“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” So said the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.
Scholars note that specific word choice used by Paul is technical in nature. “Received” and “passed on” are ways of gesturing to a more or less well-defined body of teaching that Paul was given by others, has handed on, and is now reiterating–what has also been called the “kerygma”: the content of the earliest Christian proclamation to the Roman world. This body of teaching is, according to Paul, protois, “first.” The “ABC’s” of the gospel. The first principles of faith. And “first among the first” is this: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures…”
From the earliest days of Christianity, the death of Jesus has been understood to be the climactic moment in salvation history, the place to which the Story of Scripture was always trending in one way or another. And not without good reason. Jesus himself seems to have believed his violent death at the hands of Jewish and Roman authorities to be the specific destination of the work that his Father had given him to do. One need not search particularly long or hard to find examples of this belief. The predictions begin in earnest in the so-called “Synoptic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) just following Peter’s declaration of Jesus Messiahship at Caesarea Philippi (which is an enormous part of the reason why scholars used to say that these Gospels were essentially Passion narratives with long introductions); but when you look, for instance, at John, it becomes clear that Jesus foresaw the cross even at the very beginning of his ministry. During his first Passover visit to Jerusalem, following Jesus’ dramatic cleansing of the Temple, the Jews angrily inquire of him: “Who gave you authority to do all of this?” He responds, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John remarks that “the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said” (John 2:13ff).
The cross looms over the ministry of Jesus from the very first, and when the climactic moment arrives, Jesus, though terrified, does not quail. In the Garden of Gethsemane, through anguished tears: “Father, may your will be done…” At his arrest: “Do you not think that I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way…?” Before Pilate: “For this reason I was born…” And as his life ebbs away: “It is finished…” It is clear that this was the focal point. This was the destination. This was the work.
Accordingly, the death of “Jesus Messiah, the Son of God,” however paradoxical it may have sounded to both the preacher and the hearer, was proclaimed as a pivotal and inextricable part of the good news of what God had done to save the world. Earlier in the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that he had “resolved to know nothing when I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, noting that while the announcement of a murdered Messiah may have seemed like folly to both Jews and Greeks, for those who believed it was the very power and wisdom of God. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Somehow, the wisdom and strength of God were beheld by the eyes of faith in the murdered Messiah; and so it was that the cross became and has endured as the central symbol of Christian faith. “Behold the Man!” Pilate shouted to the onlooking crowd, presenting to them a bloodied Jesus crowned with thorns, mocked and vilified. For 2,000 years, in one way or another, that is what we have been trying to do. “Behold the Man.”
With the rest of the world I watched with horror earlier this month as the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack on its own people. Innocent civilians: mothers and fathers and children who had nothing whatsoever to do with the ridiculous conflict killed in a heinous act of brutality. And this just the latest in a prolonged civil war that has left half a million people dead and 11 million displaced from their homes. It cuts the heart. And when the U.S. government last week decided to bomb the supposed location from whence the chemical attack was launched, something in me groaned. Is this really the path we want to walk? But what else can be done? There is a certain feeling of helplessness that sets in when you begin to think about the enormity and complexity of the problem. Not surprisingly, following the U.S.’s actions in Syria, a high government official in North Korea was quoted as saying that the missile strikes represented an “intolerable act of aggression against a sovereign state” and that “the reality of today shows that we must stand against power with power and it proves a million times over that our decision to strengthen our nuclear deterrence has been the right choice,” adding that, “Only military power of our own will protect us from imperialistic aggression.” Thus: “We will keep bolstering our self-defensive military might in various ways in order to cope with the ever-intensifying US acts of aggression” (from the BBC article here).
Groan. Groan. Groan.
I hate that I live in a world that is this riven by violence and hatred and aggression and with it, staggering amounts of human suffering. Hate it. Hate it in the depths of my being. I hate that I have to read about a famine spreading across Africa that threatens more than 20 million people with starvation, hate it that on Tuesday I had to hear about yet another school shooting, hate it that I woke up on Palm Sunday to hear about the bombing of Coptic Christians in Egypt, hate it that I live in a country that is increasingly divided and hostile to one another. I hate it all. It is fundamentally dissonant. Each incident, every example of human un-shalom, anti-shalom, strikes my ear as dissonant, discordant, not-in-harmony… like nails on a chalkboard. Something in me recoils.
And then Pilate marches out the bloodied man from Galilee, ironically crowned with thorns, bellowing out to whoever would hear, “Behold the Man!”, and I see something. I see dissonance written across God. Discordant notes on the face of the Messiah. Nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching straining with all its might to drown out the music of infinite love that is Jesus of Nazareth. And it matches what I know to be true in my world: beautiful things have been irreversibly touched, marred by sin. And what of it? What does it mean for God, for us, for the future of the world?
It is as hard, I find, to “Behold the Man” himself riven with the dissonance of human failure as it is to behold the dissonance of the lives that necessitated his coming in the first place. But try we must.
Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty and power of choral music. Morten Lauridsen is surely my favorite composer. When a friend shared the Magnum Mysterium with me several years ago, it took my breath away. I had to find more. Soon I was listening to all I could get my hands on. The Christmas Vespers and Nocturnes and eventually the Lux Aeterna. Over the years, and especially when I was in a place where I needed someone to give me a key to unlock deep and hidden emotion in me, emotion that I often couldn’t touch on my own, I frequently found myself lost in the beauty and power of Lauridsen’s music, his unique genius giving me a key to my own heart.
I’ve been listening to the Lux again recently. Gosh how it moves me. The Introitus and Nata Lux and Agnus Dei and pretty much the entire sweep of Les Chansons des Roses. The Contra Qui, Rose in particular… at about two minutes in, the voices build and I find my soul riding the sound of those liltingly powerful sopranos straight to the very edge of eternity. It brings me to tears just about every time. I can listen to those songs over and over again, appreciating anew their depth of feeling. Art can do that to us. It has the power to open up a window to the Infinite. That’s why we are drawn to it.
But I noticed something funny listening to the Lux on a run recently. I found that every time I came to a song that I knew included some element of dissonance or tension, a nearly overpowering impulse to skip past the song would rise up in me. When I thought about it, I realized that most of the time, when that happens, I do actually skip it. So this time I held myself there. Through the dissonance. Through notes that felt discordant. Through the tension. And the impact was astounding. When I got to the songs I liked, the songs where everything resolves, I saw Lauridsen’s genius anew: the entire journey of the Lux Aeterna (“eternal light”) is to take the listener from an original harmony through dissonance and into a still-greater cohesion–a cohesion, mind you, that neither ameliorates nor leaves behind the tension, but incorporates it into a still-greater whole, touched by the dissonance but not ultimately broken by it, situating it all in the bright light of eternity.
I’m not enough of a music aficionado to say for sure, but my guess is that through the ages and across most if not all cultures, the finest music, the music that moves us most deeply and touches the human heart most profoundly, is music that is capable of doing exactly what I have just described. Music that sets out an original harmony that will be touched by crisis and stretched nearly to the breaking point, but resolves finally in an ever-greater polyphony of dramatic coherence. It must touch us the way it does, I think, because this is what we hope for when hope is at its very highest in us: that the dissonance, discordance, and tensive places of human life will not have the final word, not break the music.
I think that when the Bible says that “Christ died for our sins”, it is talking about something like this. Theologians like Robert Jenson and David Bentley Hart and others have described the inner life of the Triune God as “music.” Jenson writes:
God is beauty… In that the Triune conversation is righteousness, it is the perfect harmony of triune communal life. And the harmony of discourse taken for itself is its beauty; more precisely, its music…God’s beauty is the actual living exchange between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as this exchange is perfect simply as exchange, as it sings… (ST 1, 234-235)
Jenson goes on to say that because the Three Singers in the Triune Song are the Infinite Ones they are, “the melody is fugued…God is a great fugue. There is nothing so capacious as a fugue” (p. 236)–the basic melody of Triune Love developed, fanned-out, complexified, by each eternally into an infinitely capacious polyphonic coherence. This is God.
Created time, for Jenson, therefore is the act of God creating space for us in that music. Including us and our stories in the Story of Love and Harmony that he is. And when God steps into the dissonance of our history in the person of Jesus, with the shadow of the cross looming over him from the manger to horror of Golgotha, we are seeing something indescribably profound; the height of our hope, the summit of our longing: the ache we all carry that the many dissonances created by our sin would not break our lives but finally be taken up into a greater dramatic coherence, incorporated beyond our wildest imagining into the Life of God, the Music that he is, and finally, therein, overcome. To “Behold the Man”, to see the suffering One on the cross, is to see the place where God’s everlasting harmony and the temporal discord wrought by sin meet, and meet dramatically. So dramatically that if we are speaking consistently with how the Gospel writers present the death of Jesus, it seems that for a moment the Music of Father-Son-Spirit polyphony was nearly itself shattered as the Son cried out in dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?” Pushed to the very breaking point; yet, even so, it holds, with the result that our discord is overcome, the song of our lives not broken but healed in the unbreakable Music that is God. “By his stripes we are healed” is how Isaiah put it. “Where, O Death, is your victory?” asked Paul.
With the Great Tradition, we assert that the essential loveliness and strength of Triune harmony overcame it. And so we say: “Christ died for our sins.”
This is a great hope to me. And to many others who have suffered the ravages of sin-wrought dissonance and turned to the Suffering One for help. The dissonance is everywhere, after all. In large things like famines and wars and chemical attacks. And in the small things like unforgiveness and broken relationships and chronic sadness. Clinging to the crucified Jesus does not, I am afraid, ameliorate sin’s impact on our lives. We can’t hit “skip” in the playlist. Life just doesn’t work that way. All of us will be and are touched by sin. It’s discordant notes reverberate in all sorts of obvious and subtle ways. And for many of those discordant notes, we are responsible. I know that it is so for me. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” said Paul (Rom 3). Cornelius Plantinga once described sin as a “culpable disturbance of shalom” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be). We did this. It’s on us. All of us. We rebelled, and Death came walking through the door. Like it always does.
It’s heartbreaking, frankly, to think long about it. The great confessions of the Church have us say things like “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Indeed. And others have done so to us. And in a great many places, as a result, we are left with the gut-wrenching feeling that there are pieces of our stories that are irretrievably lost, places where the music is irredeemably shattered and we would be better off just learning a new song.
And yet. And yet. If the Gospel is true, if Good Friday is what the Creeds and canons of the Church say it is, then we are invited to believe that the Everlasting One has taken it, all of it, up into himself and turned it into a song fit to be eternally sung; the Enemy’s designs subverted and thus foiled by Love. An old hymn of the Church cries out “O felix culpa (happy fault) that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer…for God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to not allow evil to exist.” Hell, I have to imagine, recoiled when it realized it had been outdone; that the annihilating attempted coup d’etat of the Grave became yet one more occasion for the Glory to make itself known, for the Fugue of Holy Love to reverberate in created time. Now, Hell’s deepest designs are forever fixed as a dramatic tensive moment in the great chorus of praise that echoes throughout eternity. The Almighty has truly “robbed the grave.” And thus the saints cry out: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…
So this week, I’m hanging on to that. And seeking again to behold the Man who descended into our dissonance that the music of our lives might not be broken, but lifted up and transformed by the unbreakable Song that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That is, to be able to say and sing, in full-throated gratitude, “Christ died for our sins.”