Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 53:3-5) transports me to the Gashes Creek Baptist Vacation Bible School days of my childhood, where my memories are filled with fun and games. We would get there early with a baseball and gloves to play pickle before marching in, and then during break time we would play hot potato with the dry ice from the Biltmore Dairy truck that brought the ice cream snacks. And we would battle each morning over who got to march in front of the line, carrying the American and Christian flags and the big altar Bible for the daily pledges. I was certain that the Christian flag was the most important symbol of the three, because its pledge was the only one to mention the Savior, and it had the big cross on it, which seemed to me to be the most important, or at least the most talked about, symbol in the church. It was always a good day if I got to be the one to carry it in and hold it up for the crowd of kids to say the pledge. Jeannette Moore would play the traditional two notes and two chords on the piano that signaled for everybody to stand, and then we’d hear the solemn commands: Attention. Salute. Pledge. And everyone would recite in unison: I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior, for whose Kingdom it stands. One brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service and love. That was the hope that we so proudly hailed at the start of every VBS. But since the cross had become such a commonplace symbol, I’m sure I never caught the irony of battling over the privilege to proudly lift high a banner that displayed a hideous symbol of suffering and shame, rejection and affliction. I never thought about the strange juxtaposition when we’d sing our call to worship on Sunday mornings – your glorious banner wave on high, the cross of Christ your King, rejoice! . . . Still lift your standard high. . . Rejoice! The repugnant and appalling wounds of Jesus had become goldplated and prettified, complete with rich four-part harmonies.
Isaiah lived in an era before Vacation Bible School fun and games and four-part harmonies. The pickles he got into and the hot potatoes he handled were real, involving defeat from neighboring nations, exile, and occupation, all bringing a hopeless despair to the land. The passage here in chapter 53 became a banner text of hope, though, for a people whose faith was flagging. Today’s passage signaled the arrival of one who would get no salute, one who would be despised and rejected, one from whom people would turn their faces. And yet this revolting one is the source from which a people in turmoil would gain peace – one brotherhood and sisterhood, uniting all humanity in service and love. This wounded one is the source of healing for injured people living with pain and dis-ease. All this is extremely counter-intuitive for people who have been socialized to look for peace through strength, and to seek healing through traditional systems of health. Isaiah’s words illustrate what Flannery O’Connor calls a literature of the grotesque, a theology that shows God shocking the world with a monstrous messianic vision.
I never really thought about it until now, but it occurs to me that it was indeed a somewhat frightful and grotesque thing for my ancestors to be baptized in a creek called “gashes,” and to name their church after a stream associated with deep slashes. But it is fitting at some level, as I learned early on that people of faith are good at finding ways to injure and hurt one another, sometimes making the river of our lives seem like one big gaping wound. But that hardly makes it easier now as an adult to make sense of the irony seen in a gaggle of Gashes Creek children battling to lift up a flag that represents innocent suffering, for everyone to salute on command. It is a scandalous theology that rejoices and sings hallelujah to a man of sorrows who brings healing by receiving the scourging stripes from a whip’s lashes. The brutal victimization of an innocent is troubling enough, but to know that our well-being – our peace, our unity in service and love, our health – derives from the scars and stripes of this Wounded Healer should be enough to make us tremble. And yet this is the banner we wave as Christians. It is a hope that the balm of Gilead will heal the wounds caused by the bombs that continue to burst in air around our world. Such is the standard that we still lift high. Sacred scars and stripes forever. O say can you see?
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Healing.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.