Sharing the Pain

As I walk the long, painful journey toward the cross, I must pause on the way to wash my neighbor’s feet. As I kneel before my brothers and sisters, wash their feet, and look into their eyes, I discover that it is because of my brothers and sisters who walk with me that I can make the journey at all. Henri Nouwen

Each year during Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, I use one artistic symbol in my home, to focus my attention on what Lent means to me. That symbol is a clay sculpture, about a foot long, of sixteen Peruvian peasants carrying a cross on their shoulders. They are wearing their traditional caps with the ear flaps and their peasant garb. (photo attached) When I first received this sculpture as a gift, it moved me deeply. As I’ve lived with it for more than fifteen years now, it has found a place in my soul and in my daily life.

What this simple rustic sculpture represents is my way of understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus, or the Atonement, as it is called in theological terms.

I have to confess that I have struggled all of my adult life with the theology of the Atonement. There are several views put forth from different theological positions. The most widely embraced view is that God sent Jesus to pay the price for our sins and so Jesus served as a sacrifice in our place. Another view is that Jesus death and resurrection declares victory over sin and death for all time. Yet another view sees Jesus’ life as a moral example that was so counter to the culture he was killed, and we are called to carry on his work. While all of these hold some truth for me, for some reason, none of them captures my soul like my sculpture of the Peruvian peasants carrying the cross together. But until recently I wasn’t sure why.

At lunch one day, a close friend, Gary Klingsporn, who is both pastor and scholar, was describing to me how vital community is to the life of faith. I added my perspective that, as humans, we form deeper bonds with one another when we share each other’s pain. As we verbalized those two thoughts I felt a new connection to the Peruvian peasants and the atonement; we make meaning of Christ’s death when we, as a community, shoulder each other’s crosses, and we make meaning of the resurrection when we share each other’s joy. We meet most deeply when we share our pain with one another. In seeing this, I felt like a veil was lifted for me and that the atonement had a new and deeper meaning.

Then my friend began to delineate how various events from Jesus’ life supported this view. For example, Jesus asked his disciples to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested. He asked them to be his community in this dark hour, to be with him as he agonized. They fell asleep instead, but they were still there. We can relate to that. At other times he asked them if they could drink from the cup from which he was being asked to drink, to share the kind of pain he felt. He taught the disciples how to take care of one another and he encouraged his close women friends to continue his work. These people, along with his family, were his community and he asked them to share the whole journey with him, helping him in his darkest moments.

On the cross Jesus spoke to his mother and to his beloved disciple John, who were standing together. He showed them a new sense of family, where John was now Mary’s son and she his mother. This was an enlarged sense of family, of community as close as family. Jesus also promised the disciples that after he died and rose again he and his father would come and make their home with them, through the spirit, so that the community of faith would be enlivened.

After his death, Jesus’ community attended to him. Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body and placed it in his own tomb after the women followers prepared his body with spices and wrapped it in linen cloths. After Jesus arose angels stood at the tomb to give information to his close friends about what had happened. Here was a community sharing the pain, shouldering the cross together and now bonding with one another in the joy of the resurrection, eventually forming the emerging church that has survived for two thousand years.

I do not intend to discard any of the other views of the atonement just because of my sense that this one makes sense in my soul . None of us has a corner on the truth. But what I do resonate with in this view, that I would title the ”Call to Community,” is that it feels real and true to my life. It’s not abstract or theoretical. It’s my daily life. It’s where I live. When I am in pain, awful pain, I cry out to God but I also call a friend or go where I will be received in my pain. When a friend is in crisis I try to be a loving and stable force embracing their instability.

Shouldering the cross together feels like the essence of Jesus’ call in my life, and though painful, it is also comforting. It’s not just about Jesus’ boundless act of love on the cross, but about the courage and commitment Jesus calls me to have for myself and for others, when we are in pain. Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” Of course, it is also important to share the joy with others in community. When I share a healing moment, a celebration or a renewed life with someone I feel a holy shiver moving through my body. We’ve been through the tough times and now we can laugh and share the festive moments as well. For me, joy seems much sweeter when we have shared our pain together.

This year my friend, Gary, moved far away but we are committed to remaining in close community with one another. As a going away gift I gave him my Peruvian cross and we promised one another we would work on fleshing out this shared view of the atonement. You are reading the first simple attempt.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
My friend, Rev. Dr. Gary Klingsporn is now senior pastor at First Congregational Church on Nantucket.

Reflections on this essay
When have you experienced the power of community in sharing pain?

How did it affect you?

What or who is your spiritual community now?

How has it changed over the years?

What is your experience of or view of Jesus’ death and resurrection?