I’d like to tell a story about a small boy, a teddy bear and the cross.

When my now-27-year-old son, Jordan, was 4, our family was in a car accident. Both of our children were still in car seats, and our daughter was unharmed. But Jordan was on the side that got hit. He was hurt, but we couldn’t tell how badly.

I crawled into the back seat between the two car seats to hold the kids’ hands while my husband waited outside for the ambulance. When it arrived, a paramedic took Jordan out of the car seat carefully, on a backboard, to examine him. The first responder—a firefighter—gave him a teddy bear to hold.

What’s interesting about our family drama is the way Jordan remembered it as a child. In the days immediately following the accident he was very anxious about getting into cars. We reminded him that it had been an accident, that it was not likely to happen again and that everything had been OK. He seemed to forget about it—unless we went by the spot where the accident had happened.

For weeks he would indignantly remind us, “This is where the mean lady hit daddy.” Gradually his indignation morphed into questioning: “Is this where the mean lady hit us?” (This despite our repeated assurances that the lady was not mean, that the collision was an accident.) Over a few weeks he transitioned to declaring, “This is where we had a wreck!” Eventually, when we drove by the spot, Jordan would say, “This is where the fireman gave me my teddy bear.”

The small boy and the teddy bear are obvious in the story. But if you know where to look, the cross is there too.

Theology of the cross

A theology of the cross is one of the most important gifts of the Reformation. This theology is Martin Luther’s observation that Christ is found amid suffering. This does not mean that God causes suffering so that we can “find” God. To tell anyone that the violence, abuse or trauma they suffered was their “cross to bear”—or that it was God’s way of strengthening, teaching or testing them—is theological rubbish. But it does mean that, no matter how horrible the situation, no matter how scary or painful, Jesus is right there with us, amid our suffering. We are never alone.

A theology of the cross recognizes that while our entire Lutheran faith is built upon the resurrection, the resurrection was preceded by death. A theology of the cross reminds us that God is not only present in the glory of the risen Christ but also present in the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the hopelessness of the crucifixion. A theology of the cross holds suffering and resurrection in tension while we await the fullness of God’s kingdom, and emphasizes that, no matter what we experience in the meantime, we are held and cherished by God.

A theology of the cross is less a doctrine and more a lens through which we see the world. This lens opens us to glimpse the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. It is the “new thing” spoken of by both Isaiah (43:19: ”I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”) and Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!”). A theology of the cross claims not only that this new thing is more real than the world passing away but that, counterintuitively, it is manifested most fully in the world when those who suffer are comforted and find hope.

A theology of the cross is less a doctrine and more a lens through which we see the world.

So what does this mean?

When, weeks after our accident, my small son remembered, “This is where the fireman gave me my teddy bear,” the facts of the story had not changed. But the lens through which he remembered it had.

In remembering the teddy bear Jordan didn’t forget the accident. But he learned to tell, to live, the story differently. The narrative he learned created a new and more hopeful self. He moved, albeit slowly, from a self who was afraid of car accidents to one who was angry about the accident he’d experienced to one who was grateful to first responders—especially the firefighters at the station near our home. (Three months later, on 9/11, he asked if we could take all his stuffed animals to the fire station for the children whose mommies and daddies hadn’t come home from work that day.)

The theology of the cross is more than the story we tell of Christ’s death and resurrection—though it is that. It’s also the way we remember and tell the story. A theology of the cross never forgets the crucifixion; it never denies or ignores Good Friday. But, likewise, a theology of the cross does not and in fact cannot forget the resurrection; its orientation is always toward Easter. As preacher and professor Thomas G. Long says, a theology of the cross guides us from memory to hope.

In a world still marked by the violence of Good Friday, a theology of the cross helps us, the church, view the cross through the lens of resurrection, which is the foundation of our hope. This hope gives us the eyes to see what should be—what God promises will be—and to witness to this hope in a world that often seems hellbent on destruction.

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Mindy Makant
Mindy Makant, a deacon, is associate professor of religious studies and director of the Youth and Family Ministry program at Lenoir-Rhyne University, Hickory, N.C.

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