By Deborah Smith Douglas
Jesus always has had a remarkable attraction not only for the sick and the poor but for those who are, in the words of the Anglican prayer book, "in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble." ["The Prayers of the People, Form VI," The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corp., 1979), p. 392.] The New Testament is crowded with people in all kinds and degrees of pain, seeking a healing encounter with one they intuitively know can make them whole. Jesus can, and does. In the gospel stories, transforming love pours out of Jesus like water from a spring, restoring health and vision and quietness of mind.
This is, as my Sunday School teachers used to tell us, a great mystery. An even greater mystery is that Jesus continues to pour his healing power into our broken lives, not only two millennia after his terrible death, but somehow precisely because of it. "By his wounds you have been healed," we are promised (1 Pet. 2:24, NRSV). We are, in Christ, made whole not despite his own woundedness, but by means of it.
This apparently essential connection between Christ's brokenness and our wholeness, this paradox of weakness and strength, is at the heart of our faith. Exploring this mystery can reveal much not only about the nature of God, but about the meaning of our own pain and the graced possibilities within even unhealed wounds.
I was present once at a Mass where the celebrant was deaf: I was deeply moved by the beauty and authority with which the priest signed the entire liturgy, like a dance to silent music, giving new meaning to "the word made flesh." I learned that day that the signed name for Jesus is two taps in the palm of each hand, indicating the marks of the nails. Jesus Christ is—essentially—the wounded One; his wounds tell us who he is.
This is the mystery at the crux of the matter, this suffering love that is transformed by death but not annihilated by it; that still, even in victory, bears the marks of the nails. This saving truth is so much a part of God that it has become God's name. This is the Paschal mystery. And it is more than abstract mystical theology; it is a living reality, available to each one of us. When Jesus freely accepted a terrible death, he redeemed our dying, transfigured (but not annihilated) all our pain. There is nothing we can suffer that Christ does not know, has not shared, cannot somehow use in love, with us, for the healing of the world.
Pain and grief as integral to human experience are grim realities richly attested to in scripture. The psalms, for instance, are full of the anguish of God's people, who have been fed "with the bread of tears," given "bowls of tears to drink." [Ps. 80:5, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 702.] The mothers' inconsolable sorrow for the children killed by Herod echoes the bitter woe of Rachel, "weeping for her children" (Matt. 2:18, Jer. 31:15). The Bible does not flinch from this ancient darkness, as we ... have been conditioned to do—denying the harsh inevitability of pain, anesthetizing our minds, pretending that it's not so bad, that things inevitably will be better soon. ...
Other centuries have been wiser. The sixteenth century, for example, when the Black Death was a terrible reality for many, has given us an almost unbearably profound image of Christ in his woundedness. In 1516, Matthias Grunewald painted what is now known as the Isenheim Altarpiece for the hermits of Saint Anthony, who cared for victims of the plague. In the central Crucifixion panel of this work, the figure of Christ on the Cross is enormous, twice the size of his companions. Christ's suffering is graphic, and grotesque: his flesh is green, covered with festering sores, his face and limbs are contorted with agony. Grunewald has, in fact, depicted Christ as dying of the plague. In the foreground (lest we miss the meaning) is a lamb, its eyes on Jesus, bleeding from a cut in its breast into a chalice. The message is starkly clear: in the bleeding wounds of Christ lie our hope and our salvation.
The men and women who died with this image before them five hundred years ago were not cured of the plague by their faith in Christ, who suffered with them. They were not spared the horrors of that death, did not have their mortal illness "fixed" or eliminated by the crucified one any more than Jesus escaped his own end. They did, however, have the transforming opportunity not only to know themselves companioned by Christ crucified, but also to experience their death as radical healing.
Dying with and into Christ, they could hope to rise with him, could hope with Paul that having carried in their bodies the death of Jesus, the life of Jesus might also be manifested in them (see 2 Cor. 4:10). Death was consciously for them (as it remains for us, consciously or not) the doorway into fullness of life. Somehow, entry into Christ's woundedness is entrance into eternity. ...
Most of us ... will not face death from the plague, but we will all face death. And even in this life, as we know to our sorrow, there are wounds that do not heal. There are losses that are not recoverable. Life seems to give each of us, at one time or another, bowls of tears to drink.
An old friend and I were talking once about the deep sorrows in our lives, some of which we have in common. I confessed to him that despite the passage of many years, I found resolution elusive. Two or three wounds were so deep I feared they would never heal. My friend nodded gravely, compassionately. Then, "That's actually pretty good, Deborah," he responded. "Only three unhealed wounds? You are luckier than most." ...
All of us can, at times, identify with Paul, who "three times appealed to the Lord" to remove the unspecified torment of the "thorn in the flesh." Paul's plea was refused: Christ told him "my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul chose to accept this so "that the power of Christ [might] dwell in" him, and he would learn to be "content with ... calamities for the sake of Christ" (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
Paul learned to live and die, ... as many of us may be called to do, with the thorn in place, the wound unhealed—trusting that, in ways beyond our understanding or imagining, God does somehow, in all things, work for good, and that there is no tribulation or distress that can separate us from God (Rom. 8:28, 35-39). As Michael Mayne has written, "our most painful human wounds are most intimately connected to the sufferings of God, for in Christ [God] ... knows ... what it is to live, to know pain at its potentially most destructive, to face desolation and to die." [Michael Mayne, Pray, Love, Remember, p. 50.]
As we may all have Paul's experience of a thorn in the flesh (or the heart or the mind), so we all have his freedom—to accept with serenity the pain he could not leave behind. As Viktor Frankl learned from his experience of the Nazi death camps, when we cannot change our circumstances, we are nonetheless free to determine our response to them, seeking meaning in the calamitous losses and torments our lives may hold. "It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful." [Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 1959), p. 66.]
The alternative may be freely chosen also, alas: instead of accepting the invitation to join our deepest sorrows to Christ's, instead of seeking shelter within his wounds and meaning in our suffering, instead of permitting Christ's strength to be made perfect in our weakness, we can (and all too often do) allow our own suffering merely, meaninglessly, to devour us.
This is the terrible possibility inherent in our pain: that it remain forever merely pain, unadmitted, unshared. Enlarged, but to make a dead end, not a doorway into life; opened large only to swallow the rest of ourselves, as the black holes in the universe are said to swallow light itself.
Suffering does not always lead to compassion: our wounds, if they have been long neglected or denied, can fester, can compromise our ability to respond to others. But Christ's woundedness is not like that. He suffered on our behalf, and in the power of the Resurrection, can change all our sorrows into part of that same miracle of love. In Christ, and with him and through him, supported by his own courage and humility and trust, we need only to "admit the wound" and our own helplessness to heal it. Then, even our most mortal wounds can become the doors by which we enter life.
Perhaps this is a part of what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the door," when he promised, "Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut" (John 10:9, KJV; Rev. 3:8). Christ's wounds are the doorway into our life in him, offering us both shelter and opportunity, both refuge and a new beginning. Our entire life—unhealed wounds and broken hearts and all—can enter by that door and be redeemed.
By Deborah Smith Douglas. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, March/April 2000, Vol. 15, No. 2. Copyright © 2000 The Upper Room.
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