Six years ago, I glimpsed something in the gospels that, ever since, has shaped the way I enter Lent, and particularly this Holy Week we are now walking, the week between Palm Sunday and the cross. Simply put, it is this: In Holy Week, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind.
Now, in the moments when guilt tugs on my heart or shame weighs me down, when I hurt because the One is love is walking to the cross for my sin and I feel helpless and ashamed and sad, I can lift my eyes from the cross to the face of the one on it and see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.
Sometimes, at first, I look away, unable to bear the love that is breaking me open. I have to look back, to see if he is still looking at me. He is. Still looking, still loving me, his eyes teaching me what he wants my heart to know: I am worth it.
The strong shadow of the cross stands behind what seem to me the most beautiful words in the Bible, calling me to speak them as my own: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) Jesus went to the cross as Saviour, as obedient Son of his Father. He also went as Lover. Groom. Soon-to-be husband.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”(Eph 5:25-27)
The two parables Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding were both told in this week leading up to the cross (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13).
Even the Sadducees frame their trick question concerning the resurrection in light of marriage. Jesus replies, “Don’t you get it, guys? After the resurrection, people don’t marry each other.” One wonders if he isn’t thinking, “. . . because you get to marry me,” when he follows their conversation with the declaration that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30).
I’ve not eaten a meal with friends knowing it was my last before leaving the world. But even final meals before moving across the world have been, for me, difficult affairs. Full of aching and sadness. Certainly not something I “eagerly desire.” I think Jesus could only say “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” because He was looking past the cross to the consummation. “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16).
The last conversation Jesus had with his friends was framed by His desire for union. It starts with words taken straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony, words that a Jewish man would speak to his fiancé before leaving her for a while to go and build a room onto his father’s house where he could bring her as a new bride and make their home together:
“. . . I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.”(John 14:2-3)
Jesus’ last conversation finished with a prayed expression of this same deep longing,
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. . .”(John 17:24)
The cross is where Jesus proves his (un)dying love, His eternal commitment.
This is where he makes us His forever, strikes from our wedding vows “‘til death do us part.”
Here he removes our rags and clothes us in the fine white dress of his own making – of his own being – preparing us to be His bride.
We are so close, here, to his heart. So near to the wedding banquet and the intimacy that follows. Here at the cross, he does everything needed to make us his. Here he offers himself to us in that most vulnerable of conditions, utterly exposed, stripped not only of clothes but of all that we would consider beauty or basic human dignity. Stripped so that the naked glory of His blinding, sight-giving love could be visible. And he waits, the waiting itself the most vulnerable of postures. Waiting for us to look and, in the seeing, to learn to trust his love.
The first year I saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? Some other years I’ve hurt because I love him and I don’t want him to hurt. I don’t want to be the one to make him hurt. I mourn his pain. I mourn my sin that caused that pain. I grieve that I can’t help him in his pain—the pain he is suffering for love of me.
In those times, I look, and even as I hurt, I love him for every word, every action, every minute of his surrender to suffering that speaks such love. I love every detail about him that declares it done, me made perfect, made his. His eyes reach to me, telling me that he has never questioned whether all the pain was worth it. It was.
This year, joy is pushing its way to the top again, past shame and mourning and guilt, because I am known, and in that place of being fully known, every bit of my sin and shame felt and taken and finished, I am wanted and chosen and loved, and nothing—nothing in me or around me—now can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There’s nothing left to hide or rationalize or pay for, nothing to judge myself for because it has already been judged, and then taken and paid for and forgotten (Ps 103:12; Jer 31:34). In all of that seeing and knowing and taking, God’s love for me has not been the least bit diminished. Here at the cross, my fears of “If they knew what I’m really like” are put to rest. God does know. And He doesn’t reject me. He brings me closer and makes me his own.
The long-spoken words echo through Jesus’ silent surrender to the flogging: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” Beneath his cry, “It is finished,” I hear his now true declaration, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” With the tearing of the curtain, the final destruction of all that divides, He cries for my response, “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my flawless one. . . Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me” (Song of Songs 4:9, 7; 5:2; 2:10).