. Here are the excerpts: “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”; “surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows he carried”; “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief”; and “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied”.
The gospel of Luke (22:44) states, “And being in agony he was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.”
C. Truman Davis, M.D. writes in his book, The Crucifixion of Jesus,
“Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat”.
Jesus bloody sweat is evidence of great grief.
The crucifixion was a horrible means of putting somebody to death. The criminal was nailed onto the cross in such a way that his legs would be bent at the knees. The bend in the knees placed all the criminals weight on his arms. This, of course, hurt the hands, but it did more than hurt the hands. The position that the cross placed the criminal in would cause muscle cramps throughout his body.
C. Truman Davis states (speaking of Jesus), “Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled” This disabled the criminal to let out his breath. In order to prevent suffocation, the criminal would have to push up with his legs to change position. After spasmodically pushing up with his legs, the criminal would take a quick breath of air before letting himself back down again.
The criminal would eventually die of asphyxiation, or suffocation. It was said that a strong man could hang on the cross, some say, up to ten days before their bodies were so tired that they could not continue the process to get breath. Jesus, who was most likely a healthy man (he was a carpenter) was on the cross for only six hours before He died (Mark 15:25, 33). Pilate, himself was astonished that Jesus died so quickly (Mark 15: 42-44).
The Roman soldiers were surprised Jesus died so quickly. The Jews did not want the bodies of the criminals to remain on the cross over the Sabbath, so they
“asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; (breaking the legs disabled the criminals to push up so that they could exhale the carbon dioxide; thus, the criminal would suffocate to death) but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs” John 19:31-33.
Jesus was in his early to middle thirties and was most likely a strong man since He was a carpenter and walked most everywhere He went. If Jesus did die the normal crucifixion death, why did He die so quickly? Couldn’t he have lived longer on the cross?
We read in John’s gospel (John 19:34) that “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water.” C. Truman Davis writes concerning the medical significance of the blood and water, “We, therefore, have rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that Our Lord died, not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure…” (8). Heart failure that began to develop in the garden when Jesus was sweating blood, continued to build when he was rejected by many of his disciples and came to utter fruition when his people nailed him to a cross.
Let me suggest that Jesus died from stress-induced cardiomyopathy as a result of the rejection and grief he experienced as he walked the world.
Final thoughts from theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff:
God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering, sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffer. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. Suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. The tears of God are the meaning of history.
The Vulnerable God
William Placher writes,
Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross — condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”
This week we reflect on the pinnacle of the vulnerably of God … the death of Jesus.
Pulled Into the Narrative of Suffering
In Matthew 20: 20 – 23, the mother of disciples James and John asks Jesus this question, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Jesus’ response turns the whole conversation on it’s head. James and John’s mother assumes that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem to set up his Kingdom, whereby Jesus will claim the thrown of David and push the Romans and their rule out of the land of Israel.
The disciples see Jesus’ entering Jerusalem as a power play and they want a piece of the power.
It was evident that James and John, their mother and the disciples had yet to understand the nature of the Kingdom: freedom, vulnerability, love and often suffering.
Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” In the Old Testament “the cup” was a metaphor for suffering … the very opposite of power. In fact, power is the human response to suffering. Power is the human response to vulnerability. Suffering is the divine response to vulnerability.
Jesus then states, “You will indeed drink from my cup ….”
And although they didn’t understand it, the disciples eventually would understand the brokenness of God over the world. They would eventually re-narrate the vulnerability of God in their own suffering … a re-narration that God invites all of his followers to embrace. As we’ve prayed so often, “Lord, break my heart with the things that break yours.”
Simon of Cyrene
Perhaps that re-narration is nowhere more visually clear than in Simon of Cyrene. It seems that Simon is actually forced into helping Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. Mel Gibson portrayed Simon in “The Passion of the Christ” as being unwilling to carry the cross.
And I think most of us respond in the same way. When God asks us to help him carry his burdens and we realize that his burdens are the weak, the poor and the sinful, we all turn our heads in disgust.
“You mean you’re calling me to weakness?”, we ask. “I thought you saved me in order to give me strength?” we snark.
And we find ourselves like Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry a cross that isn’t ours.
“But, you’re God … why can’t you carry this on your own?” we retort. ”Aren’t you all-powerful? Aren’t you the one who created the world?”
The truth sets in.
God needs our help.
HE CAN’T CARRY THE BURDEN ALONE.
Some final thoughts from William Placher,
If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something about how we might seek our own fullest humanity — not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and the willingness to be vulnerable in love.
We become human when we become Simon of Cyrene and embrace the vulnerability of God by carrying his cross with Him.
Bill Stauffer is a pastor in rural NJ, where he mostly chases around his eight-year-old twins. He likes to chase his wife, too.
It was a terrible tragedy – unspeakable – and it was making the rounds on Facebook: a local two-year-old boy killed in a house fire. As the details came out, there were a number of families in town sharing in the grief of this boy’s death. A little boy, lost to his father, his stepfather, his mother (sedated and in the hospital still days later), and all types of extended and blended families and relationships. A number of them in the church where I am an associate pastor.
The weird thing about death for me is that it was so present in my early life, that even the worst of tragedies now require me to step way outside of myself to feel them for others. It’s like a scar with no nerve endings. By the time I was ten, I had lost all of my grandparents, two uncles, a number of family friends, and my father. Death shaped me. I knew it was shaping these people, too. It was carving out new chasms of pain. They were becoming more human.
Because one of the boy’s cousins was in my youth group, I was asked to lead the graveside service, as the Catholic priest who was presiding at the funeral mass could not be there because of a prior commitment. Whenever you get asked to preside over death, something happens. You sense a seriousness come over you. It’s involuntary. You will have the final say in people’s interaction with their loved one. Perhaps more than that, you will have the outrageous privilege and responsibility of helping them bridge this world and the next. In this case, it was connecting the infinite with a little boy in a tiny casket suspended over a gaping hole in the ground.
I was raised Catholic. When I step inside a Catholic Church building, unlike most other ex-Catholics I know who went over to the protestant dark side, I have a sense of coming home. My uncle, a priest himself, was one of the finest men I ever knew. He was the constant in my family when death reigned during my early years. The smells, the sounds, the liturgy, the bad music – it’s like putting on your favorite pair of comfortable, but woefully out of fashion shoes. You would never wear them in public, but in private, you miss them and occasionally slip them on to knock around the house in.
What struck me this day as I entered the narthex of the church was the open grieving already taking place. That was familiar, too. I can clearly hear my Aunt Peggy crying and screaming over the open casket of my uncle, her brother, Billy, dead in his early 40’s. I was five. It was surreal, but very emotionally honest. We button down Protestants need some of that in our emotional mix – honesty. This little boy’s family was grieving like that, and strangely, it gave me a sense of hope for them. It certainly gave me love for them.
During the funeral mass, from my vantage point in the back row, I viewed a room full of people full of sorrow, hopelessness, pain, and anger, with no outlet but flowing tears. My friend Sue was next to me in the pew. When she saw the tiny casket, she wept. “That’s not right!” The father and the stepfather carried their little boy up to the front of the church. Impossible to fathom.
At the graveside we stood at that intersection, the visible and invisible, and tried to make sense of what we could. I told them that little Zack was safe in Jesus’ arms. I told them that Jesus hated death; that it frustrated and angered him. I told them Jesus knows. He knows. He knows.
About their anger. I told them to take it to God in full force, that he was big enough to handle it from them, that is was real and needed to be voiced. God is such a pragmatist. He uses what’s at hand to grab hold of us. He uses pain and suffering to draw us to him. He uses joy and pleasure. Anything, really – whatever is in the emotional cupboard at the time. And that’s when it struck me.
Death is a spiritual ear opener. It unplugs the hard, waxy buildup of mundane, self-consumed life and lets us hear eternity calling. And in that moment, standing by that tiny casket over a gaping hole in the ground, it happened. There, in the cold, listening to the weeping and sniffling and occasional outbursts of tears, heaven spoke. It was Jesus saying, “Come to me, and bring your suffering. Bring your sorrow – I know. Bring your anger – I know. Bring your hopelessness – I know that, too. I’ve got what you need. Me”
Jesus was there, in Zach’s most frightening hour. He was there to comfort and take Zach home.
And I pray that Jesus — as Zach’s family grieves in the months and years to comes — takes this broken and beautiful family in His arms and ravages them the only way a good God can. They, and we, can live in the love of a God who wants nothing more than for us to simply “Come.”