The image Jesus left with the world, the cross, the most common image in the Christian religion, is proof that God cares about our suffering and pain. He died of it. Today the image is coated with gold and worn around the necks of beautiful girls, a symbol of how far we can stray from the reality of history. But it stands, unique among all religions of the world. Many of them have gods. But only one has a God who cared enough to become a man and to die.
Dorothy Sayers says:
For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.
To some, the image of a pale body glimmering on a dark night whispers of defeat. What good is a God who does not control His Son’s suffering? What possible good could such a God do for us? But a louder sound can be heard: the shout of God crying out to man, “I love you!” Love was compressed for all history in that lonely, bleeding figure. Jesus, who said he could call down the angels at any moment and rescue Himself from the horror, chose not to – because of us. For God so loved us, that He sent His only Son to die for us.
What practical effect does Christ’s identification have on the person who actually suffers? A dramatic example of the effect of this truth was seen in the ministry of Dr. Paul Brand while he was working among leprosy patients in Vellore, India. There he preached a sermon, one of his best known and best loved. At the time, Brand and his workers were among the few in the area who would touch or closely approach a person with Hansen’s disease – townspeople quarantined them. Brand slipped in late to a patient’s gathering, sitting on the mat at the edge of an open courtyard. The air was heavy with combined odors of crowding bodies, poverty, stale spices, treated bandages.
The patients insisted on a few words from Dr. Brand, and he reluctantly agreed. He stood for a moment, empty of ideas, looking at the patients before him. His eyes were drawn to their hands, dozens of them, most pulled inward in the familiar “leprosy claw-hand,” some with no fingers, some with a few stumps. Many patients sat on their hands or otherwise hid them from view.
“I am a hand surgeon,” he began, and waited for the translation into Tamil and Hindi. “So when I meet people, I can’t help looking at their hands. The palmist claims he can tell your future by looking at your hands. I can tell your past. For instance, I can tell what your trade has been by the position of the calluses and the condition of the nails. I can tell a lot about your character; I love hands.”
He paused and looked at the eager faces. “How I would love to have had the chance to meet Christ and study His hands! But knowing what He was like, I can almost picture and feel them.”
He paused again, then wondered aloud what it would have been like to meet Christ and study His hands. He traced the hands of Christ, beginning with infancy when His hands were small, helpless, futilely grasping. Then came the hands of the boy Jesus, clumsily holding a brush or stylus, trying to form letters of the alphabet. Then the hands of Christ the carpenter – rough, gnarled, with broken fingernails and bruises from working with saw and hammer.
Then there were the hands of Christ the physician, the healer. Compassion and sensitivity seemed to radiate from them, so much so that when He touched people they could feel something of the divine spirit coming through. Christ touched the blind, the diseased, the needy.
“Then,” continued Dr. Brand, “there were His crucified hands. It hurts me to think of a nail being driven through the center of my hand, because I know what goes on there, the tremendous complex of tendons and nerves and blood vessels and muscles. It’s impossible to drive a spike through its center without crippling it. The thought of those healing hands being crippled reminds me of what Christ was prepared to endure. In that act He identified Himself with all the deformed and crippled human beings in the world. Not only was he able to endure poverty with the poor, weariness with the tired, but – clawed hands with the crippled.”
The effect on the listening patients, all social outcasts, was electrifying. Jesus – a cripple, with a claw-like hand like theirs?
Brand continued, “And then there were His resurrected hands. One of the things I find most astounding is that, though we think of the future life as something perfected, when Christ appeared to His disciples He said, “Come look at My hands,” and He invited Thomas to put his finger into the print of the nail. Why did He want to keep the wounds of His humanity? Wasn’t it because He wanted to carry back with Him an eternal reminder of the sufferings of those on earth? He carried the marks of suffering so He could continue to understand the needs of those suffering. He wanted to be forever one with us.”
As he finished, Paul Brand was again conscious of hands as they were lifted, all over the courtyard, palm to palm in the Indian gesture of respect, namaste. The hands were the same stumps, the same missing fingers and crooked arches. Yet no one tried to hide them. They were held high, close to the face, in respect for Brand, but also with new pride and dignity. God’s own response to suffering made theirs easier.
T.S. Eliot wrote in one of his Four Quartets:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
The surgery of life hurts. It helps me, though, to know that the Surgeon Himself, the Wounded Surgeon, has felt every stab of pain and every sorrow.