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Jesus who shares our pain 

If God is present in the darkness reaching out for us, then light and hope are not something to be found when the darkness has gone - they are already there present when the darkness is at its deepest

Anthony Clarke on how an extraordinary stained glass window reveals something of the nature of God.

16th street baptist church winLent is not only a time to think about how we live and act, whether we decide to give something up or take something on for the 40 days, but also to reflect again on the God who we worship during this time, particularly as we follow again in the footsteps of Jesus towards the cross.

Some years ago as minister of a local church I would try and help us do this by putting the same picture on the front wall of the church, which would then be behind me as I preached each week. It was a very large picture painted on perspex by my predecessor as minister and another church member and was a copy of a stained glass window inspired by a visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. The original can be seen here:

The story behind the window is certainly inspiring as well. In September 1963 a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan detonated at the church killing four young black girls, and in doing so blew out one of the existing windows which had a picture of Jesus in a typical pastoral scene.

Wanting to do something to respond to such senseless killing this new window was created by John Petts, an artist from Carmarthenshire and was a present from the people of Wales; one of the local newspapers started a fund with the maximum donation limited to half a crown so it required thousands of people all to do a little and engage with the project. And so the church had a new window, whose story spoke of our human solidarity in suffering and whose image, a black Jesus, spoke of divine solidarity with us.
Lent is a journey to the cross, with the cross providing a shadow behind us as we go. And it is as we get closer to the cross in those last days of Jesus’ life in Gethsemane and at Calvary that the story asks so may probing questions about how we understand Jesus. It shows us a truly human Jesus who experiences anguish, suffering and loneliness; as Mark tells the story of the passion Jesus is gradually abandoned by everyone, even God. If there is any sense in which these experiences are going to be human like ours then there can be no pretence here, no sense in which any kind of divine knowledge counteracts the pain of the moment. Here is Jesus experiencing the reality of human life to its very depths.
Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation it also shows a truly divine Jesus, and so of course what true divinity is like, rather than some of the pictures of God we carry based on our human ambition and longing for power. If Jesus is also truly divine then here is a God for whom it is not strange to come in Christ to share the very darkness and godforsakenness of our own lives.

Again as Mark expresses in his Gospel, this moment of godforsakenness on the cross then becomes the greatest revelation of the God who is most divine in becoming human, most true to God’s self in self-giving, most authentically God in this supreme act of love and vulnerability. The whole narrative of the Gospel has been steadily moving to this climax of the darkness of the cross, in the cry of vulnerability and the centurion’s response, truly this was God’s Son. The Word becomes flesh to the depths of accepting a godforsaken death; and the flesh now becomes Word for in this suffering and silence God speaks new words of love and hope.
I find this picture a particularly hopeful one. Partly it is hopeful because of the story behind it, with the willingness back in the 1960s to fashion a window with a black Jesus as a sign of solidarity with a church community that had experienced not just a terrible bombing but years of racial intolerance. Here in this act of generosity is a glimmer that mirrors, if only faintly, the solidarity that God showed to us in becoming human, and calls us to that same solidarity now. In a world that experiences so many divisions and such pain, such creative and generous acts of solidarity are just as badly needed. And as well as a time of reflection and confession, Lent must be also be a time for a renewed commitment to such life changing actions.
I also find it hopeful because of the very picture itself. The lighter colours of the rainbow that seem to stand behind the cross suggest that there is another day coming, yet already somehow present in such a way that does not dimmish the significance and suffering of the moment. Yes there is another word to come, yes after cross there is resurrection, but as God himself in vulnerability and love shares our pain and suffering, in the midst of the darkness the light is already there. I want to take Jesus’ cry of forsakenness in all its stark fulness; this is the reality of the moment. 

But behind the Son on the cross is a Father who has not turned away to leave the Son alone, but is reaching out in the darkness to find the Son. If God is present in the darkness reaching out for us, then light and hope are not something to be found when the darkness has gone but are already there present when the darkness is at its deepest.
The very large copy of the picture I stood in front of some years ago became particularly meaningful for me in my own experience of God at that time; there is now a much smaller version on our study wall. And once again this Lent it calls me to follow this Jesus, human and divine.

Image | Alby Headrick | Flickr | Creative Commons


Anthony Clarke is Tutorial Fellow in Pastoral Studies and Community Learning at Regent’s Park College in Oxford 

This is the latest in a new Lent series written by Baptists - a new reflection will be published each Wednesday throughout Lent
  • Revisiting what following Jesus means  Andy Goodliff offers reading recommendations to deepen discipleship this Lent
  • How do you normally observe Lent? “Wilderness” is a rich and layered idea in the Old Testament - reflecting on it may offer some helpful ways forward as we seek to engage with Lent this year. By Helen Paynter
  • Learning to tell our story afresh - A reflection on the place of faith within a culture and history and how we understand the place of the church in the wider world. By Ruth Gouldbourne 

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Baptist Times, 10/03/2021
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