Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Identity Switch

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2.14-15)

Transition to the Dark Side

The further we go into Holy Week, what’s actually transpiring becomes more mysterious. In a way, these days approaching Christ’s execution serve as a transition to the dark side of everything we celebrate at Christmas. The fulcrum of time has been repositioned so the emphasis of John 1.14—“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”—shifts from “Word” to “flesh.” The innocent Babe asleep on the hay is a full-grown Man facing certain death. His days are numbered. Yes, one might say, they’ve always been numbered. He’s always known this. So have we. Yet, as we do with everyone, we set aside this eventuality to appreciate His life. Now, as we watch the rapid spin of events intended to destroy Jesus, we fear for Him. We flinch at every caustic encounter with the powers that be. We tense up when Judas is mentioned. We get frustrated with the obtuse lack of vigilance in the other disciples.

Jesus will defeat death. His mortal body will be transformed in the grave and He will be resurrected as The Eternal Christ. Even so, this week, cognitive belief and spiritual insight fight hard against natural, subconscious fear of death. What we’ve acknowledged in an abstract manner grows more palpable by the minute. We’re increasingly aware of the mystery taking shape before us. The God Who elected to become like us suddenly, irrevocably is us. He will not escape sin's death penalty. His flesh will tear, His bones will ache, His blood will flow, and finally, His heart will stop. The identity switch will be complete. The bright night and angel song that started the process will give way to a black afternoon. From the darkness a barely recognizable voice will cry, “It is finished!” And while we track the divine logic of this, its reality eludes us. Clarity of the transition gets lost in an impenetrable murk of anguish and amazement.

Metaphors for Metamorphosis

The mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—God lowering Himself to become flesh so we can rise above it, submitting to death to defeat it, bearing our resemblance to restore our reflection of Him—thwarted the prophets who foretold it as well as New Testament writers charged with unraveling it. We repeatedly find them grasping at metaphors for metamorphosis. Isaiah 11.1 compares Him to “a Branch” that grows from “the stump of Jesse.” Paul calls Him “a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2.7) In numerous places, Jesus is the Lamb of God Who assumes mortality to die as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. In Hebrews, He takes on dual roles—the High Priest Who officiates the sacrifice and the Offering itself. Before delving into interlaced complexities of these two metaphors, however, the writer establishes the fundamental metamorphosis by dispensing with metaphor altogether.

Referring to our mortal condition, the writer says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.” The reason for removing the metaphorical filter has nothing to do with inability to find a suitable one. (If you’ve spent any time in Hebrews, you know keeping up with its similes and cross-metaphors is a quite a job.) The writer wants us to absorb the identity switch in the baldest, most literal terms, just stopping short of asking us to pinch ourselves and feel the same flesh Christ wore, to see the same blood rise to the surface of our skin. The author explains why literal transformation is necessary: “So that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by fear of death.” This week, more than any other, exacts physical identification with Jesus. We anticipate His suffering in our flesh the same way He empathizes with our frailty through His flesh. Hebrews says the mortal link we share to the death allows Christ to destroy the power of death that enslaves us with fear.


Some may question if it’s really that important to grasp the identity switch in such a literal, tactile way. And it’s possible many may come nearer to comprehending it metaphorically. But I personally believe, yes, it’s really that important, which is why metaphors don’t work as well for me. I need to feel Christ “in the flesh” to vivify what’s involved in sharing my humanity—the bow to suffering, the endurance of emotional and physical torment, the doubt in God’s love and wisdom, the agony of injustice and rejection, and the lonely fear of finality. I don’t need a palpable comparison to appreciate the extremity of Christ’s sacrifice, however. That requires no amplification. As the week progresses, it’s important for my physical connection with Jesus to intensify so I can internalize the final exchange—natural extinction replaced by supernatural existence—in my flesh, my mind, my being.

“I want to know Christ,” Paul writes in Philippians, “and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (3.11-12) Knowing Jesus and the power of resurrection comes when we switch identities with Him by sharing His humanity via fellowship with His suffering. Rising trepidation of what He will battle in His flesh is more than guilt-infused dread. It’s an autonomic key to knowledge that somehow destroys fear of death with confidence in resurrection. Somehow. This mystery we’re privileged to explore is one we’ll never solve.

The mortal link—the shared humanity between Christ and us—enables us to internalize the final exchange of death and its fears for life and its hopes. ("Metamorphosis" by The Journeys Project.)

Postscript: The Old Rugged Cross

There’s a reason why this country gospel standard is one of the best-loved hymns of all time. John Barry sings “The Old Rugged Cross.”


On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross

The emblem of suffering and shame

How I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best

For a world of lost sinners was slain

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross

'Til my trophies at last I lay down

I will cling to the old rugged cross

And exchange it some day for a crown

Oh that old rugged cross so despised by the world

Has a wondrous attraction for me

For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above

To bear it to dark Calvary

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross...

Then He'll call me some day to my home far away

Where His glory forever I'll share

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross...


Missy Francis said...

Oh Tim, yes that black afternoon is coming.

If we limit Jesus’ work to that of a human exemplar, the crucifixion becomes more of a prescription for suffering than if we grasp it as the work of the incarnate one, done once for all. But we also need Jesus' humanity to realize our own divinity. By sharing in His life and death we share in His resurrection.

Great meditation.


Missy Francis said...

Word verification=metings. Like a meeting, only past tense.

Davis said...

Great writing, Tim.

claire said...

I like everything about your post, Tim, from transition to the dark side of everything we celebrate at Christmas to it's important for my physical connection with Jesus to intensify.... Yes.
And this final point is most important for me, because I had not thought of it at all.
What a gift for the days to come!

Tim said...

Missy, I've spent much of today enthralled with "meting"--parcelling out, sharing in portions. If we only view the cross as a spiritual symbol, reducing it to metaphor, we'll never surpass an intellectual understanding of it. But something very primal is occurring here, a physical confrontation with death that ultimately destroys it. In a very real sense, meting--limiting our view of the cross--cancels our meeting with the risen Christ next Sunday. We'll never get past Calvary.

Thank you, Davis. And, as always, thank you for the fine work you're doing over at your place. You never fail to bring forth the beauty and profound mystery of this season!

Claire, your earlier discussion of "the body" at your place contributed much to this. Since your post, I've been meditating on how our body image and awareness can be transformed to heighten our identification with Christ. For quite some time, I was focused on the empty tomb, wondering if we can leave it with a new physical sense of ourselves. And then Hebrews counseled me along these lines. To rise from the world's deadly concepts of beauty, we must die to our flesh. We have to experience the cross in a very real and physical way.

I'm grateful to all of you for these comments.