In the cross, in the cross
Be my glory ever,
Till my ransomed soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
– Fanny Crosby 1869
Hard-boiled eggs.Jelly beans.Easter Lilies.Yuk.
Add to that being stuffed into an ill-fitting Easter dress that my mother made, with a death threat if I took it off before Easter dinner and you have my not-very-fond memories of Easter in the ’60s. Easter morning church felt like my dress – stuffed and uncomfortable. Vitalis aftershave merged with the scent of Chanel No. 5 and Easter lilies, as my gaze reached through the stained-glass window, hungry for light, my stomach flopping over from the fumes. As we left, the priest called out, “The Lord has risen,” the crowd responding with a lifeless “He is risen indeed,” as we ran for our cars, an invisible thread of roast lamb pulling us home.
I wonder how Jesus sees this today. The small basket with a hollow chocolate bunny perched over marshmallow peeps and jelly beans that every kid in the 60s pilfered through has morphed into giant plastic-wrapped baskets crammed with sports equipment, stuffed animals, books and gift cards. Stores beg merchants to hurry and get their Easter shopping done.
During the early 70s, before I left home for good, my mother decided to leave the Episcopalian church, Father Knapp with his benevolent blessing at the door and the sleepy liturgy echoing across the dank chapel. Instead, we went to the Presbyterian church, a new modern building downtown. I think what appealed most to my mother, other than the edgy intellectualism of the northern counterpart to the southern church she grew up in, was a large, plain cross that stood in the middle of the sanctuary. She mentioned it often. It was simple and also unavoidable, over 20 feet tall.
No one loved to argue doctrine more than my mom, and I think she liked that cross because it offered a challenge. Crushed as a child, sworn to the dark secrecy of an alcoholic mother, then running north into the arms of a man who seemed to promise all she never had emotionally, her world flipped in 1964 when my brother died. I understand. God can no longer be Father Knapp, kind and aloof. He is suddenly incomprehensible, mystical. Maybe even a traitor. Where were you?
I see her sitting before that enormous cross in the sanctuary, those words echoing within. A nine-year-old son buried, a marriage gasping for air, and a 12-year-old daughter sneaking out at night, her purse stuffed with drugs. Where are you? Her brows are furrowed, almost confrontational. That symbol of perhaps the most gruesome execution imagined by man answers to no one, but answers all at once. We are stripped down like prisoners, humiliated in our nakedness, quieted by our shame. I am here. Questions dissipate and we are silenced and baffled by the price He paid. For us? But the cross is not the end. It is a door, and on the other side is a beginning. Not practical applications, not self-help. A whole new life – the one you were made for. No wonder nothing on this side makes sense.
“Once you have been to the cross, you will never be the same.” – Billy Graham
Where is God? He did not stay on the cross. He is risen indeed.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2
Joy? Yes, unsurpassed and eternal. Right here. In you and me, forever. But it starts at the cross.
I looked up the old Presbyterian church and it’s still there, cross and all, although its name is something trendy and hip now like the Wave or Ablaze. I’m just glad the cross stayed, although as big and looming as it is, it’s easy to look past it, around it, get used to it, and ignore it. My mother could not. It took her years to reconcile with a God she couldn’t explain, to acquiesce in a silent truce. God is God, and owes us nothing because He already gave everything. Ours is not just to accept, but also to die in the shadow of unfathomable love so that we can live, really live in all of the power and glory of His resurrected life. This is something to pause over and ponder in the midst of jelly beans and bunnies. The beautiful and terrible cross.
This morning I visited my son’s grave. There’s a lovely trail around a pond there, perfect for a long talk with God. Sometimes I see deer and lately a lone swan in the water. At the gravesite, tiny iris bloom, along with crocuses weaving a purple blanket through the vinca. Snowdrops hang their white caps around the edge, and daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths are poised to burst open soon. This always fills me with wonder, because I don’t remember planting any of these, although I’m sure I did (except for the Snowdrops – those were planted by angels). It was the desperate act of a grief-stricken mother, searching through the dark for just a sliver of light. Life over death. Can anything good come of this? Surely Jesus’ disciples asked the same thing as they recoiled from the horror of the cross. But just wait.
As we celebrate the glorious power and victory of the empty tomb, let’s remember that it was first a tomb. Don’t look around the cross, or worse, become too familiar with it. It stands, across the ages, reminding us of who we are and Who we desperately need. In its holy silence, it speaks to the heart of every human soul if you listen. And bids us, “Come.”
Come, and see the victories of the cross. Christ’s wounds are thy healings, His agonies thy repose, His conflicts thy conquests, His groans thy songs, His pains thine ease, His shame thy glory, His death thy life, His sufferings thy salvation.
– Matthew Henry, 17th-century British preacher and commentator