We have just been enjoying Christmas and Epiphany, and already in a few days – early this year – begins Lent; in some traditions called also Passion Time. On this occasion we reproduce a reflection for this time of the church calendar taken from the book “Het jaar rond. Een boek voor het persoonlijke leven”. Its authors are H.L. Oort and W. Mackenzie. They are both ministers in the Remonstrant Brotherhood, a church community emerged in the 17th century in protest to Calvinist orthodoxy. Remonstrants were at that time often called Arminians. Today the Brotherhood is considered, despite small membership, to be the leading liberal church in the Netherlands and is situated doctrinally and spiritually near the United Church of Christ (perhaps a little to the left in the direction of Unitarians). Liberal theology and spirituality has been for years accused of being overoptimistic with regard to the human being and her capabilities and of not being sensitive to the tragic aspect of reality. This often leads people to the conclusion that liberal Christianity is Christianity light, nice and easy. The text we posted below is doubtlessly optimistic, sometimes perhaps even too optimistic, especially when the authors write about how suffering and sin pass by us when we are young, but on the other hand we can hardly deny that Oort and Mackenzie have a great sense of what suffering, sorrow, regret, sin and the constant struggle with ourselves and the world around us are in our lives. Their Christianity leads to the elevation of the human being, but through a tough confrontation with what is wicked, painful and tragic in human life. Also the illustrations come from this book, and under the text you will find a link to the original Dutch version.
Days of suffering [the original word has a double meaning as it means both a time of suffering in human life and passion time in the church calendar] weigh hard on the human heart and fill it with fear. Life often fails and there is no way out to be seen. My God, why did you forsake me? And people inflict so much pain and sorrow on each other: through lack of understanding and egoism. In the world sin seems to win, truth is mocked and purity crucified.
Yet from the worst suffering, and actually through suffering, sprouts unspoken longing for consolation, an even stronger love and salvation. Hope is born out of struggle with suffering, while a deep soul’s desire, still not completely understood, points the way to another country, to Jerusalem. Alders start to bloom, chestnut buds swell up, and first flowers announce spring, which has to come, even though it is still winter.
The word cross has two meanings. We call every suffering given to the human being to bear a cross. “Every house has its cross”, we say in Dutch. Under every roof live worries and sufferings. But the cross has also a completely different meaning. “The cross triumphed over the world”. Now we think about the Cross of Christ and his sanctifying influence. So understood it is for us the image of the Sufferer, who through his trust, gentleness, through his self-offering, empowered and brought salvation to the world of the lost and sorrowful. Through him the cross became a sign of victory, a symbol not only of suffering, but of transformed suffering. Not of sins in their hoplessness, but of sins confessed and forgiven. Not of oppression and depression, but of elevation. Not only of tears, but of eyes enlightened by tears. Pain and worries exist, but they can be transformed into a strengthened will and love which will help others carry their burdens. The joy of the paradise of childhood has passed, but the invisible kingdom of ideal goodness lies open before us. There is failure, but there is also reconciliation. Our cross can lead us to the Cross.
When we are young, suffering and sin pass by us, not comprehended. A child’s sorrow is soon forgotten and evil done by children is soon forgiven. To live means to be happy, to experience pleasures and look forward to them. Children still live as if in a dream, and it is a dream where everything is beautiful, a joy for our senses, brilliant in our eyes. Children are far from the painful sense of wickedness and spiritual poverty.
Yet many people remain big children in their fear of suffering and being serious. They avoid it at any cost, seeking to forget it in the company of others and other distractions, because they are afraid of the weight of life. They want to encounter only joy, a festive mood and smiling faces. Such people complain, perhaps even a lot, that there are sin and sinners, but they are content with themselves. “At least we are not like the others”.
Soon, however, the human being will become a part of it and he wakes up standing in the very middle. Perhaps like Simon of Cyrene, who was going back from the field and had to join the funeral procession and carry the cross. Perhaps this is how it begins – from com-passion with others? It was not your cross, but it became your cross, love led you here. And so you stand here and it doesn’t let go of you. Who loves, learns fear and worry, who loves, must learn to deny herself many things. In life every growth comes with suffering and leads us to a sense of being little and of shortcomings.
Here arises the big question that is born in every seriously experienced human life: is this cross of our lives which we carry on our shoulders crying for elevation, for victory, whose symbol is the Cross [of the Lord]? Or does it rather lead us to bitterness and a sense of guilt, ceaseless worrying and weakness? The world seems to be overwhelmed by depressed people and people who have given up, who wasted their lives; it is full of lost creatures… The cross stands high in it like a lighthouse, it shines above rough waters. There is a haven, safety, peace. Consolation and reconciliation really exist. The cross teaches us who we are, whom we can be. There is greatness of soul and readiness for strife, moral strife of the human soul, there is vocation. The cross reveals this all to the world full of people immersed in doubt. It elevates us, proclaims forgiveness, renewal, future. We should leave what is evil behind us and renew life from within with eyes fixed upon him who has preceded us all. Then we will learn to listen to his word which sounds more powerfully than our voices, our hymns, our complaints. Who listens, will hear: come, ascend to me.
The cross is a sign of victory which ennobles our crosses.