September 18, 2008

Someone Died for Me: The Wicker Man and Calvary

Last weekend, I went in search of essays by Alice Walker. I have loved her work for most of my adult life, even though I lost track of her fiction after The Color Purple.

One of Walker's essays, published in the 2006 collection We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light In A Time Of Darkness, describes the sacrificial life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Days after reading Walker, I had the chance to view clips from one of the scariest, most deeply disturbing films I have ever seen: The Wicker Man. I am referring to the excellent 1973 version starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee.

In this film, a staunchly Christian British police officer volunteers to go to a remote Hebridean island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. After his arrival, the sergeant realizes he is caught in a strangling maze of "pagan" practices focused on sun worship and possibly human sacrifice.

This is not a story with a happy Hollywood ending. The cruelty of the ending seems unnatural, almost unbelievable, and therein lies the power of the film. The practice of human sacrifice doesn't have any place in a society of laws and reason, right?

The idea of a human/divine sacrifice is the centerpiece of Christianity: "Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world." How many hundreds or thousands of times have we heard this in Sunday School classes or from the pulpit in worship? According the scripture and tradition, it was a bloody, painful, tortuous death. Orthodoxy says the redemption of humanity justified the pain and suffering. The resurrection proves death wasn't the final word. But why die to appease godly wrath?

Couldn't words be spoken to "pay the sinful debt"? Sacrificial death by torture -- crucifixion was definitely that lingering, humiliating death -- seems cruel beyond reason, unnecessary, even bestial. What kind of God would require such a thing? What's it all about?

I don't know if anyone has a definitive answer to why God chose this expression of grace. I think it's safe to say the death on the cross was a proportionate picture of how horribly high the sin debt ran, an image of a loving sacrifice that had foundations in the ancient world in which Jesus lived during His time on Earth.

It's a mystery. But aren't religions supposed to have mystery? There is wisdom to be found in meditating on it; profound gratitude comes in knowing anyone loved me so much.

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