In this post I’ll be using words like ‘crap’ and ‘sh*t’ quite freely; I apologise if that offends, but it’s important to the point I’m trying to make.
The sacrament of crap
I’ve talked of life and the world as sacramental; of seeing through it to God. We tend to look for God in the transcendent and sublime aspects of life – sunsets and starry skies, beautiful landscapes, the flight of wild geese, the first budding of spring, the eyes of a lover or of a newborn baby, great music and art and poetry. And I believe these are certainly signs of the Spirit; hints of heaven and echoes of eternity, of the way things were meant to be and one day will be when all is made new.
The thing is though, if God is everywhere, he’s in the crap too. And because of the kind of God he is – the one we see in Christ, who gets his hands dirty for the sake of the ones he loves – I think that at the moment he’s more in the crap than in the lovely.
It’s quite easy to see the divine in beautiful things; the challenge is to see God in the downright ugly, unlovely and unpleasant places and people; the marginalised and poor and flyblown; those on the crap-heap of life. And indeed to see God in the crap-heap itself; in the crap situations of the world and of our own lives.
For it’s in these kinds of people and places that I think we most profoundly experience Christ, the God who became one of us to save us from the worst of the world and the worst of ourselves, not by taking us out of it but by redeeming it; redeeming our muck and mess and crap. Mother Teresa said she saw Christ most clearly in the faces of the poor and diseased of Calcutta; as she ministered to them she was ministering to Christ himself. Christ famously said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it to me.” This isn’t just a nice statement; it’s the reality of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation – God’s self-blasphemy
God is the royal king of the cosmos, clothed in majesty and splendour and light. But when he came to us, he was born in obscurity and poverty; he grew up in a backwater; made friends with the poor, downtrodden, outcast and marginalised and touched the untouchables; and he died in utmost shame and agony as a state criminal, bearing the worst humiliation and torment that the combined forces of organised religion and ruthless totalitarian empire could concoct.
Jesus tended to eschew the presence (and the practices) of the powerful, the popular and the pious, apparently preferring the company of publicans, prostitutes and the dirt-poor. It’s sadly ironic that the church that bears his name has generally shown the opposite tendency. But then, the church is made up of people like me; people who are a bit crap but who God loves.
Alternative worship congregation Vaux London once ran a service provocatively titled ‘God is in the sh*t’. It sounds crude, tasteless, blasphemous even, but again it’s simply the truth of the Incarnation. If we really understand the Incarnation, it is tasteless and (in a sense) blasphemous. Jesus’s compatriots and co-religionists certainly saw it that way, and crucified him for daring to suggest it. For in Jesus, God Almighty – the Holy One – actually bore and shared our crap; he suffered all the indignity of being human, including going to the toilet and soiling his swaddling clothes. He loves us that much.
Sin and sh*t
These days the word ‘sin’ sounds old-fashioned, religious, prudish. I’d suggest that ‘shit’ better conveys some of the original force and meaning of the concept. Like sh*t, sin stinks; it’s disease-ridden; it’s offensive. We do our best to deny it and keep it out of sight. But it’s pretty ubiquitous. We all do it and we all smell of it, even the rich who have nice air-freshener and the religious sorts who are well-practised at hiding it.
“It’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean” declared Jesus, “but what comes out of him”. It’s not the food we eat that’s unclean; it’s the crap we turn it into that soils our hands and our hearts. And the only cure for that is what Jesus shockingly did. In the Incarnation and particularly on the cross, he took on himself – in himself – all our sh*t. Blasphemous as it sounds, the image that comes to my mind is of a lavatory, taking and flushing away all our crap. God loves us that much that he would do that, become that for us. Love wins, by doing what only love could do.
God on the crap-heap
We sometimes think of hell as the place of God’s absence – the absence of all goodness and light and love and life. In a sense I think this is right; that’s very probably what hell feels like (it’s certainly what depression feels like). But in another sense, I’d suggest that whatever and wherever hell may be, God is right there – not as punisher and accuser, but as sufferer and bearer of punishment. Again, that’s the message of the Incarnation and of the cross; the message of God’s love.
Even in the Old Testament, the psalmist acknowledges that God is present even in Hades – Sheol, the grave, the shadowy realm of the dead; hell in many translations. “If I make my bed in the depths [Hades], you are there” (Psalm 139). In the New Testament, Jesus refers to hell as Gehenna – literally the city rubbish dump; the crap-heap; also formerly a place of sacrifice and slaughter. And of course, that’s exactly where Jesus was – and is. “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate [‘beyond the pale’ if you like – in the place of rubbish and shame] to make the people holy… Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (Hebrews 13:12-13). Jesus went to hell, went through hell, for us; he bore it on the cross and went down to the depths. He went to the lowest to lift us (including our worst and lowest) to the highest.
Many situations in the world today and in our own lives are frankly hell. But Christ is with us in hell; he’s with us on the crap-heap.
In a Nazi concentration camp, Elie Wiesel famously witnessed the unbearably slow hanging of a child. As he was forced to file past the scaffold where the child was still alive, he heard someone ask aloud, “Where is God? Where is He?”. Wiesel writes, ‘I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows…”. That again is the – deeply shocking – truth of the Incarnation and the cross.
Absence and presence
When we’re going through our hells, our darkness, our Holy Saturdays, the fact that God is sharing them – and that he is working to redeem them – does not necessarily make them any easier to bear. Often we don’t feel like he’s there anyway; his apparent absence is a large part of the hellishness. But whether we feel it or not, he is there, and it will make all the difference in the end.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Tirian the last King of Narnia has been dethroned, arrested and tied to a tree. There in the dark he tries to pray:
And he called out “Aslan! Aslan! Aslan! Come and help us now.”
But the darkness and the cold and the quietness went on just the same.
“Let me be killed,” cried the King. “I ask nothing for myself. But come and save all Narnia.”
And still there was no change in the night or the wood, but there began to be a kind of change inside Tirian.
God is present, even when he is absent. God is everywhere, even in the dark, even in the rubbish, even in the sh*t and crap, even in hell. Even in us.
There’s no place so dark or diseased or despicable that Jesus won’t follow (or more probably precede) us in there to find us and redeem us; and there’s nothing within us so dark or diseased or despicable that Jesus won’t touch it and transform it.
The message of the Incarnation and of the crucifixion isn’t very nice; it’s not at all polite or clean or respectable. But it’s very good news to people who are on the rubbish-dump of life, or who feel that that’s where they’re headed.
God’s not against sunsets and symphonies and beauty; he is their source. But until those on the crap-heap can experience those things, until the landfill bursts into bloom and the wasteland rejoices, I suspect the crap-heap’s where he’ll be found most of the time.
- Walking in darkness – Reflections on Holy Saturday
- Good Friday – the death and triumph of love
- Rob Bell – Love Wins
- Swearing at God
- Humility, repentance and self-esteem
- Suffering and sovereignty