02 April 2015


Georges Rouault (1871-1958)
Isaiah 53:4-9

Maundy Thursday,
2nd April 2015

Isaiah 53.  “By his stripes we are healed.” We hear this verse a lot this time of year.  Isaiah spoke of a God's suffering servant who would come and save. Centuries later, the first Christians saw in Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision in Jesus of Nazareth.  The words of Isaiah 53 have been used to describe what occurred on the cross.  Centuries after Christ, some Christians developed a theology of the cross that insisted that in order for God to love and forgive us, someone had to pay the price for sin, someone had to be punished for our sins. Isaiah, himself, says, that he “was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole…” (Is. 53:5).  And so this text has been used to describe what happened on the cross.  It’s probably the prevailing view of the cross in the Church today.  It goes something like this: someone had to pay the price for the wrong done in the Garden, that person was Jesus, and the resurrection becomes a receipt that all debts have been paid, all wrongs between God and humanity absolved, all sins forgiven.  

This is certainly one faithful way to view the cross and resurrection—perhaps it’s yours.  But it’s not the only way to view it.

Several weeks ago I came across these words of the poet Walt Whitman (1818-1892). He said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” I found myself really moved by these words, from his poem Song of Myself (1892). They have strong connections with what we talked about in adult ed early in Lent. We were discussing the first chapter of Rowan Williams’ marvelous book Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2013), which focuses on the meaning of baptism. 

Williams writes that baptism means being with Jesus, which means, he says, being “in the depths,…the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need—but also the depths of God’s love….[To] be with Jesus is to be where human suffering and pain are found, and it is also to be with other human beings who are invited to be with Jesus.”  The community of baptized people—that is, the church—receives its life when it’s in solidarity with one another, including “the solidarity with suffering.”[1]

We are called to go where Jesus goes and where Jesus goes this night is into the suffering of God’s people.  He doesn’t suffer with humanity from afar, at a distance, but chooses to enter into suffering itself, bearing it, undergoing it, and ultimately transforming it—but not without going through it.

Whitman’s quote takes on considerable power when one remembers that during the Civil War Whitman tended to wounded, broken, bleeding, suffering, and dying men, torn apart by sin and evil at its worst. At the start of the war he visited the wounded in New York-area hospitals, then he moved to Washington, DC to care for his brother.  Overwhelmed by the number of wounded in Washington, he stayed on as a nurse for the rest of the war. 

As we move through Holy Week, gather at this table tonight and remember him, as we consider again the meaning of the cross and an empty tomb, Whitman’s insight into the power of grace found in suffering love is worthy of our attention.  

Empathy.  It involves empathic love.  This is how the Holy One chooses to love us, not from a distance.  God doesn’t ask us: How does it feel to suffer?  Instead, God enters into the life of the sufferer.  God does not look at our wounds from afar, God becomes the wound. And then God chooses in love to remain God, through Christ, there, in the wounded and wounding places, in the places of human suffering, sharing our pain and sorrow and brokenness, thus transforming our suffering with God’s presence. This, increasingly, is what the cross means to me.  Knowing that God is found in my own woundedness helps me to be attentive and present to the woundedness of people around me.

Jean Vanier put it so well.  Founder of L’Arche (Ark) Community, which hosts communities worldwide for the developmentally disable, and recipient of the 2015 Templeton Prize in Religion, Vanier says, “In each of us there is a deep wound…the heart of each one is broken and bleeding” for different reasons.”[2] It’s true that we are broken, but it’s a greater truth that we are loved.  And it’s an expression of grace to know both: that we are broken and that we are loved.

Christ’s wounds are my wounds; my wounds are Christ’s wounds.  And in the blessed exchange of love in the wounded places we are, somehow, mysteriously “saved,” healed, made whole.  The old hymn gets it right, one we will sing later this night:

O sacred head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down;
now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown;
O sacred head what glory, what bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call thee thine.


What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be;
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.[3]

What language indeed.

[1] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2013), 5, 10-11.
[2] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Paulist Press, 1989). "In each of us there is such a deep wound, such an urgent cry to be held, appreciated and seen as unique and valuable.  The heart of each one is broken and bleeding.... An experience of being loved and accepted in community, which has become a safe place for us, allows us gradually to accept ourselves as we are, with our wounds and all our monsters.  We are broken, but we are loved."
[3]“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” originally a Medieval Latin hymn Salve mundi salutare, was translated from German into English by the American Presbyterian minister and theologian James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859), in 1830, when he was pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ.  James’ father, Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), was the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1812.