Tuesday in Holy Week: Collect and Reflections

Here’s the collect of the day:

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Apparently adapted from a collect in the 1928 English Book of Common Prayer (so Hatchett), it is Pauline in theology “glory in the cross of Christ” but perhaps shades over into something less healthy with the expressed desire to “gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of … Jesus Christ.”

There’s a tendency in much of Christian piety toward self-abasement. Left unchecked, it can be destructive both on a personal level and for the whole community. I suppose that what bothers me in the collect is the repetition of the word “shame.” Surely “shame” was not at the heart of Jesus’ experience of the crucifixion. Did it play a role in early Christian reflection on the cross? Folly and shame are not identical; nor is shame a stumbling block as Paul observes of the cross in today’s reading from I Corinthians 1:18-31.

It begins:

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

That’s the expression of the central paradox in Pauline theology: the contrast between wisdom and folly, strength and weakness, and the assertion that when we see Jesus Christ at his weakest (i.e., on the cross), we see God at God’s most powerful. It’s an important inversion of our values and expectations, one that Paul seems to have learned through his own experience (the thorn in the flesh mentioned in II Corinthians). To translate these concepts, and this paradox into shame seems to diminish the power of what Paul is expressing.

Given the perversion of the Christian message by folks like Glenn Beck, and the Christian militia, it’s a useful reminder this week that as we approach the cross and Good Friday, understanding what it means remains elusive and easily misused.

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