Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” (Mark)
Each morning, we begin the day here at the church by offering Morning Prayer. We pray using a little booklet that includes a number of canticles, which cycle through about every two weeks or so.
One of the canticles that particularly catches my eye each time it appears is called “A Song of True Motherhood,” by the Medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich. In it, she imagines that the love with which Jesus loves us is like that of a mother: “Christ came in our poor flesh,” she writes, “to share a mother’s care.” So far, nothing too surprising in that—maybe there’s something a little unusual about saying that Jesus the man loves us like a mother, but okay, that’s true enough.
But then, Julian goes on to say, “Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.” Now that is more radical: Jesus is not just like a mother, Jesus is our mother. Instead of an analogy, we now have a literal correspondence.
But that’s not all: Julian presses the point further, “Christ carried us within him in love and travail, until the full time of his passion.” One morning, it hit me like a thunderbolt that what Julian is suggesting, is that the pain Jesus experiences on the cross could be understood not as the result of violence, but as the birth pangs of a new creation. So instead of seeing on the cross the end of one life in death, she wants us to see the birth of a new life. The birth pangs of the cross.
Christians, of course, have always struggled to articulate just what it is that Jesus does through his death on the cross. Even the New Testament has several competing theories. We are all probably most familiar with the idea that what Jesus does is to somehow step in for us to pay the penalty of our sin to God—but quite frankly, I’ve never found that understanding very satisfying or convincing. It just doesn’t square with the God of mercy and compassion who is at the heart of the gospels, and moreover it doesn’t seem to me that the universe is portrayed in scripture as kind of a cosmic law court, but rather as the realm of mystery and awe.
But when Julian suggests that what happens on the cross is the birth of a new creation—well that is an idea I can start to get my mind around. After all, the creation account in Genesis is very deliberate in ascribing the pain of childbirth as one of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s fall. So there is a sense of poetic completion in the idea that the renewal of humanity’s original blessedness through Jesus—the second Adam—should come about through the pain of new birth.
Ironically, in the sequence of canticles at Morning Prayer, the one that precedes Julian’s “Song of True Motherhood” is a canticle by Anselm, one of the great medieval theologians. Anselm is most famous for developing the idea that the cross is where Jesus pays the price for our sin—substitutionary atonement, is the technical theological term. In the canticle we say by Anselm at Morning Prayer, however, he actually sounds a lot closer to Julian’s idea of Jesus as our mother: “Jesus, by your dying,” he writes, “we are born to new life; by your anguish and labor, we come forth in joy.” If anything, Anselm makes here an even closer metaphorical connection between crucifixion and childbirth!
So if Julian and Anselm are both so eager to ascribe this birthing imagery to Jesus’ passion, it leads us to an obvious question: what exactly is being birthed?
Well, let’s back up just a bit before we try to answer that question. The structure of each of the four gospels is, in a sense, a very long prologue to the climactic account each of them gives of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In its own way, each gospel first wants to get clear that in his teaching and ministry, Jesus offers an alternative vision for humanity that is not founded on the violence and self-centeredness of human life, but in the peaceableness and self-offering of God. That’s why today we read the hymn from Philippians, of Christ “not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” That is the essential character of God: self-emptying love.
The crucifixion, then, is not just the final episode in a biographical story, but the fulfillment of everything that Jesus has taught and done. That’s why reading the passion story in its entirety during Holy Week, as we did from Mark this morning, is so powerful: we get a chance to see the full consequences of Jesus’ complete self-offering, through which (as the Easter hymn puts it), “the powers of death have done their worst.” Yet, as we already know, it turns out that even death is no match for the power of the vision that Jesus offers us: a life lived by love in service to others.
So perhaps what is being birthed on the cross, is a new humanity which through Jesus, turns away from violence, manipulation, and domination, toward a life focused instead on respecting, serving, and even loving the other—no matter who that person might be. This new humanity birthed through Jesus on the cross is God’s substitute for the narrow, self-serving idea we have of ourselves, with which we are all too familiar (especially in the current political climate). So in a sense, Jesus does offer himself as a substitution after all—not as a substitute victim for the penalty of our sins, but as an alternative pattern and vision for human life.
Yesterday, as I was listening to the speeches at the Albuquerque March for Our Lives rally (organized almost entirely by high school students), I was struck by how this moment in our nation’s political history, also feels like something new is being birthed. There is so much about our civic lives right now that is truly painful. Yet here is a new generation, suddenly awakened to a political activism that is bold, fearless, pragmatic and determined. As one letter to the editor in the Times put it, “We seem to have entrusted our future, to a group of high school kids.”
Like the Passover in Egypt, which finally liberated the people of Israel from their slavery, perhaps we are in another such moment that we will look back upon as the time when a new era of common purpose and common good began to emerge, thanks to the courage our children. Perhaps they too will have a dream, and make it to the mountain top, from where they will see a promised land of peace and respect and dignity for all toward which they will lead us—though Pharaoh’s heart may yet be hardened against them.
How important, then, to be reminded this Holy Week, that on the cross Jesus gives us hope through his own birthing of a new humanity, that we can all imagine and bring into being a world that is better and more just than the one we are living in now. Because of the birth pangs Jesus bore on the cross, we know that we do not have to accept the world as we found it, nor the world as it has become, as anything more than a mere vestige of the old creation that Jesus has now upended with the new. As Julian finishes her canticle, “When all was completed and Jesus had carried us so for joy, still all this could not satisfy the power of his wonderful love. For the love of Christ works in us; Christ is the one whom we love.” Amen.