I love preaching on the Emmaus story (St. Luke 24), both because it is the Gospel for which my congregation is named, and because it is just an outstanding narrative. There is more in that one Gospel account than we could ever exhaust in a lifetime, and I discover some new insight, some new thing concerning Jesus of Nazareth, every time I am given to preach on it. This past week, I noticed in particular how the hiddenness of Christ really persists throughout the story.
It's not only at the first, while they are yet on the way, that the eyes of those first Emmaus disciples are prevented from recognizing Jesus. He's not invisible to them, but He is hidden under the Cross (also now in His Resurrection from the dead). Thus, their hopes for redemption have been disappointed by the very suffering and death of Christ that have accomplished their redemption. Even after He has begun to open the Scriptures to them, and He has explained the fulfillment of the Scriptures in His Cross and Passion, He then acts as though He were going further, moving on, leaving them behind in the dark. Isn't that the way it is for us all? But He would thereby teach us to pray, "Lord, abide with us," the very thing He desires and intends, in order to be received in faith. And when He has entered in, then He becomes the Host, and we the guests at His Table in His House. Except that, when He has finally revealed Himself to us there in the Breaking of the Bread, again He vanishes from our sight.
We do not yet see all things in subjection to Him. We do not yet see the glory of the Resurrection. We do not yet see or feel or experience that sin and death have been defeated and ended. What we see for now is Jesus, the Crucified One, made for a little while lower than the angels in order to taste death for all of us children of men, and thereby to enter His glory. He is not invisible, but He is still hidden under the Cross and suffering. So is His Church. So are we.
It is Jesus who travels with us on the way. It is Jesus who baptizes and catechizes us, and makes us His own disciples. It is Jesus who takes bread, give thanks, and distributes His Body to us. It is Jesus who forgives our sins. We can see all of these things happening, for they happen tangibly, outwardly, bodily. But our eyes do not perceive the truth or substance of it. That perception is by faith alone, and not by sight. It is by the Word and Spirit of Christ the Crucified, and that is a scandalous and contradictory thing.
Thus the Church on earth suffers and struggles and straggles along, beleaguered and picked on. Jesus is blasphemed and ridiculed and treated with contempt. We do not see that sin, death, the devil and hell are trampled under His feet, but find that He and we are always being trampled upon. Not that we are innocent of trampling Him ourselves. For rather what we see in our members, that is, in our flesh, is the raging war of constant temptation and daily falling short. God's own child, we gladly say it, but we do not see it. We are always sinning. And we are dying, always dying. Everywhere we look, within and without, it is only sin and death that we see and feel and experience. And when we look to Jesus, it appears that all our hopes are disappointed, that our faith is in vain. For there is the Man of death bearing the sins of the world. Who, then, shall save us, if our only Savior is subjected to such misery?
The Cross is a scandal because it screams the very opposite of that which it achieves. Here there is divine victory and divine glory in utter shame, public humiliation, and apparent defeat. That is what we see and outwardly perceive in the Cross. Or so we should. For that is how the Christ our Lord enters into His Glory, and it is by such a Cross that we enter into His Glory with Him, by death into life. That is the reality of the Cross in our lives of Christian discipleship. It is what we see and feel and experience in the world; and if not in the Cross of Christ, then forever.
But the world wants no part of such a Cross. Not the world out there, nor the world in us. So we have this popular Protestant fiction of an empty cross, as though it were now supposed to be a sign or symbol of the Resurrection. While Christ our Lord is revealed to us in the hiddenness of His Cross, the Cross has been hidden under the guise of a polite decoration, a pleasant adornment on the wall, or a popular piece of jewelry, without any reference, please, to bloody gore and bitter death. No sacred head now wounded here!
A case in point is a conversation I overheard the other day. I wasn't trying to listen, and for much of it I would have preferred not to listen, but there was no escaping. It was a striking conversation, and I am sorry that I didn't have the opportunity to congratulate the gentleman who engaged it with the woman traveling home from her mother's funeral. He communicated in such a clear and compassionate manner, with gentleness and persistence, with incredible patience and kindness. It was a humbling thing to witness such a forthright witnessing of the faith.
The airplane was more than fashionably late, so the conversation continued rather a long time, actually. It began with a sober reference to the funeral, a sigh, and a question concerning Jesus. From there it meandered all over the place, and it was a genuine apologetic encounter. In the course of the discussion, it came out that this woman is a very disenchanted, downright bitter, former Roman Catholic. She grew up with it, and has no use for it. Nor does she have much use for Christianity or "religion" of any sort, and she wavered back and forth on whether there is a God or not. She likes "Jesus" alright, but not the Jesus of the Holy Scriptures. "All we need is love," that's the message of her "Jesus." Sounds good on the surface, but tragically not so. The point of her "Jesus" is that we should all find "god" within ourselves, in being kind and caring to each other. "Truth" and "reality" this woman regards as so entirely subjective and relative that the possibility of being "wrong" is simply impossible in her view. Nothing really matters, and what if it did.
The thing that really hit me was her candid evaluation of the Roman Catholic Church and of the funeral she had just attended. She was absolutely repulsed by the Cross and Passion, by all the talk of death and blood, and especially by the crucifixes and other such artistic portrayals of Christ in His suffering. She wants nothing of it. She considers it gruesome and grotesque, absolutely tasteless, and thoroughly useless.
I suppose it will sound callous and cold (though I don't mean it to be), but that is exactly how the Cross ought to hit a person: right between the eyes and straight through the heart. It's not supposed to be pretty and pleasant. There is a place for beautiful crosses, which paradoxcially confess the glory of the Christ in His innocent suffering and death. But we lose the paradox, and the glory along with it, if the Cross becomes too easy on the eyes. Then it's no longer a confession of the hidden truth, but a deception and a lie concerning a make-believe "Jesus." No thanks. That sort of "Jesus" doesn't exist; he can't and won't save anyone. That poor, misguided, grieving, angry woman is confused, and she is wrong. I'm glad that Christian gentleman kindly and clearly told her the truth and spoke forthrightly to her. I hope and pray that the Word and Spirit of God will bring her to repentance and to faith in Christ the Crucified.
In the meantime, I am more convinced than ever that a proper sort of crucifix, the more realistic the better, is far and away superior to a barren cross. It sets before our eyes Christ Crucified, as St. Paul does in his preaching, and as every preacher of the Gospel is called and sent to do. Set upon the Altar, historically, the crucifix has been a confession of the true body and blood of Christ Jesus that are given and poured out for us Christians to eat and to drink in the Holy Communion. In the Sacrament, the body of Christ is given from the Cross into our mouths, His blood outpoured from His wounded hands and feet and side into the chalice of salvation from which we drink. But even apart from the Sacrament of the Altar, a crucifix proclaims that here is our God, whom we worship and adore, and precisely in this way is He our Savior. There shouldn't be any wiggle room that permits or tolerates the prospect of any other way or means of life and salvation.
One of the first times it ever dawned on me, how powerful a sign the crucifix is, was shortly after LaRena and I were married. This would have been going on twenty-three years ago. She did not grow up Lutheran, but she had been well catechized in basic Lutheran doctrine and had come to know and love the Gospel very well. I didn't realize, however, that our church back home did not have a crucifix. Thus, the first time we approached the chapel at Concordia, Seward, I could feel her hand in mind get tense, and I could sense that she was in a state of sudden shock at the sight of a large crucifix on the wall by the entrance. "What is that doing here?" she asked me. Inside, she was suddenly questioning what she'd gotten herself into. She had been taught that only Roman Catholics made use of the crucifix, and that they did so as a denial of the Resurrection; which isn't true, of course, on either count, but so she had been told. It made her first Lutheran encounter with a crucifix all the more unsettling and provocative, and that was ultimately for the good. Now she would not trade a crucifix for anything less, because she has come to recognize the Passion of the Christ as the very heartbeat of the Gospel and of the Christian faith and life.
Although I had not noticed the absence of a crucifix at our home church, I could readily understand the particular power of the crucifix, whether for positive piety or scandalous upset. As I little boy, I remember coming across a drawing that my Dad had done of the crucifixion, and I still recall being profoundly moved by that picture, and somehow drawn to it. Little children really seem to get this, actually, like so many other things pertaining to the Gospel of Jesus.
When I would go to the seminary library with my very little Zachary in tow, barely beyond a babe in arms, there was a large crucifix on the wall just inside the door. As often as we would come in or go out of the library, he would tug and pull me toward that crucifix and gaze upon it in wonder. As soon as he was old enough to talk, he would confess that it was Jesus on that cross. And Zach knew that there was something incredibly important about it, that this was something Jesus had done for him, and that it was hard and really hurt. Little boys know all about ouchies. So Zach would have me hold him up to that crucifix on the wall, so that he could lean in to kiss Jesus' ouchies. There's something deeper than outward piety involved in that kind of love and affection on the part of a toddler who was otherwise run and gun and rough and tumble. No empty cross in the world could have catechized him in that way.
The little children at Emmaus get it, too. Normally my pectoral crucifix is under my chasuble when the people come out of church and greet me. But it occasionally happens that I greet the people with my crucifix in view, and it never fails that the youngest children are drawn to it with rapt attention. The Son of Man, when He is lifted up, shall thus draw all men to Himself, no less so the nursing infants and rambunctious toddlers.
Don't anyone tell me that they don't know what it's all about, either. Indulge this Dad in one more story, this time about my DoRena Beana. She was three, and this was also back in my seminary days. Both she and Zach spent a lot of time at the seminary daycare, while LaRena was working and I was in class. That year, for Easter I suppose, they and all their daycare peers received little handmade crosses from a ladies' group somewhere, which was nice. These crosses were made of plaster, hand painted, and decorated with flowers. Fine and good.
Around that same time, I had DoRena with me as I was out shopping for a crucifix to display in our home. There was this great Roman Catholic church supply store in Fort Wayne, and it had an impressive array of crucifixes for sale, case after case of them all along the wall. So I'm taking my time and looking them over, and DoRena is quietly taking all of this in. Finally, she tugs at my arm and asks if she can get a cross, too. Silly me, being a poor seminary student, the first thing I say is, "You just got that cross at the daycare, remember." But I never could dissuade my Beanie when she had her heart and mind set on something. And she was exactly right in this case, as she demonstrated beautifully. "Daddy," she said, "that cross has flowers on it. But flowers didn't die for me. Jesus died for me. I want a cross with Jesus on it." She got one.
It's possible, no doubt, to become cavalier and nonchalent about the crucifix. It can be used as nothing more than artwork or "Goth" jewelry. Our foolish hearts are too easily jaded and slow to believe the Gospel, even when it's in our face. Our eyes may prevent us from perceiving what is true. Half the time we may forget to care, and the other half we may just stand still looking sad. It is never anything other than the Word and Spirit of Christ the Crucified that will open our ears to hear, our minds to comprehend, and our hearts to believe the divine glory of His Cross. It is always a scandal, whether that Word of the Cross is proclaimed verbally or visually, but a crucifix says it more clearly than an empty cross.
An empty cross is fine, so long as it points us to the One who was crucified. An empty cross that bears no connection to the body of Jesus would finally be nothing but a pointless relic or a superstitious talisman. A crucifix tells it like it is, like it or not. In doing so, it brings to bear the real Gospel upon our lives under the Cross in the midst of sin and death. It brings balm and healing from the wounds of Jesus Christ to our troubled hearts and minds.
That is what we see. Not yet all things in subjection to Him, but Jesus made lower than the angels, who humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.