Thursday, February 18, 2016
A Softer Touch
Yesterday, Seth Olson, my partner in ministry, and I were discussing the origin of the Christian symbol "IHS." Although I can't remember when or where, I had been taught that it represents the first three letters of the name "Jesus" when written in Greek: Iota, Eta, Sigma. It's a phonetic nickname of sorts--like "Nick" for Nicholas and "Matt" for Matthew. Seth agreed that he had heard that, too, but he also told me that, when he had recently looked it up, he found that some people attribute it to "Iesus Hominum Salvator," which means "Jesus, Savior of Man[kind]." I hadn't heard that before, so I looked it up in my handy, dandy Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. It seems the former attribution is primary, but the latter is pretty common, too. What interested me most, however, is that there is another tradition--less common but thoroughly provocative.
Some have used IHS to represent the Latin phrase, "In hoc signo [vinces]," which is the line that Emperor Constantine famously saw accompanying the sign of the cross in a vision that he supposedly had before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine then used the image of the cross on his military decorations, and, when he achieved success on the battlefield, he decided that this cross of Christ thing wasn't such a bad idea. As I read that part of the entry for IHS aloud, Seth remarked as a half-hearted joke, "That's why we're Christian." He's right, of course. Who knows how else history might have unfolded, but Constantine subsequently gave Christianity a legitimate place in the Roman Empire, and, eventually, the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and the rest is history.
Isn't it nice to think that perhaps the main reason that those of us who are descendants of western civilization can call ourselves Christian is because an emperor used the image of Christ to slaughter all his enemies? Mockingly, I asked Seth what Jesus would think about all of that, and then we shrugged went back to our day.
On Sunday, though, we have the chance to hear and expound upon a completely different image of Jesus' saving work. Instead of the violence of the cross, which undoubtedly will loom large over us in the coming weeks, we have the chance to speak of Jesus the mother hen, who yearns to protect her baby chicks.
In Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is warned to flee from Herod, who is seeking to kill him. Instead of running away, however, Jesus accepts death and heads to Jerusalem, where a prophet's death can be enacted on a larger stage. Jesus offers a word of reluctance, though--not because he is unwilling but to let us know that, perhaps, it didn't have to be this way: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" In other words, if human beings weren't human beings, perhaps the salvation of the would could have been expressed in a way that didn't involve torture and execution.
What images do you hold in your mind when you consider Jesus' saving work? I'm drawn immediately to the cross, of course. I relive in my mind the nails driven into his hands and feet. I strain to hear across the centuries his screams of agony. I wait and watch for him to take his last breath. But those aren't the only images of salvation we have. Jesus is the one who dandles a child on his knee. He's the one who reaches out to touch the leper's hand. He's the one who grabs the dead girl's hand and says, "Talitha cum," or "Little girl, get up." He's even the mother hen who gathers the brood under her wings...if we are willing.
The dominant images of our soteriology (doctrine of salvation) are images of violence: whips, nails, cross, and spear. And there's a good reason for that. As Jesus shows us in Sunday's lesson, it couldn't be any other way. We're a violent people. Our sin is a violence against God's will. But that doesn't mean that God is necessarily violent. He is tender. He is gentle. He has a mother's love.