Horror and Holiness

I have often wondered why many churches do not have portrayals of the crucifixion on prominent display. I’ve heard remarks about how the empty cross (which is quite pervasive) is a symbol of Christ’s work for us and of His definitive victory over suffering and death. This is a wonderful sentiment. At crucifixionthe same time, I think crucifixion imagery is a powerful representation of the costliness and horror of sin. Prior to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of mankind, animal sacrifices were performed by God’s priests. I can only imagine the full-on sensory assault of that experience: the death of an innocent animal, the sight and smell of the flowing blood, the smell of the burning meat, the pungent smoke rising from the altar.

Ritual animal sacrifice is no longer required for atonement, but I believe we still need frequent sensory reminders of the nature of sin and its blight upon our souls. As Christians, we are indeed a redeemed people, destined to spend eternity in the presence of our Savior. Yet in the here-and-now, we’re carrying out the work of sanctification that prepares us for our place in the New Jerusalem. What am I being sanctified from? What is it that needs purging from my heart every single day that I walk the earth in this not-yet-glorified body, in this imperfect state of my soul, that I may be more like my Savior?

In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis brings before the mind’s eye vivid imagery of human sins such as pride, selfishness, unforgiveness, hatred, and cruelty. The observer grieves for those who are obliviously steeped in the cesspool of sin.  One of the over-arching themes of the allegory is that Heaven and Hell cannot be married–they are fundamentally divorced. It is the cosmic contrast of the two that needs to be continually before our mind as we live out our faith, and consciousness of sin is critical, just as our recognition of God’s holiness is.

As a mainstay of our spiritual formation, we should  meditate upon the doctrine of sin and make sincere lamentation a major part of our devotional life.  We must understand the seriousness of sin and its spiritual ramifications. I’m reminded of David’s hauntingly sorrowful song of contrition in Psalm 51, how he implored God to cleanse him, to restore his soul.  I endeavor to be more repentant, and I find that a better understanding of the horror of sin is necessary.

But here’s the wondrous thing: The more deeply I meditate upon my fallen-ness and the filthy ugliness of my sin, the more acutely I sense the resonance between my redeemed soul and the Lord Jesus Christ. In contrasting the monstrosity of my daily rebellion with God’s holiness, the purity and beauty of His nature and the undeserved robe of righteousness he has enveloped me in stand out in sharp relief, so preternaturally clear in my mind that they seem almost tangible. My desire for Christ-likeness is intensified , as is my gratitude for his saving grace.

For me, crucifixion imagery has a special poignancy, and it has become more prominent in my private prayer practice as I make entreaties for forgiveness: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

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