I’m aware as I start this blog that I’m on a hiding to nothing. I’m going to try to tell you about the indescribable. Hah! What a twit I am! But here I go anyway:
Today is a fabulous day. Today we remember one of the many thousand cruel, barbaric state sanctioned killings that took place as the Roman Empire swaggered and slashed its way across the world. And we rejoice. An old fashioned word but there it is. We rejoice at the death and torture and disgrace of a man, Jesus Christ, two thousand years ago.
So why is the death of Jesus so amazingly joyful? And why is it the only crucifixion we remember? Why, this morning, in a small church in West Wales, singing about a brutal execution, were we both moved to tears of grief and filled with joy? How come the death of Christ is as joyful as the birth of Christ, and why is the birth of Christ as poignant and heart-breaking as His death?
Because, together, they make sense of our existence. Because there is only one perfect story in the world, and this is it.
My life is all about stories – I weave them, I work them out, I love the exploration, the discovery, the gradual reveal of every story I’ve ever told. From a fictional heroine in 1895 to a real life hero in 1943, with a thousand fictional characters along the way, through series and films and plays, I’ve gathered up the baubles and clutter of the world as I’ve gone along, and I love the process.
Life is story. I care about story.
I’ve just written a play about the birth of Jesus Christ, and it was impossible to write about the joy of His birth without acknowledging the death that was to come. The baby in the manger means nothing without the understanding that this totally vulnerable child was also the God of all creation. The cosy tale of the stable and the shepherds is meaningless without the question ‘Why?’
And in the answer to that ‘why?’ is the answer to every other question.
This is a child born in helpless vulnerability in order to die in helpless vulnerability. Birth in obscurity, death in pain and shame. That’s the plan. The perfect plan.
The centre of any drama is the storyline. When I send an idea for a film or series to any TV broadcaster, they want storyline. You can have the most robust characterisation ever, the greatest scenery, most luscious costumes, amazing fx… but without story, there’s nothing. What’s the end game? What’s the point? What’s the plan for the first episode, how does it hook into the second, how does that progress… what’s the conflict, tension and resolution of the drama? Why will we care about these characters and their dilemmas? Is there a good vs bad? Are the characters believable and do their flaws lead to drama? And that gives us the series arc. The series ‘why?’
But this is not a human story, this story of Jesus. No way. What writer in this world would whip up the God of all creation and have Him born into poverty unless there was a huge end-game and reveal? “Well, hang on,” you say, “you might do that if it was a rags to riches story.” True. But this is more like rags to rags.
Would a writer perhaps dream up a God born into poverty and dying in disgrace if everyone He met along the way saw how wonderful He was in that last climactic scene? Possibly. It worked for Ben Hur. But in this story Jesus dies alone, only his mother and two shaken friends at the foot of his cross. No great ‘Les Miserable’ style anthem there, then. No heroic resolution.
So why would any human writer concoct this story?
Imagine me trotting off to the South Bank, or to Langham Place, to offer a series about someone who was born in a backwater, to a disgraced woman, lived in obscurity until a brief three years of struggling celebrity, but was then betrayed and abandoned by His fickle followers, dying in agony, just one more executed man among thousands of them. ITV’s commissioning editor would worry about advertising revenue. The BBC would ask for a feel-good and aspirational theme. I sympathise. It takes some thought, this story of God.
He was born in order to die. He died in order to be raised again. He was raised again in order to save mankind from sin. No man would have concocted that story.
And the story wasn’t told in 32 years. It didn’t have a start date and an end date, or a shelf life. From the very beginning of creation, the story of Jesus was playing out. Through the separation of the waters, the birth of stars and sun and moon, the formation of the swirling primordial swamp, the creation of life… the story of Jesus was being told and foretold. I remember about two years ago, as a Young Adults evening came to an end (Bible study, pizza, crisps and chocolate) our Pastor started to make his way home and he made some small remark that just WOW! It changed my understanding of Jesus Christ. He said something like ‘Of course, in the first chapter of Genesis, Jesus was there. ‘ Seeing my blank stare he added (and this is seared in my heart) “Luce, Jesus wasn’t created. Jesus always was. ” Yep, he has that clarity and I am that thick. It had never occurred to me before. And it changed my understanding completely. Jesus was not created by God. There wasn’t God and then He made Jesus and then the Spirit popped up. Three in one. Indivisible. Why was I telling you that?
Oh, yes, the story of Jesus isn’t a story spanning just 32 years. Or even 32 years plus the time that’s elapsed since the crucifixion. The perfect story of Jesus has no beginning and only a huge and triumphant and resplendent end … and that’s still to play out, when time itself ends.
This morning, Good Friday, we touched on the birth of Jesus as we thought about His death. We heard about the ‘Why?’ of both. Why was Jesus born as man, and why did He die as man? In order to rise as God. There’s the purpose, the arc, the drive of His life. He came into life in order to die and rise again. And listen, on Sunday, when we celebrate that resurrection, that’s the one time (for me anyway) when it’s just joy, just celebration, triumph, fulfilment. Unadulterated JOY! Oh Yesss!
Hey – I had a new thought today about the moment of Christ’s death; when He took His last breath and the curtain in the temple was torn in two, so that we can now step into the presence of God, He was at that moment full of love for you, and me. Because His love is eternal, unchanging and constant and cannot forget us, not for one nano-second. At that very moment, He loved us. Not just before, when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, not just after when He rose again, not just today when we surrender to Him, but at the very moment of His death, crying out in anguish, He loved us then. At that moment. And His love is out of time, so that His love is here for me now, that moment of pure and eternal Love, here, for me, sitting here in my stripey top and bare feet and shabby old cardigan in 2019.
Even as He died, He loved me. Our amazing God.
So, forgive us Christians if sometimes we are choked by tears, and can’t find the words, forgive us if we are overwhelmed with emotion, make allowances when we are passionately triumphant, broken and mourning all at the same time. We have a whole great amazing story to tell, reaching back to the beginning of time and forward to eternity, and sometimes it’s just too much to hold in our love-filled hearts.
The only perfect story in the world, it’s my story, and it can be yours.
‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.’ Revelation 3:20