In the Christian West, tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Usually this day is given to joyful children’s processions, to waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” In churches that do not observe Good Friday as a rule, or for persons whose work prevents them from attending Good Friday observances, the result may be that we go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter, with scant attention given to the cross in between. Or, Easter Sunday may become the day when we sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and talk about Jesus suffering and death, with little attention paid to the glory of Christ’s resurrection.
However, the lectionary readings for the day remind us that tomorrow is not only Palm Sunday (Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40), but also Passion Sunday (Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14—23:56). We are reminded that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem took him in the end to Calvary, where he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Christians have always understood that the cross of Jesus is the place where our own death dies—the place where our separation from God and from one another is undone, and we are delivered from sin, death, hell, and the grave. But from the very beginning, we have struggled to understand why, or how, this happens.
The Bible presents many ways of thinking about the cross. For example, in the gospel of Luke, from which this year’s lectionary readings are taken, Jesus is the sovereign Lord who remains in control, even on the cross. While in Mark and Matthew, Jesus dies with a loud, inarticulate cry (Mk 15:37//Matt 27:50), in Luke, his last words are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46)—a prayer of confidence, drawn from Psalm 31:5. No one kills Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Instead Jesus, in control to the end, voluntarily surrenders his spirit to God. By his death and resurrection, Jesus wins the final victory over the Enemy, Satan, and liberates the world from bondage to sin and death (see Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:1-11).
In the gospel of Mark, however, Jesus is the servant who identifies with those who suffer. So, in Mark 10:41-45, Jesus teaches his followers that while the world regards as great those who lord it over others, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43). The model for this life of service is Jesus himself: “For the Son of Man [this is the way Jesus refers to himself throughout the gospels] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). As the great Scottish Christian George MacDonald wrote, “the Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be more like his.”
I am thinking about the cross today, not only because we are on the verge of Holy Week, but also because of a question raised by Jennifer, who asks what the Bible says about “those with different abilities. I don’t mean good singers and bad singers. I am speaking more of intellectual disabilities. It isn’t something covered much in the Bible, but it is very important to me.” Jennifer’s question addresses not only the developmentally disabled, such as those with Down’s Syndrome, but also those who lose their intellectual abilities later in life. In particular, as more and more of us are living into old age, the incidence of dementia, particularly due to Alzheimer’s, is on the rise. Where is God in the lives of those who cannot understand the words of the Gospel?
To be sure, the Bible says a great deal about physical disabilities: blindness, deafness, paralysis, and a host of other ailments. Usually, the point of Scripture is that God is a God of healing and wholeness (for example, see Isa 35:1-10; Matt 11:2-6). But healing is not always guaranteed. Consider Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10). Interpreters vary broadly over what the nature of this ailment was. Some suggest that Paul had malaria—an illness that, once you get it, keeps coming back, over and over again. Others suggest, based on Gal 4:13-15 and 6:11, that Paul was going blind. Whatever his trouble, it is clear that despite his prayers, Paul was not healed. Still, he declares, “”I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Paul finds meaning in his own suffering by identifying with the suffering of Christ.
But what about those with intellectual disabilities? As Jennifer notes, there is little, if anything, in the Bible to help us here. Passages which may seem to refer to intellectual disability, such as 1 Thess 5:13, where the King James version reads “comfort the feeble-minded,” or Prov 1:22, which appeals to the “simple ones,” are talking about spiritual weakness or willful ignorance, not about mental illness or developmental impairments. Still, if Jesus has come to identify with the least of us, to humble himself in service to all of us even to the point of taking on our suffering, weakness and death, then surely Jesus is among those who are mentally as well as physically or economically disabled. Our relationship with God does not depend upon our right understanding—if it did, how could anyone be saved? It depends upon God’s love and grace, and God’s decision to come and be with us in our weakness, whoever we are, and whatever our weakness may be.
Early in my ministry, I was blessed to know a woman named Freda, who was dying of a painful bone cancer. God’s presence in her life was very real. Toward the end, when I would visit her in the hospital, she would not ask me to talk about heaven, where she would be free from pain, or about the promised resurrection that would follow her death. Instead, she said to me again and again, “Steve, tell me about the cross.” The message of the cross to Freda was that she was not alone: that Christ was with her in her pain, and would not abandon her. I believe that the cross speaks to all of us of God’s presence with us, whatever pain or fear or need we face. In Christ, God assumes our disabilities into Godself, transforming the place of our deepest need into the place of God’s most abundant grace.