Advent thought 2: Putting tragedy in its place

I was reading I Cor 1:7 this morning about Christians eagerly waiting for Jesus to be revealed (the second advent). It got me thinking about tragedy.

It seems to me that the story of Jesus (which is the story of Israel and of humanity writ small) requires that Christians take evil, pain, suffering, and grief very seriously. No faith that has a cross at its heart can do any less. However, it also refuses to allow such things to have the last word. No faith that has resurrection and ascension at its heart can be ultimately tragic. So the Christian metanarrative simply does not have a tragic plotline.

Two errors are to be avoided:

a cross without a resurrection. Those who would have us believe that unless we embrace the darkness and surrender to the night we have not taken it seriously would prefer a cross without a resurrection.

collapsing cross and resurrection. Obviously no Christian would get rid of the cross but many are tempted to collapse cross and resurrection so that the cross itself ceases to be a moment of injustice, evil, and the experience of God-forsakenness. It becomes instead no more than a moment of glory and triumph. Such theology tends towards an over-realized eschatology in which Christians should be walking in all the benefits of the new creation now.

We need to take care to

(a) hold the cross and the resurrection/ascension apart. In Jesus' story Holy Saturday serves as a buffer zone to stop Good Friday and Easter Sunday from collapsing into one another. We need to allow the pains of Calvary their own integrity; their own moment - Space and time to be themselves. We need to regognize that real evil can invade our lives in the present age and that there is a very real 'not-yet' dimension to our experience of salvation.

(b) hold the cross and resurrection/ascension together. After the resurrection we can never do justice to the story of the cross if we ignore the empty tomb. The resurrection does put Golgotha in a new light. It does not trivialize it; it does not call evil good; it does not make pain into unpain; but it does set night in the context of coming dawn and infuses the shadowlands we inhabit with hope.

This is what Alan Lewis refers to as 'stereophonic hearing' - hearing the cross both apart from and in the light of the resurrection. And it is not a static posture but a dynamic, dialectical one.

It allows us to acknowledge real and deep brokenness in our experiences without ever surrendering hope.

God's last word on humanity is not the cross, and not the tomb, but the risen Lord. In his glorified body our human future is fleshed out. That is why the Christian vision whilst allowing space and time for pain cannot, in the end, be a tragic vision but must be a hopeful one.

Hope does not say that everything is fine. Indeed, if everything was fine there'd be no need for hope. Hope says that everything is not fine ... but one day it will be.

And as a little provocative aside, let me say this: Consider the traditional view that some humans - perhaps many or even most - will be forever lost (whether condemned to eternal torment or annihilated). Is not this view an ultimately tragic one, in part at least? Tragic for the some/many/most people who are not saved. Perhaps even tragic for the saved who would experience the eternal loss of loved ones. Tragic also for God's purposes of redeeming all creation. To that extent is it not a vision of a cross without a resurrection? Is it not a vision insufficiently informed by the shape of the gospel? Could it perhaps be that the mainstream Christian tradition is - ironically - insufficiently Christian? Just wondering.


"Nick" said…
Great thoughts. I had a very bad experience last year when my pastor decided that the Christmas service was going to focus on the "hope" of the resurrection, but instead it somehow ended up focusing on the misery, pain and evil in the world. It felt like a Good Friday service in all the worst ways, not a Christmas service, where we bring together, as you say, the cross and the resurrection, and show how God so loved the world, he came to be with us to save us.

Your provocative aside is absolutely correct!

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