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.”
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...