From outside, Christianity can look like a set of doctrines, and from inside like a programme for life; both those things are part of it, but they are not the whole. That is one reason we can get frustrated when those outside go on about ‘doctrine’ as though it were the whole, and as though it does not matter; it isn’t, and it does. Similarly, when our fellow Christians, or our priest talks as though the Faith once given were some kind of ‘well-being’ programme which will make us fitter and healthier, we can feel the frustration which comes from seeing something so much bigger and grander, so reduced. Pilate asked ‘what is truth?’ We know that the answer is not a ‘what’, but a ‘who’; Truth is the Person of the Living Christ.
Passiontide reminds us of what that Person underwent for our sake. He was tortured and raised on the Cross to die in agony – for us. For every one of us – and yet so many of us reject Him and regard that sacrifice as nothing to do with us. Some seek to explain it away as not being ‘real’ in the sense that a real human being was scourged, mocked and nailed to the tree only to rise again bodily on the third day. All of that, some say, is a beautiful way of expressing some profound message about the power of redemption and how to live a moral life. That ignores the reality – that messy and awful reality which any sensitive soul might well wish not to dwell upon – of the suffering Servant who really suffers, really dies and really rises. Yet that is at the heart of our faith. On Good Friday we were there with him, and not even the knowledge of the glory to come could turn us from the profound horror of what he suffered. That becomes even worse when we think that it was for us this happened. So we have to glory in that sacrifice, we have to embrace him, and we have to love him.
If we know Christ, then we know that it matters who he is. It is easy enough (which is why it is done so often) to see him as a really good man – but really good men don’t claim to be the Messiah and forgive the sins of others. It is easy to see him as a moral example; but moral men don’t claim to be God. C.S. Lewis got it right all those years ago – Jesus is either who the Church says he is, or he was a madman and our faith is vain.
How shall we, by our own lights, understand such a love? Where is our human experience is there anything which helps us? Only in the language we were taught by Jesus himself. Those of us who are fathers know the lengths we would go to help or save our sons. Well, we are, by adoption, the sons of God, and God went this far to save us. It is not, as St Isaac reminds us, that God could not have saved us in any other way – He is God, and he can do whatever is necessary, it is that nothing else would have sufficed to reveal to us the depth and breadth of that love. When St John tells us that God is love, he means it. That is the whole of it – God is love and reaches out in love to touch us. Once touched, then nothing is the same agian – how could it be?