The New Fire and the Rebirth of the Messia

At the time of the full moon at the Spring Equinox, the people of the Messiani extinguish all their hearth-fires and every lamp and lantern and source of light amongst them. They gather then on the hillside at midnight and in the darkness a Holy Man strikes the new fire from the rock of flint and with this a great sacred fire is made to blaze. This new fire from darkness represents, for the Messiani, the rebirth of Messia their dying god, and also the rebirth of the year and the coming of new life out of darkness and winter.

An image of the risen god in the form of a tall candle is then lighted from the fire to symbolise his return from the dead, and adorned with certain sacred signs by which past and future and all time is made to centre on this time and this place. Led by the flame of the image the whole throng then moves in procession from the fire to the place of assembly. As they go they take new flame from the image for their own torches and lanterns and they dance and shout the praises of Messia ‘the light of the world’.

When the crowd is once more assembled Messia is erected amongst green boughs and flowers and other signs of fertility and a Holy Man addresses it in song, bringing this Holy Night to coincide with the mythic nights of creation and of the birth of the Messiani people, the daylight night of the death and rebirth of God which, for the Messiani, is also the death and rebirth of Man. This is followed by the solemn chanting of the creation myths and other legends of the sacred story of the Messiani, always with the theme of darkness and the conquest of darkness by light.

Then, while two Singing Men start an hypnotic chant naming the names of the holy ones of the Messiani past, a great bath of water is prepared which is to receive power from the Fire and Light so that it will become the Waters of Life. Those who are to be initiated into the mysteries of the Messiani, must pass through this water, and, moreover, all the people are splashed with it, for they believe that this will bring them fertility and renewed life during the coming year.

The climax is reached with the common sacred banquet of the Dying and Rising God/Man. Now from Fire and Light and Water we pass to Bread and Wine consecrated and made holy, for in consuming them together the Messiani believe that they are mystically devouring the very flesh and blood of the Dying God: their bodies are thus made one with his and share in his new risen life. When this mystery has been enacted the entire throng, men, women and children, make their way to another place for cocoa and buns.

Herbert McCabe, O.P.

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Holy Saturday Evangelism

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“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?”

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If atonement ain’t penal, why the cross?

The theory of penal substitutionary atonement provides a clear, simple-to-understand explanation of the events of Holy Week. On the cross the eternal Son endures the wrath of God for the sins of the world. He stands in our place; he suffers the punishment due our iniquities, pays the debt we could not pay ourselves. There’s only one problem—if taken literally, the theory severely distorts the gospel. It introduces retribution directly into the heart of the Father, thus requiring the invention of a device by which to reconcile the warring principles of justice and mercy. The result is the barbaric PSA-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. The propitiatory sacrifice becomes the principal focus of preaching: “You are sinners living under the judgment of the cross. Believe on the Savior who has paid for your sins, lest you be eternally damned.” We have heard this message from our pastors on Sunday mornings, from television and camp meeting evangelists, from Sunday school teachers and youth ministers. Here in America it has shaped our religious and cultural identities since the First Great Awakening in the 18th century.

But does this notion of penal substitutionary atonement make sense? Fr Herbert McCabe thinks not:

So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin. This seems to be based on an idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘pays his debt to society’, as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.

Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it to criminals or to Christ. I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there. I can see the point in the criminal being bound to make restitution to anyone he has injured, when that is possible; but that is not the same as punishment. I can see the point in punishment as something painful that people will want to avoid and (we may reasonably hope) something to encourage them to avoid committing crimes; but this is not paying a debt. It is impossible to see Christ on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others. If God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than ever we are sometimes. If a society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way. And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, he must be even more infantile. (“Good Friday,” God Matters, pp. 91-92)

The Christian tradition has long juggled various metaphors by which to speak of our Lord’s atoning death on the cross–satisfaction, ransom, debt, expiation, liberation, victory. But of course these are metaphors drawn from our daily lives. We should not think of them as literally applying to the divine work of atonement, and we distort that divine work if we so interpret them. Every metaphor includes a denial, a not. This is a good thing, as it allows the Church to draw on a wide range of figurative expressions by which to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The metaphorical not saves us from a great deal of nonsense. “No theory and no metaphor is going to exhaust the mystery of the cross,” writes McCabe, “and by the same token the most peculiar theories and models may have some light to shed on it provided we do not taken them too literally” (p. 92).

So if the atonement ain’t penal, why the cross? It hardly suffices to think of Calvary as mere happenstance, accidental to the dominical life. Jesus certainly did not think so: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt 20:18-19). Our Lord both anticipated his death and understood it as the inevitable culmination of his work. He knew that the priestly authorities would reject his messianic mission, and he knew that the Roman authorities would deem him a threat to the social order. Thus one answer to the question “Why did Christ die on the cross?” would be: “He died because those who held power did not recognize in him the saviour they awaited and so found him merely a subversive nuisance, which was quite enough for the colonial power to have him crucified” (p. 91). But McCabe finds this historical explanation ultimately inadequate. It does not explain why the cross became the central symbol of Christian identity and evangelistic mission.

Why did Christ die on the cross? Because of his faithfulness to his divine mission, and his divine mission was this—to be human, truly and fully human:

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified? And, if so, why? The answer as I see it is again: No. The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wishes is that Jesus should be human … And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience, and his obedience was to the command to be human. Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, not Adam but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfilment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love—for this is what human beings are for. The aim of human life is to live in friendship—a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends on a friendship, or covenant, that God has established between ourselves and him. (p. 93)

To be human, suggests McCabe, is to love freely, spontaneously, courageously, generously, not holding back from self-giving for fear of being hurt or impoverished or enslaved or killed. To love is to live beyond ourselves, to abandon ourselves to God and to others. “We need to lose our selves in love,” comments McCabe; “this is what we fear.” We fear the loss of control. We fear the risk of adventure. We fear that if we make ourselves available to life, we will find only death. And so we deny “the summons into life” and withdraw into our self-made, but ultimately futile, securities. That we do so is our sin, our death, our hell:

Our greatest talents and creative powers turn against us in destruction unless they are in the service of love, unless they are used in obedience to this mysterious call to transcend ourselves. We cannot live without love and yet we are afraid of the destructive creative power of love. We need and deeply want to be loved and to love, yet when that happens it seems a threat, because we are asked to give ourselves up, to abandon our selves; and so when we meet love we kill it. (p. 95)

Now extrapolate this deep fear of life into the economic and political structures, the structures our fear has created and into which we are born. We have made a world in which anyone who ventures into generosity and charity must be destroyed. Such it has always been, as far back as we can see; such it will always be, as far forward as we can see. We pass this world of sin and death to our children, unto the third and fourth generations. The Church calls this original sin.

Jesus was the first human, McCabe asserts, who had no fear of love and therefore had no fear of being human:

Jesus had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as gift from him whom he called ‘the Father’. You might say that as he lived and gradually explored into himself, asking not just the question ‘Who do men say that I am?’ but ‘Who do I say that I am?’ he found nothing but the Father’s love. This is what gave all the meaning to his life—the love which is the ultimate basis and meaning of the universe. However he would have put it to himself (and of this we know nothing), he saw himself as simply an expression of the love which is the Father and in which the Father delights. His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human. (p. 95)

Jesus knew God as the absolute love who had brought him into being and thus knew him as his Father; and in knowing him as Father, he knew himself as the Son of the Father, come into the world to faithfully communicate to mankind the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. For this reason, and ultimately for no other reason, McCabe believes, the world found it necessary to nail him to the cross:

So my thesis is that Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist. The cross, then, unmasks or reveals the sin of the world. (p. 97)

Why did we nail Jesus to the cross?
Because we needed to be rid of him.

Why did Jesus accept the cross?
Because of love.

What did the cross accomplish?

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Vampires and Crosses

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Robert Buchanan and “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”

By Addison Hodges Hart

If there is a theme that is both central to Christian revelation and yet obscured by much that has for centuries passed for “sound” Christian theology, surely it is the idea—so evident in the teaching of Christ—that at the very heart of created existence is divine love. Working in and through everything is the loving Father, who makes no distinction in his munificence: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). In Jesus’ view, this dispassionate, non-discriminating love is what makes the Father “perfect” (teleios), and it is precisely this “perfection” of love that followers of Christ are exhorted to emulate: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Christian theology has often forgotten, or at least not emphasized sufficiently, this primary truth. Instead we have been led to believe that “justice” precludes compassion and mercy whenever God’s righteousness is offended, which apparently happens quite a lot. And so we have Jesus’ admonitions related to the avoidance of “Gehenna” transformed over time by officious churchmen and “doctors” into fearful threats of “eternal” torture in “hell”. God, in this doctrinally “developed” view, is not so much a loving Father as a vindictive judge. Add to that the later, frankly barbaric Augustinian doctrine of predestination as enunciated in the West—that only a comparative handful of the elect, chosen from all eternity in the inscruta­ble counsels of God, will be spared everlasting torment, and that only made possible through the shedding of Christ’s blood as a “satisfaction”—and you have a dogma that is not only devoid of real love, but also of any logical coherence. “Hell”, in that scenario, can only mean unrelenting punishment visited on souls who have done nothing themselves to merit it, apart from being born (and, really, whose fault was that?). It’s as if Jesus, when speaking of forgiveness and “damnation”, had never once suggested that one could be forgiven both “in this age” and also “in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32); or as if he had said merely, when speaking of final judgment and punishment, that those condemned “will never get out”, rather than, as he actually is recorded as having said, that they “will never get out until [they] have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:26). I would suggest that that little word “until” is rather significant.

The point I’m coming to here is not a denial of “hell” in the sense that Jesus used the metaphor of “Gehenna”. It is not a denial even of “punishment”, if by “punishment” is meant something that doesn’t merely chastise and cause pain, but something that actually corrects and sets a person right. “Punishment”, that is, that rehabilitates and restores. For that remedial outcome “torture” and “torment” do not work, and even the term “punishment” is not a particularly useful one. All I am doing here, by the way, is summarily repeating what the great Scottish writer and (often maligned) theologian George MacDonald said on the matter a century and a half ago (see his Unspoken Sermons, particularly the sermon entitled “Justice”). My point is merely this: if the primary theme of Christ’s “good news” is the love of God, that divinity is characterized by infinite compassion and grace, that sin is swallowed up by mercy, that justice is a manifestation of love and therefore has as its end the reclamation of all things—if, in other words, God “desires all human beings to be saved”, “is the Savior of all human beings, especially of those who believe”, and does not will “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9)—then it follows that “hell” is a means, not an end, for the sake of salvation. Not the best means by a long shot, and not an unavoidable means because of the cross; but a means nonetheless.

And that brings me to the subject of this essay, which is about a minor poet of the nineteenth century and his poem. The poet is Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901), a name no longer familiar to most readers, although at one time he was held in fairly high regard. He gained a measure of notoriety when he harshly—and originally pseudonymously—criticized Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites. In his Appreciations of Poetry, Lafcadio Hearn commented upon that damaging incident:

Hard headed Scotchman as he was, [Buchanan] manifested in his attitude to his brother poets a good deal of the peculiar, harsh conservatism of which Scotchmen seemed to be particularly capable. And he did himself immense injury in his younger days by an anonymous attack upon the morals, or rather upon the moral tone, of such poets as Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne’s reply to this attack was terrible and withering. That of Rossetti was very mild and gentle, but so effective that English literary circles almost unanimously condemned Buchanan, and attributed his attack to mere jealousy. I think the attack was less due to jealousy than to character, to prejudice, to the harshness of a mind insensible to particular forms of beauty.

But Lafcadio Hearn—himself a fascinating character in his own right (we have him to thank, among his many outpourings, for that wonderfully curious volume, Kwaidan, which brings together Japanese ghost stories and Japanese entomology); and I will be drawing a great deal from his lecture on Robert Buchanan in what follows here—also had this to say of Buchanan, though, as it happens, mistakenly:

But the time has now passed when Buchanan can be treated as an indifferent figure in English literature. In spite of all disadvantages he has been a successful poet, a successful novelist, and a very considerable influence in the literature of criticism. Besides, he has written at least one poem that will probably live as long as the English language, and he has an originality quite apart and quite extraordinary.

Contrary to Hearn’s prediction, Buchanan has nonetheless become an “indifferent figure in English literature”, and the “one poem” that Hearn marks out as having had the potential to “live as long as the English language” is now mostly forgotten.

Well, to be honest, it’s an odd poem, certainly a period piece, and there is no use pretending it’s a great poem. Tastes have changed considerably since Buchanan wrote it and Hearn praised it. Modernism has intervened and not for the worse. Speaking only for myself, I much prefer, say, Eliot and Auden and Larkin and R. S. Thomas to Buchanan and many of his greater contemporaries. Yet, still, I have an abiding affection, if not for all of Buchanan’s oeuvre, at least for this one poem of his. Again, I find I agree with Lafcadio Hearn when he says: “If you know only this composition, you will know all that it is absolutely necessary to know of Robert Buchanan.”

The title of the poem is “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”. And, in fact, I think it could effectively be set to music and sung in true ballad style—surely there must be some group of musicians out there, folk or medieval or Americana, who could take on this task and do it right. The poem is undiluted nineteenth-century “gothic”; Buchanan might have disliked the Pre-Raphaelites, but the imagery in it could have made a fitting subject for one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Its atmosphere is gloomy and dark, and it puts me in mind of Ray Bradbury’s description of what he called the “October Country”: “That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.” Buchanan was, after all, a Celt.

“The Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is, of course, a religious poem. For quite a few readers, sensitive to such things, it will be seen as straddling the boundaries of acceptable “orthodoxy”, if it’s not seen as well within the borders of “heterodoxy”. As Hearn says of it, “[T]he great production of Buchanan is a simple ballad, … [it] is a beautiful and extraordi­nary thing, quite in accordance with the poet’s peculiar views of Christianity…” And, if this were not enough, he writes a little further on: “All that could be said against it from a religious point of view is that the spirit of it is even more Christian than Christianity itself.” Now this last sentiment of Hearn’s (who was himself unequivocally at odds with the organized religion of his day) should be understood as an ironic indictment of precisely the sort of Christianity described in the opening salvos of this essay. At this point I can do nothing better than reproduce at length Lafcadio Hearn’s explanation of Buchanan’s rationale for his “Ballad”, which puts a finger on exactly where the “orthodoxy/heterodoxy” difficulty lies:

Before we turn to the poem itself, I must explain to you something of the legend of Judas Iscariot. You know, of course, that Judas was the disciple of Christ who betrayed his master… Afterwards Judas, being seized with remorse, is said to have hanged himself; and there the Scriptural story ends. But in Church legends the fate of Judas continues to be discussed in the Middle Ages. As he was the betrayer of a person whom the Church considered to be God, it was deemed that he was necessarily the greatest of all traitors; and as he had indirectly helped to bring about the death of God, he was condemned as the greatest of all murderers. It was said that in hell the very lowest place was given to Judas, and that his tortures exceeded all other tortures. But once every year, it was said, Judas could leave hell, and go out to cool himself upon the ice of the Northern seas. That is the legend of the Middle Ages.

Now Robert Buchanan perceived that the Church legends of the punishment of Judas might be strongly questioned from a moral point of view. Revenge is indeed in the spirit of the Old Testament; but revenge is not exactly in the spirit of the teaching of Christ. The true question as to the fate of Judas ought to be answered by supposing what Christ himself would have wished in the matter. Would Christ have wished to see his betrayer burning for ever in the fires of hell? Or would he have shown to him some of that spirit manifested in his teachings, “Do good unto them that hate you; forgive your enemies”? As a result of thinking about the matter, Buchanan produced his ballad.

And it is at this juncture that Hearn says that all that can be said against the ballad is that its Christianity is more truly Christian (i.e., “Christ-like”) in spirit than Christianity (in its most rigidly ossified doctrinal form) had become.

Hearn’s lecture then gives most of the text of the poem, interspersed with his comments, and I will follow him here, though I will reproduce the entire text. But, before Hearn presented Buchanan’s poem, to set the stage he first explained its medieval folkloric background:

In order to understand the beginning of the ballad clearly, you should know the particulars about another superstition concerning Judas. It is said that all the elements refused to suffer the body [of Judas] to be committed to them; fire would not burn it; water would not let it sink to rest; every time it was buried, the earth would spew it out again. Man could not bury that body, so the ghosts endeavoured to get rid of it. The Field of Blood referred to in the ballad is the Aceldama of Scriptural legend, the place where Judas hanged himself.

And with all that in mind, Hearn gives us the text of the ballad. I would remark before I do the same that the dualism of body and soul is a striking feature of the poem. The great conundrum for the soul of Judas, his own Sisyphean task, is what to do with his body, since none of this world’s elements will receive it. In effect, this becomes the living hell of the dead Judas—the bearing of his own suicide’s body. For a poem that will, as we will see, undermine the notion of an everlasting (and thereby unjust) punishment, I can think of few images more truly hellish in nature than Buchanan’s vision of Judas’s torments.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay in the Field of Blood;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Beside the body stood.

Black was the earth by night,
And black was the sky;
Black, black were the broken clouds,
Tho’ the red Moon went by.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Strangled and dead lay there;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Look’d on it in despair.

The breath of the World came and went
Like a sick man’s in rest;
Drop by drop on the World’s eyes
The dews fell cool and blest.

Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did make a gentle moan—
‘I will bury underneath the ground
My flesh and blood and bone.

‘I will bury deep beneath the soil,
Lest mortals look thereon,
And when the wolf and raven come
The body will be gone!

‘The stones of the field are sharp as steel,
And hard and cold, God wot;
And I must bear my body hence
Until I find a spot!’

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
So grim, and gaunt, and gray,
Raised the body of Judas Iscariot,
And carried it away.

And as he bare it from the field
Its touch was cold as ice,
And the ivory teeth within the jaw
Rattled aloud, like dice.

As the soul of Judas Iscariot
Carried its load with pain,
The Eye of Heaven, like a lanthorn’s eye,
Open’d and shut again.

Half he walk’d, and half he seemed
Lifted on the cold wind;
He did not turn, for chilly hands
Were pushing from behind.

Whose are the “chilly hands” we can only guess. I imagine they belong to the “ghosts” that Hearn mentions in his retelling of the original legend.

The first place that he came unto
It was the open wold,
And underneath were prickly whins,
And a wind that blew so cold.

(Whins, it should be mentioned, are thorny shrubs or gorse.)

The next place that he came unto
It was a stagnant pool,
And when he threw the body in
It floated light as wool.

He drew the body on his back,
And it was dripping chill,
And the next place be came unto
Was a Cross upon a hill.

A Cross upon the windy hill,
And a Cross on either side,
Three skeletons that swing thereon,
Who had been crucified.

And on the middle cross-bar sat
A white Dove slumbering;
Dim it sat in the dim light,
With its head beneath its wing.

And underneath the middle Cross
A grave yawn’d wide and vast,
But the soul of Judas Iscariot
Shiver’d, and glided past.

This, in my opinion, must be the most disturbing image of the entire poem. At least it should be for those who believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. I don’t presume to know Robert Buchanan’s belief regarding it, and I would have preferred that he had not included these verses at all. But, he did, and we have to take the poem as we find it.

That said, however, it’s also true that, as Lafcadio Hearn points out, Buchanan knew that Christ’s and the two thieves’ bodies had been removed from the crosses on Calvary. They had not been left there to decompose, and so the three skeletons in the ballad must mean something other than the immediately obvious. They do not constitute a denial of the resurrection. Hearn suggests the following meaning to explain the baffling image:

The ghostly hand had pushed Judas to the place of all places where he would have wished not to go… [W]e may suppose that the whole description is of a phantasm, purposely shaped to stir the remorse of Judas. The white dove sleeping upon the middle cross suggests the soul of Christ, and the great grave made below might have been prepared out of mercy for the body of Judas. If the dove had awoke and spoken to him, would it not have said, “You can put your body here, in my grave; nobody will torment you.” But the soul of Judas cannot even think of daring to approach the place of the crucification.

That is as good an explanation as any, I suppose, and I think it at least comes closest to what Buchanan intended.

The fourth place that he came unto
It was the Brig of Dread,
And the great torrents rushing down
Were deep, and swift, and red.

He dared not fling the body in
For fear of faces dim
And arms were waved in the wild water
To thrust it back to him.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Turned from the Brig of Dread,
And the dreadful foam of the wild water
Had splashed the body red.

Regarding this particular image, Hearn writes: “There is here a poetical effect borrowed from sources having nothing to do with the Judas tradition. In old Northern folklore there is the legend of a River of Blood, in which all the blood ever shed in this world continues to flow; and there is a reference to this river in the old Scotch ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.'”

In this way, then, Judas’s betrayal of Christ’s blood is connected to all the bloodshed of human history. This is an image that might just possibly suggest at once the greatness and horror of Judas’s guilt, and likewise an implicit first indication of the hope of redemption even for so grave a crime.

For days and nights he wandered on
Upon an open plain,
And the days went by like blinding mist,
And the nights like rushing rain.

For days and nights he wandered on,
All thro’ the Wood of Woe;
And the nights went by like moaning wind,
And the days like drifting snow.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Came with a weary face –
Alone, alone, and all alone,
Alone in a lonely place!

He wandered east, he wandered west,
And heard no human sound;
For months and years, in grief and tears,
He wandered round and round,

For months and years, in grief and tears,
He walked the silent night;
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Perceived a far-off light.

“Days and nights … months and years” pass “in grief and tears”. This is both purgatory and hell that Buchanan describes, and the two are one. “Punishment” is, as we are about to see, remedial. Now a light—far off, dim—is beginning to shine for Judas:

A far-off light across the waste,
As dim as dim might be,
That came and went like the lighthouse gleam
On a black night at sea.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Crawl’d to the distant gleam;
And the rain came down, and the rain was blown
Against him with a scream.

For days and nights he wandered on,
Push’d on by hands behind;
And the days went by like black, black rain,
And the nights like rushing wind.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Strange, and sad, and tall,
Stood all alone at dead of night
Before a lighted hall.

And the wold was white with snow,
And his foot-marks black and damp,
And the ghost of the silvern Moon arose,
Holding her yellow lamp.

And the icicles were on the eaves,
And the walls were deep with white,
And the shadows of the guests within
Pass’d on the window light.

The shadows of the wedding guests
Did strangely come and go,
And the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretch’d along the snow.

The body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretched along the snow;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Ran swiftly to and fro.

To and fro, and up and down,
He ran so swiftly there,
As round and round the frozen Pole
Glideth the lean white bear.

‘Twas the Bridegroom sat at the table-head,
And the lights burnt bright and clear—
‘Oh, who is that,’ the Bridegroom said,
‘Whose weary feet I hear?’

Hearn writes:

But only the body [of Judas lies stretched along the snow]. The soul which has carried it does not lie down, but runs round and round the lighted hall, where the wedding guests are assembled.

He runs, I believe, in amazed excitement and, perhaps, an awakening joy. The reason is both painful and obvious:

What wedding? What guests? This is the mystical banquet told of in the parable of the New Testament; the bridegroom is Christ himself; the guests are the twelve disciples, or rather, the eleven, Judas himself having been once the twelfth. And the guests see the soul of Judas looking in at the window.

But not all within are glad to see the betrayer without. There is something of the elder brother’s anger at the Prodigal’s return in the grumbling of the apostles in the stanzas below, and also something of the harshness of a church ready to condemn. Here are the ballad’s final stanzas:

‘Twas one look’d from the lighted hall,
And answered soft and slow,
‘It is a wolf runs up and down
With a black track in the snow.’

The Bridegroom in his robe of white
Sat at the table-head—
‘Oh, who is that who moans without?’
The blessed Bridegroom said.

‘Twas one looked from the lighted hall,
And answered fierce and low,
’Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot
Gliding to and fro.’

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did hush itself and stand,
And saw the Bridegroom at the door
With a light in his hand.

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord’s Supper
Was spread so broad and bright.

The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and look’d,
And his face was bright to see—
‘What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper
With thy body’s sins?’ said he.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stood black, and sad, and bare—
‘I have wandered many nights and days;
There is no light elsewhere.’

‘Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
And their eyes were fierce and bright—
‘Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot
Away into the night!’

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!’

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

The conclusion, some will notice, is reminiscent of George Herbert’s poem “Love”:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The theme of love and forgiveness overcoming sin and unworthiness is similar, as is the image of the banquet and the Lord’s Supper as the sign and sacrament of divine love. The difference between the two poems is that, while Herbert’s is a sort of parable about the sinner’s approach to his merciful Lord in the here and now, Buchanan’s “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” takes that same theme beyond death and hell and stretches it to its ultimate limit, to include in mercy’s embrace the worst of sinners as the greatest expression of grace imaginable.

In my own opinion (and the reason why I have an abiding affection for this quirky ballad), nothing less than that can or should ever be attributed to God. What Buchanan does is show us a striking and strangely moving vision, one that—again, in the words of Lafcadio Hearn—“is even more Christian than Christianity itself”. Whatever heterodoxies the author himself may have entertained, his ideal vision is as “Christian” as Christ and Christ’s good news of a loving God, whose unchangeable will is—no matter how long it may take (and “length of time” means nothing in eternity)—“that all should reach repentance”. To my mind, that is the greatest “orthodoxy”—“right glory”—one could ever accord to God.

* * *

Fr Addison Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain presently living in Norway. He is the author of The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary, The Hour, the Woman, and the Garden, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More, and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.

(4 September 2016)

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Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the Living Christ

“The glorification of the Son of God is the glorification of the human race,
for the glory of God is the glory of man, and that glory is love!”
~ George MacDonald

Good Friday is almost upon us. In three days Catholics and Protestants, and Orthodox only a week later, will contemplate the atoning death of Jesus Christ. What was its purpose? What did it accomplish? Many Protestants, particularly within the Reformed and evangel­ical traditions, have a ready answer—penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). On the cross God the Son bore the wrath of the Holy Trinity against sin. Given that I have been away from the Protestant literature on this topic for a couple of decades, I’m hesitant to offer a sum­mary of the position. Instead I quote the respected evangelical Anglican J. I. Packer:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.

This succinct statement captures, I believe, the gist of PSA. All the benefits of salvation flow from Christ’s substitutionary act. The wrath of God has been poured out upon the Lamb once offered. Justice has been done, and the way is now open for “forgiveness, adoption and glory.” Packer concludes his essay with this amplified statement:

1) God, in [James] Denney’s phrase, ‘condones nothing’, but judges all sin as it deserves: which Scripture affirms, and my conscience confirms, to be right.

(2) My sins merit ultimate penal suffering and rejection from God’s presence (conscience also confirms this), and nothing I do can blot them out.

(3) The penalty due to me for my sins, whatever it was, was paid for me by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in his death on the cross.

(4) Because this is so, I through faith in him am made ‘the righteousness of God in him’, i.e. I am justified; pardon, acceptance and sonship become mine.

(5) Christ’s death for me is my sole ground of hope before God. ‘If he fulfilled not justice, I must; if he underwent not wrath, I must to eternity.’

(6) My faith in Christ is God’s own gift to me, given in virtue of Christ’s death for me: i.e. the cross procured it.

(7) Christ’s death for me guarantees my preservation to glory.

(8) Christ’s death for me is the measure and pledge of the love of the Father and the Son to me.

(9) Christ’s death for me calls and constrains me to trust, to worship, to love and to serve.

Packer eschews the crude pagan account of an angry deity who needs to be placated and appeased. The atonement of Christ is propelled by the eternal love of the Father and the Son for humanity. But God is also just. Our sins deserve his condemnation. The divine wrath must be mollified before humanity’s salvation can be achieved. Solution: the Son becomes Man and on the cross offers “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfac­tion, for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer).

I cannot deny the power of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It speaks to our conscience. We know we are sinners. We experience the divine wrath in our daily lives (at least we assume this wrath is divine). And several biblical texts, interpreted in a particular way, can be invoked to support the doctrine. Yet three questions continue to nag:

  • How does Jesus’ death redirect and remove from humanity the “destructive divine wrath”?
  • What is this penalty and debt that must be paid before our salvation can be effected?
  • Why couldn’t God just forgive outright and skip the horror of the crucifixion?

George MacDonald was raised in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and reacted violently against it at an early age. In his novel Robert Falconer, which may reflect the Scotsman’s own youthful wrestling with the Reformed faith, we find a fascinating conversation between Robert and his grandmother:

“And we have no right to say we know God save in the face of Christ Jesus. Whatever is not like Christ is not like God.”

“But, laddie, he came to satisfy God’s justice by suffering the punishment due to our sins; to turn aside his wrath and curse; to reconcile him to us. So he couldn’t be altogether like God.”

“He did nothing of the kind, grannie. It’s all a lie that. He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children; by making them see that God was just; by sending them weeping home to fall at his feet, and grip his knees and say, ‘Father, you’re in the right.’ He came to lift the weight of the sins that God had cursed off the shoulders of them that did them, by making them turn against them, and be for God and not for sin. And there isn’t a word of reconciling God to us in all the Testament, for there was no need of that: it was us that he needed to be reconciled to him. And so he bore our sins and carried our sorrows; for those sins coming out in the multitudes—ay and in his own disciples as well, caused him no end of grief of mind and pain of body, as everyone knows. It wasn’t his own sins, for he had none, but ours, that caused him suffering; and he took them away—they’re vanishing even now from the earth, though it doesn’t look like it in Ragfair or Petticoat-lane. And for our sorrows—they just made him weep. His righteousness just annihilates our guilt, for it’s a great gulf that swallows up and destroys it. And so he gave his life as a ransom for us: and he is the life of the world. He took our sins upon him, for he came into the middle of them and took them up—by no sleight of hand, by no quibbling of the lawyers, about imputing his righteousness to us, and such like, which is not to be found in the Bible at all, though I don’t say that there’s no possible meaning in the phrase, but he took them away; and here am I, grannie, growing out of my sins in consequence, and there are you, grannie, growing out of yours in consequence, and having nearly done with them altogether by this time.” (Part 3, chap. 5)

In the gospel God has revealed himself as Love. He loves, and has loved, to the nth degree. The Father has never needed to be reconciled to humanity. He is not the problem; we are. We are the ones who have alienated ourselves from our Creator. We are the ones who need to repent and be reborn in the Spirit. We are the ones who need to hear the gospel and partake of our Savior’s Body and Blood. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconcil­iation” (2 Cor 5:19). MacDonald repudiates the Reformed claim that Jesus vicariously endures the retribution due to our sin. The divine justice is restora­tive, not punitive. When God chastises, he intends to persuade the sinner of the futility of sin: “Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement.” There is, therefore, no penalty that must first be paid before God can forgive and save; and it would make no difference to MacDonald’s position if we were to specify, with Packer, that God has gra­ciously provided his own suffering as the propitiation of his wrath. The love of the Father is his justice. As Robert tells his grannie: “He came to satisfy God’s justice by giving him back his children.”

MacDonald elaborates on his rejection of penal substitutionary atonement in his sermon “Justice”:

Their system is briefly this: God is bound to punish sin, and to punish it to the uttermost. His justice requires that sin be punished. But he loves man, and does not want to punish him if he can help it. Jesus Christ says, ‘I will take his punishment upon me.’ God accepts his offer, and lets man go unpunished—upon a condition. His justice is more than satisfied by the punishment of an infinite being instead of a world of worthless creatures. The suffering of Jesus is of greater value than that of all the generations, through endless ages, because he is infinite, pure, perfect in love and truth, being God’s own everlasting son. God’s condition with man is, that he believe in Christ’s atonement thus explained. A man must say, ‘I have sinned, and deserve to be tortured to all eternity. But Christ has paid my debts, by being punished instead of me. Therefore he is my Saviour. I am now bound by gratitude to him to turn away from evil.’

I do not know if Packer would accept MacDonald’s formulation of penal substitutionary atonement—I imagine he might object to the use of the word “torture”—but I do not doubt that he is accurately describing the doctrine as it was popularly taught. As MacDonald remarks: “I know the root of all that can be said on the subject; the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject.” What else was the crucifixion, what else is eternal perdition, but torture? Here the “destructive divine wrath” is displayed in all of its fury.

MacDonald does not object to punishment per se, if it is directed to the sinner’s repen­tance. But he rejects the claim that the divine justice requires suffering as satisfaction: “Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin.” It cannot atone for wickedness, for it neither recompenses the victim nor transforms the wrongdoer (cf. “Righteousness“). To inflict retribution is to exact vengeance, nothing more, nothing less; but as the Scotsman memorably states: “The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner.”

Penal substitutionary atonement, though, goes yet further: it asserts that the suffering of an innocent—and specifically, of the innocent and holy Son—can substitute for the deserved suffering of the wicked:

If there be no satisfaction to justice in the mere punishment of the wrong-doer, what shall we say of the notion of satisfying justice by causing one to suffer who is not the wrong-doer? And what, moreover, shall we say to the notion that, just because he is not the person who deserves to be punished, but is absolutely innocent, his suffering gives perfect satisfaction to the perfect justice? That the injustice be done with the consent of the person maltreated makes no difference: it makes it even worse, seeing, as they say, that justice requires the punishment of the sinner, and here is one far more than innocent. They have shifted their ground; it is no more punishment, but mere suffering the law requires! The thing gets worse and worse. I declare my utter and absolute repudiation of the idea in any form whatever. Rather than believe in a justice—that is, a God—to whose righteousness, abstract or concrete, it could be any satisfaction for the wrong-doing of a man that a man who did no wrong should suffer, I would be driven from among men, and dwell with the wild beasts that have not reason enough to be unreason­able. What! God, the father of Jesus Christ, like that! His justice contented with direst injustice! The anger of him who will nowise clear the guilty, appeased by the suffering of the innocent! Very God forbid!

One hears in these passionate words MacDonald’s indignation and outrage. Instead of believing in the sheer forgiveness of the Father, theologians have invented a legal mecha­nism—the preacher calls it “a piece of spiritual charlantry” and “grotesquely deformed absurdity”—that permits God to forgive:

Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his father-heart, for that they found impossible. They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing, as an offset to their sin; they could not believe in clear forgiveness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified; so they invented for its justifica­tion a horrible injustice, involving all that was bad in sacrifice, even human sacrifice. They invented a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God. He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father. What satisfac­tion was needed he made himself in what he did to cause them to turn from evil and go back to him. The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit.

Atonement for MacDonald begins with the unconditional love of God and terminates in the concrete reconciliation of sinners. Love and justice are one.

But, some object, MacDonald has compromised the finished work of the cross. Evangelical faith cleaves to the announcement that the Crucified has accomplished our atonement once and for all; otherwise assurance would be impossible. In his sermon “The Truth in Jesus,” MacDonald rejoins that there is a crucial difference between believing in a theory of atonement and believing in the living Christ:

To make my meaning clearer,—some of you say we must trust in the finished work of Christ; or again, our faith must be in the merits of Christ—in the atonement he has made—in the blood he has shed: all these statements are a simple repudiation of the living Lord, in whom we are told to believe, who, by his presence with and in us, and our obedience to him, lifts us out of darkness into light, leads us from the kingdom of Satan into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. No manner or amount of belief about him is the faith of the New Testament … What I insist upon is, that a man’s faith shall be in the living, loving, ruling, helping Christ, devoted to us as much as ever he was, and with all the powers of the Godhead for the salvation of his brethren.

Faith is not a matter of assenting to a doctrine about what Christ achieved for us in the past. Faith is trusting in the glorified Savior who is present to us now, who speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, who indwells our hearts and pours out his Spirit, who establishes us “in absolute oneness with God and all divine modes of being, oneness with every phase of right and harmony” (“Life”). Atonement is not truly finished until sinners have been brought to perfect unity with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Though MacDonald does not frequently address the resurrection of Jesus, clearly all of his preaching and teaching presupposes it. Easter lies at the heart of his faith, not as a doctrine but as spirited relationship. MacDonald demonstrates little interest in doctrine. He knows how easily it can become a substitute for, and obstacle to, faith—hence his focus on obedi­ence. Why obedience? Because it is the key to personal union with our Creator: “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation” (“Truth in Jesus”). Did MacDonald believe in the atonement? There can be only one answer: he believed in nothing but atonement! “With all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind,” he confesses, “I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God” (“Justice”).

The Crucified lives!

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